I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Incoherent World of Arne Duncan, Part II

Here's Part I of this series.

More from Tom Moran's interview with Arne Duncan:
Q. Tell me about your experience in Chicago. As with Joel Klein in New York and Michelle Rhee in Washington, you see improvements, but it doesn’t seem dramatic overall.
A. There are schools and communities that are breaking through. We see lots of examples in Chicago and New York and D.C. The question is whether we can take it to scale. We haven’t done that yet. [emphasis mine]
Arne, one question:

If it's true that you couldn't take it to scale then, what makes you think you can take it to scale now?

This is one of the things that makes me absolutely nuts about the reformyists: they are constantly arguing that the top half is better than average. Sure, there may be "lots" of examples of success in Chicago and New York and DC; so what? There are examples of success everywhere. That doesn't mean the policies Arne Duncan or Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein implemented actually worked as large-scale reforms. And isn't that what counts?

Duncan's big deal was to close Chicago "failing" schools in a program dubbed Renaissance 2010. The outcome?

When, for example, Obama appointed Duncan in December 2008, he said standardized test scores had risen in Chicago’s elementary schools by 29 percentage points during Duncan’s seven years as superintendent.
Well, not so much, it turned out.
According to one research group that issued a report this year, the real improvement was only about 8 percentage points.
And while Obama said that Duncan had improved Chicago’s dropout rate during each of his seven years as Chicago schools boss, which appears to be true, he didn’t mention that 70 percent of 11th graders still fail to meet state standards. Oh, and about half of Chicago’s kids who attend non-selective-enrollment high schools still drop out.
Another research group found that Duncan’s closure of low-performing schools did little good for students, Anderson reported.
Duncan himself did not call his work as Chicago schools chief an educational miracle, but he never stopped others, including Obama, from making more of it than there really was.
My point? Progress is hard. Progress is uneven. Progress takes different approaches. [emphasis mine]
Michelle Rhee's big deal was to implement a teacher evaluation and reward system that would "reward excellence." The outcome? 
DCPS’s NAEP scores and state test proficiency rates increased quite a bit between 2007 and 2009. Michelle Rhee’s performance pay plan awarded its first bonuses based on teacher evaluation results for the 2009-10 school year (the bonus amounts also depended on other factors, such as the poverty level of the school in which teachers work). 
Since that time, DCPS performance on both tests has been largely flat. 
DC-CAS proficiency rates for elementary school students are actually a few percentage points lower than they were in 2009, while the rates among secondary students are a few points higher. These are both rather modest (and perhaps not statistically significant) two-year changes. 
Although the timing of the NAEP TUDA test does not coincide perfectly with the start of the DC bonus program, scores were also statistically unchanged between 2009 and 2011 in three out of the four NAEP tests (fourth grade math, and fourth and eighth grade reading), while there was a moderate discernible increase in the average eighth grade math score. 
For the most part, then, there was little meaningful change in DCPS testing performance over the past two full school years. [emphasis mine]
Joel Klein's big deal was that his boss, Generalissimo Mike Bloomberg, would directly run the schools at the expense of local control, ushering in a boom in charter school growth. The outcome?
We now know that New York City’s gains on the state tests were illusory. The proportion passing the state reading tests fell from 68.8% to 42.4%, and Klein’s beloved charter schools had pass rates no different from the regular public schools. 

The inflated graduation rates have been exposed too. With the recent news that 75% of the high school graduates require remedial reading and math when they enter community college, the Klein Era diploma has been rendered meaningless. So ill prepared are these students that the percent who graduate from college is in the single digits. 

Despite the collapse of the New York City scores, the pundits and the chattering classes continue to heap praise on Klein. In their complete indifference to facts, the media sound like a claque that talks only to one another. The truth is what they say it is, with hardly a word of dissent tolerated or printed on their Op-Ed pages or in their news reports. [emphasis mine]
I'm going to say something that may surprise regular readers: Duncan, Rhee, and Klein were not necessarily "bad" educational leaders when judged by their test score outcomes. Yes, I think they did significant damage to morale within their staffs. Yes, I think they were all autocratic and didn't engage their communities. Yes, I think none of them showed the guts and tenacity to stick it out when the going got tough.

But they scratched out a few somewhat decent test score gains. They made some incremental progress in student learning as judged through these instruments. But here's the thing...

If any of them were real educators, they'd acknowledge that educating America's children is hard, difficult, frustrating work. They'd know enough about the history of education to know that their few quick tweaks weren't going to solve much of anything. They'd see that the work of teachers and principals takes place within a much larger societal context. They wouldn't allow themselves to be swept up in the politicization of education that has turned student achievement into a prize to be mounted above the mantelpiece of the latest "I'm gonna really fix the schools!" candidate.

Matt DiCarlo, lord bless him, has been on politicians and pundits for a long time now about using proficiency rates to "prove" that certain political positions have "worked" in education. We see this arrogance all the time: some mayor or governor or whatever gets behind a podium and holds up some test results as "proof" that his or her policies can "fix" our education system and save America.

Folks, I hate to be the one to tell you, but nearly every one of these pols is completely full of crap. Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Aren Duncan took victory laps at the insistence of their political patrons when they had absolutely no right to do so. If they were completely honest, they would have stood in front of those microphones and admitted that they tried a few new tricks, and at best got a few small gains - but none has figured out how to transform the schools in America's most poverty-striken areas.

And yet all of them now demand that educators across this country do what they themselves could not. All students read by third grade! All high school graduates be "career or college ready"! All poor students perform like wealthy students! No excuses! If we believe it, we can achieve it! Let's go, USA!

Just remember one thing the next time you hear these reformyists demanding miracles from the people who are actually on the job: none of these people could perform the miracles they demand from others.

And if they couldn't get the job done, who are they to insist on more from the people who are actually teaching the kids?

ADDING: As I said, Tom Moran did a good job on this interview. He is absolutely right to say the reforms of Rhee and Klein weren't "dramatic overall."

Maybe my constant hectoring of Tom is paying off.


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