Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Duncan’s record.

I never thought President Obama appointed Arne Duncan education secretary because he had done wonders in Chicago. Rather, he was a politically savvy choice whose approaches Obama approved of. Anyone who paid attention to Chicago media during Duncan’s tenure would have known that there was no consensus on the effectiveness of his reforms, except to say results were mixed. (Which seems to be the best you can say for any urban superintendent of the last decade, and anyway, who was the last education secretary who went into the job having had reformed a horrid system?)

So it surprised me to read in a Washington Post piece yesterday that the bubble was being burst, because I guess I had forgotten that there was a bubble. The news peg was Chicago’s mediocre math NAEP scores. Don’t get me wrong; Nick Anderson’s piece was good and important, and I especially loved the quote in which Duncan, who judges a hell of a lot on test scores in his new job, tries to explain these ones away by saying he was more focused on “outcomes.” I did think the headline was overly ominous. But the main thing is this: The only reason this was news to the Post was that journalists outside of Chicago hadn’t done a good job of evaluating his record around the time of his appointment as secretary.

This is a problem in journalism: It is too easy to produce quick, glowing stories about the past accomplishments of the new principal, the new superintendent, the new cabinet secretary, when the reality is far more complex. Of course Obama had talked up Duncan’s deeds in Chicago. But in this case, balancing information was not hard to come by, if you paid any attention to local media.

As Alexander Russo points out, the Post published a story exactly a year previous about Duncan’s potentially “model” reforms. It was not the only paper to leave out the more critical chunks. The 2009 NAEP scores should not have been the only reason readers outside Illinois eventually got a more balanced picture of the secretary.


  1. I agree with you and Alexander, and I disagree. Last year’s Post article did contain several caricature-like characteristics. It started with a success story - an elementary school of course. Then a breathless and vague sentence followed “Across the city, educators point to improvements” in a college prep charter school, of course. Next was a happy time story of a teacher who was mentored with the hopeful statement “Next year, the former theater major and other trainees will take on classes of their own ...” And worst of all, the story invested 8 paragraphs on a 5th grade teacher.

    (In defense, though, back then the best data was previous NAEP scores where Chicago was ranked 2nd of 11 urban districts in 8th grade Reading. Plus, the reason why Chicago’s elementary scores increased so much more than older scores is ... nobody knows, just like nobody knows in other districts)

    This year’s Post article was much better, but in fairness the recent disappointing NAEP scores followed the words “This month, the mathematics report card was delivered ...” Last year the Post could have also made the statement in this year’s article that “Yet questions have arisen this year about the magnitude of Duncan's accomplishments.” But you guys implicitly admit that the Post is now on much firmer ground when it correctly reports “his legacy is routinely overblown.”

    As you and Alexander say, much was already known about Chicago’s record, and that record wasn’t the key reason for his appointment. Last year’s Post wasn’t inaccurate in writing”
    “Washington area schools have launched experiments similar to Chicago's. Charter schools are multiplying in the District, and D.C. schools are trying cash incentives for students. A Fairfax County initiative bumps salaries for some teachers who work a longer year and take on extra tasks, such as coaching colleagues. Pay for performance is underway in Prince George's County, tying some teacher bonuses to test scores.” It didn’t say whether those policies produced results.
    (to be continued)

  2. Only a few days ago, in a comment on this blog, I described the whiplash-inducing coverage the New York Times gave to now-fizzled, once-hailed for-profit school manager Edison Schools back in '01-'02. One day reporter Ed Wyatt was parroting false claims by Edison CEO Chris Whittle, unquestioned and unchallenged; and another day not long afterward, reporter Jacques Steinberg was subjecting Edison's claims of test-score improvement in its schools to sharp analysis that showed them to be, well, false. But there was no mention in Steinberg's excellent coverage of the Times' previous trusting and unskeptical coverage.

    I'm well aware of how stubbornly resistant the press is to running corrections of substantive errors (though if they get your middle initial wrong, you're guaranteed a nice prominent correction). I'm concerned that if there were a protocol calling for the press to acknowledge that they'd gotten it wrong in past coverage, the corrected story never would get written.