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Arne Duncan at ED: Year One

Dear Deborah,

It is time to appraise the first year of the Obama administration and its impact on American education. I met with Arne Duncan in October, and I liked him very much. He is a very likeable guy. But I strongly disagree with his priorities. In a recent Education Week article about Duncan, I was quoted as giving him an A for effectiveness, and a D- for bad ideas. Let me explain.

Duncan's "Race to the Top" competition has had an enormous effect on American education. He has $4.3 billion to hand out, without any congressional authorization or oversight, and states are starved for money. Many states have changed their laws and are now prepared to privatize hundreds of schools to qualify for RTTT. Spurred on by their eagerness to get RTTT money and the largesse of the Gates Foundation, many districts now intend to judge teachers by their students' test scores.

I can't recall any secretary of education who was more effective in getting states to make changes quickly. That is why I gave him an A. But I think the changes are wrong and will not improve American education, so I gave him a D- for bad ideas.

When a leader acts as forcefully as Duncan, he has in mind a template for success. In his case, it must be Chicago. When President Obama introduced Duncan as his choice, he described dramatic improvements in Chicago during Duncan's tenure. As superintendent of schools, Duncan closed many low-performing schools and opened many new schools.

However, further analysis has shown that the dramatic improvements hailed by President Obama were a mirage. The Chicago Tribune recently analyzed the results of Duncan's "Renaissance 2010" program and concluded that "it has done little to improve the educational performance of the city's school system."

Everyone who has looked at Chicago's academic performance has reached similar conclusions, including the Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago, Catalyst Notebook, and the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Blogger Alexander Russo has covered this story well. So have reporters Gregg Toppo of USA Today, Nick Anderson of The Washington Post, and Sam Dillon of The New York Times. (Registration required for NYT story.)

And, of course, Chicago was among the nation's lowest-performing districts from 2003 to 2009 on NAEP.

Yet the clamor to install mayoral control (like Chicago) and to close struggling schools (like Chicago) continues.

None of the news stories and evaluations has slowed the momentum for the Race to the Top. The states need the money. In fact, President Obama plans to add another $1.3 billion to promote the same failed policies across the nation.

What is your take on the Race to the Top?

Diane

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