For each complex problem there is a simple solution … and it is wrong.”
H. L. Mencken.
For his seven year tenure as Chicago school chief Arne Duncan looked incredibly like Joel Klein, albeit an affable Joel Klein, with very strong basketball creds, that clearly go a long way in the home of Michael Jordan.(see here for description of his college basketball career)
Duncan closed schools and forced teachers to reapply for their jobs, opened charter schools, turned schools over to private operators, antagonized parents, both hugged and dueled with the teacher union and was applauded on the national scene.
Similar to Klein he only had to satisfy one person, his employer, the Mayor of Chicago, and, his school data did not “close the achievement gap.”
In DC Arne will have a group of new “friends:” the fifty Governors and fifty State Commissioners of Education, George Miller and Ted Kennedy, the chairs of the Congressional Ed Committees, both the newly elected teacher union presidents, Dennis Van Roekel at the NEA and Randi Weingarten at the AFT and the horde of foundations, think tanks, editorial and op ed writers and those pesky bloggers.
One difference between Joel and Arne is that while Joel lauds his own “successes” Chicago has a highly regarded independent research arm that has tracked the Chicago schools through twenty years of research reports. While Klein jumps from guru to guru Duncan took a year off at Harvard and wrote his much quoted senior thesis on inner city adolescence. (“The Values, Aspirations, and Opportunities of the Urban Underclass” (BA honors thesis. Harvard University, 1987, pp. 18 ff.)).
Arne is faced with a dilemma: how will he balance the accountability, education equity project, Education Trust crew with the sociology of poverty crowd?
The originally highly touted No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, a bipartisan bill supported by both Bush and Miller/Kennedy has been flailed by all, especially governors and state commissioners and unions. In Chicago Duncan has supported the core of the bill and vigorously closed schools and established “options” to public school, charters and educational management organizations (EMOs). Accountability, in the classroom, in the principal’s office, at the school level has driven his administration.
While scores in Chicago have risen, he has made no dent in the “achievement gap,” by the way, neither has any other urban center.
On the other side the “broader, bolder coalition” crowd point to the deep impact of poverty, and look for a comprehensive national program to diminish/end poverty; perhaps, a continuation of the Johnson era “War on Poverty.” Duncun is clearly aware of the host of depressing research that shows the impact of poverty on school performance, for example that of Clancy Blair here and at an NYU panel here.
The easy way out is to continue the emphasis on accountability at the school level, a continuation of the NCLB approach, even if there is no data to support it. Or, should Arne re-read his senior thesis, and take on the faux black establishment that supports a culture that disdains success as measured by school performance, that supports the Tyler Perry Uncle Tom Stepin Fetchet characters (see blog discussion here), that idolizes gansta rap, and will he take on the basketball and football college powers with infinitesimal Afro-American athlete graduation rates?
Maybe, just maybe, Arne will fight the fights Obama can’t … and pursue the intricate solutions to the complex problems.