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Education secretary’s legacy questioned

Test scores cloud the legacy of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s tenure as Chicago’s schools chief.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Soon after Arne Duncan left his job as schools chief here to become one of the most powerful U.S. education secretaries ever, his former students sat for federal achievement tests. This month, the mathematics report card was delivered: Chicago trailed several cities in performance and progress made over six years.

Miami, Houston and New York had higher scores than Chicago on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Boston, San Diego and Atlanta had bigger gains. Even fourth-graders in the much-maligned D.C. schools improved nearly twice as much since 2003.

The federal readout is just one measure of Duncan's record as chief executive of the nation's third-largest system. Others show advances on various fronts. But the new math scores signal that Chicago is nowhere near the head of the pack in urban school improvement, even though Duncan often cites the successes of his tenure as he crusades to fix public education.

"Chicago is not the story of an education miracle," said Chester E. Finn Jr. of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington. "It is, however, the story of a large urban system that has made some gains and has made some promising structural changes."

For more than seven years, starting in 2001, Duncan tried to rejuvenate his city's struggling schools: jettisoning staff, hiring turnaround specialists, shutting down those deemed beyond hope. He pushed a back-to-basics curriculum, spawned dozens of charter schools and experimented with performance pay. State and federal test scores and graduation rates rose on his watch, and Chicago became a laboratory for innovation. As a result, the reputation of its schools has improved markedly since 1987, when an earlier education secretary, William Bennett, called them the worst in the country.

'Focused on outcomes'
Yet questions have arisen this year about the magnitude of Duncan's accomplishments. The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, which represents business, professional, education and cultural leaders, concluded in June that gains on state test scores were inflated when Illinois relaxed passing standards and that too many students still drop out of high school or graduate unprepared for college. The Consortium on Chicago School Research, a nonpartisan group at the University of Chicago, reported in October that Duncan's closure of low-performing schools often shuffled students into comparable schools, yielding little or no academic benefit.

"Obviously, you always want to get better faster," Duncan said in an interview when asked about the federal math scores. "I was focused on outcomes — improving graduation rates, making sure that students who graduated had a chance to pursue higher ed. You can have the best test scores in the world, but if kids aren't going that next step, you're not changing their lives."

Duncan also said he had adjusted his school closure policy a few years ago to ensure better opportunities for students. He said that he was unhappy that the state had relaxed passing standards and that graduation rates remain unacceptable. About half of Chicago students fail to graduate on time with their peers.

In January, Duncan said at his Senate confirmation hearing: "We're proud to have made significant progress . . . and to really be a model of national reform. But again, hard work is going to continue there and is far from done."

In the interview, Duncan said he is careful not to exaggerate his record. Critics, however, say his legacy is routinely overblown.

"There's been this rhetoric about dramatic gains, dramatic success, that we have to replicate this model because of its dramatic success," said Julie Woestehoff of the advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education. "And here in Chicago, we're looking at these schools and going, 'Uh . . . ' "

In 2003, President George W. Bush's education secretary, Rod Paige, faced similar, perhaps stronger, criticism when his much-highlighted record as leader of Houston's schools in the 1990s came under scrutiny. Questions were raised that year about the reliability of Houston's reported dropout rates.

Duncan's record is of more than historical interest. He wields considerable power through the combination of his Chicago connections, shared with President Obama, and his oversight of billions of dollars in reform funding. The Education Department is dangling an unprecedented $3.5 billion in grants for school systems to turn around weak schools and $4 billion for states to pursue innovation.

With 418,000 students in 675 schools, Chicago faces challenges on a scale exceeded only in Los Angeles and New York. Eighty-five percent of students come from poor families, and 12 percent have limited English skills.

Tours in a handful of Chicago schools this month found educators pushing against formidable obstacles to establish a climate of learning. For some, simply asserting control over a campus represents a big victory.

In the North Lawndale neighborhood west of downtown, dotted by decaying rowhouses and apartments, Johnson Elementary School was given a new staff this year and renamed the Johnson School of Excellence. Duncan, in one of his last actions before leaving Chicago, proposed the restart in January because of the school's perennially low test scores. The nonprofit Academy for Urban School Leadership, which pairs master's degree candidates with teaching mentors in a residency program, runs the school and 13 others under contract. Johnson serves 300 students from pre-K through grade 8.

In the last school year, officials said, police were called to the campus nearly every day to deal with angry parents or disruptive students.

"It was a war scene," said Jennifer Earthley, mother of a fourth-grader and a fan of the new regime. "The administrators were afraid of the children. The children did what they wanted to do. We have been on the low end for a long time. All we have been looking for is a passionate group of people who care."

Respect and manners
Now, attendance is up and fights are down. Students are drilled on respect, manners and lining up in the halls. In one fourth-grade classroom, teacher Katelyn Funderburk counted "5-4-3-2-1" after asking students to pull out their textbooks. "Steven Earthley got it opened fast and folded his hands," she said. "Thank you."

At William R. Harper High School in West Englewood, loudspeakers blared the theme to "Beverly Hills Cop" one afternoon and students swirled in the hallways as the principal shooed stragglers to class. "Let's go! Let's go!" Kenyatta Stansberry called out. "Y'all are going to be late. Let's go, baby! You need to run!"

The 700-student school, in an area blighted with crime and boarded-up houses, had fallen on hard times when Stansberry took over in 2007. She said she spent much of her first year dashing to altercations — the intercom alert "10-10 on 2," for example, would mean a fight on the second floor — and extracting the campus from the Crash Town gang's grip.

Then Duncan hit the reset button (another purge a decade earlier had failed to yield much improvement). Stansberry stayed, although most of the staff was let go. She was given extra resources, including three deans to help manage students, money for gifts and incentives, and a reading catch-up program. Misconduct fell, attendance rose and test scores edged up a bit. More ninth-graders were rated on track to receive a diploma.

Neighborhood troubles remain a deep concern. Stansberry said four of her students died violently off campus in the last school year. Such killings became a national issue this fall after a student, Derrion Albert, was beaten to death near Christian Fenger Academy High School on the city's South Side. Duncan returned to Chicago in October with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to pledge a campaign against youth violence.

As if in solidarity with that goal, posters of Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. flank the whiteboard in English teacher Fadia Afaneh's room at Harper. She high-fived her ninth-graders as they placed commas correctly in sentences, transforming street lingo into standard English. Much of what she teaches is remedial, Afaneh said, but she is determined to help students advance. First, she teaches them to write a complete sentence. Then, a paragraph.

"Basically, all kids deserve an excellent education," she said, "and that doesn't always happen in this country. I know."