Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington under nine presidents and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

January 13, 2009


Kevin K. Kumashiro, Education Week - Hailed by some as a pioneer in education reform, Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools, has been selected by President-elect Barack Obama to be our next U.S. secretary of education. But Duncan's seven-year track record in Chicago gives evidence of why he is the wrong choice for America's schools.

Behind the rhetoric of reform is the reality of Duncan's accomplishments, particularly the problems behind his signature initiative, Renaissance 2010. Launched in 2004, Renaissance 2010 aims to open 100 new, smaller schools (and close about 60 "failing" schools) by 2010. To date, 75 of the new schools have opened.

Many of these schools, however, are charter schools that serve fewer low-income, limited-English-proficient, and disabled students than regular public schools. More than a third are in communities that are not in high-need areas. During Duncan's tenure, district wide high school test scores have not risen, and most of the lowest-performing high schools saw scores drop. . .

The blueprint of Renaissance 2010 lies in a report titled "Left Behind," produced a year earlier by the Commercial Club of Chicago. The report mapped out a strategy for schools to more closely align with the goals of the business elite. Central to that strategy was the creation of 100 new charter schools, managed by for-profit businesses and freed of the city's local school councils and teachers' union-groups that historically have put the welfare of poor and minority students before that of the business sector. . .

Duncan's reforms are steeped in a free-market model of school reform, particularly the notion that school choice and 100 new charter and specialty schools will motivate educators to work harder to do better (as will penalties for not meeting standards). But research does not support such initiatives. There is evidence that opening new schools and encouraging choice and competition will not raise districtwide achievement, and that charter schools in particular are not outperforming regular schools. There is evidence, moreover, that choice programs actually exacerbate racial segregation. And, there is evidence that high-stakes testing increases the dropout rate.

Duncan's record is clear. Less court intervention to desegregate schools. Less parental and community involvement in school governance. Less support for teachers' unions. Less breadth and depth in what and how students learn, as schools place more emphasis on narrow high-stakes testing. More opportunities to certify teachers without adequate preparation and training. More penalties for schools, but without adequate resources for those in high-poverty areas. And more profit for businesses, as school systems become increasingly privatized. . .

Kevin K. Kumashiro is an associate professor and chair of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the interim co-director of its Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy. He is also the author of The Seduction of Common Sense: How the Right Has Framed the Debate on America's Schools


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