Duncan’s School “Reform” Sham

Teachers in Chicago are sorry to see that the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Arne Duncan, is getting a promotion. Barack Obama has selected Duncan to be his Education Secretary.

In the past couple years, Duncan has been turning public schools over to private operators — mainly in the form of charter and contract schools — at a rate of about 20 per year. Duncan has also resuscitated some of the worst “school reform” ideas of the 1990s, like firing all the teachers in low-performing schools (called “turnarounds”). At the same time, he’s eliminated many Local School Councils and made crucial decisions without public input.

Charter schools and test-score driven school “choice” have been the watchwords of Duncan’s rule in Chicago. Expect more of the same in Washington, D.C.

To me, the thing that made Duncan’s role clear came after three months of organizing at Senn High School, the community school where I teach, against the Chicago Board of Education’s proposal to install a Naval Academy.

After an inspiring campaign that involved literally hundreds of people in the biggest education organizing effort in the area in decades, we forced Duncan to come up to our neighborhood to listen to our case for keeping the military out of our school. More than 300 of us, parents, teachers, and community supporters, held a big meeting in a local church and, at the end of the meeting, we asked Duncan to postpone the decision to put the military school at Senn.

Duncan’s answer was a classic. He said: “I come from a Quaker family, and I’ve always been against war. But I’m going to put the Naval Academy in there, because it will give people in the community more choices.”

The exchange showed that when push came to shove, Duncan was always a loyal henchman of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s political machine, albeit with a style that made it seem like he was listening. He’s just the kind of person who will look at you with a straight face and tell you that, as a person with a pacifist background, he supports a military school.

Never mind that the community was fighting as hard as it could against this backroom deal between Daley and the Department of Defense, according to Duncan, the Naval Academy would give the community “more choices.” Indeed, CPS has more military high schools than any other school district in the U.S.

Despite all this, Duncan is being portrayed in the national media as a school administrator who had a “good” relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

The truth is quite different. Duncan pursued anti-labor policies by pushing non-union charter and contract schools. He also imposed test-oriented, competitive schemes that force schools to close if they can’t raise test scores above a certain level.

Yet he failed to implement the kinds of changes that really would improve student performance, such as smaller class sizes and expanded facilities to end overcrowding. Instead, special education teachers were laid off and budgets squeezed.

Moreover, Duncan has done nothing to address racial segregation in our schools — which is so bad that a 2003 Harvard University study found that CPS is “only a few percentage points from an experience of total apartheid for Black students.” Rather than try to remedy this shameful situation, Duncan requested the removal of the federal judicial consent decree that mandates the meager efforts CPS has undertaken to improve the racial balance of our schools.

CTU members in the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) will use their December 17 press conference to set the record straight.

Duncan is getting ready to take his methods to the national level. Teachers, students, parents and communities everywhere will have to be prepared for a new round of attacks on public education under the banner of “reform.”

Jesse Sharkey is a public high school teacher in Chicago. This article first appeared in Socialist Worker. Thanks to Alan Maass. Read other articles by Jesse, or visit Jesse's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. RG the LG said on December 18th, 2008 at 12:17pm #

    As an educator … the LG stands for Library Guy … I would have been shocked if Obama (soon to be called Obumma if he keeps up with this quality of appointment) had actually made a decent appointment for Education. So long as his kids get the education he and Michelle want for them, I suspect he really doesn’t give a rats ass what happens in schools. It is, alas, all rhetoric anyway.

    By the time this administration gets trough with all of the retreads and all of the same-old same-old we won’t care about NCLB because we’ll have NCWM (No Child With a Mind!)

    So Much for democracy … it does sound good until we USans get through with it!

    RG the LG

  2. Brian said on December 18th, 2008 at 7:11pm #

    Well written, cogent analysis.

    Education reform just got pushed back for at least another four years.

    Why is it that those who administer from the business values playbook, the only one we’ve had for one hundred years, get to call themselves the reformers while the actual reformers, like Linda Darling Hammond and Deborah Meier (check her out on Democracy Now today) are called the status quo?

  3. Brian said on December 18th, 2008 at 10:08pm #

    The Wisconsin State Journal editorialized in favor of Duncan on Wednesday.
    Among other things they like the fact that he pays students for grades. This is, of course, a totally ridiculous idea. It’s essentially a law of human motivation, if you want students to lose interest in learning, bribe them with a reward that will become their focus of attention.

    Further, they praised him for, they assert, turning around Dodge Renaissance Academy. What say you about that?

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain said on December 19th, 2008 at 12:54am #

    These same ‘education’ policies,of incessant testing, humiliating the ‘losers’ to ‘encourage the others,’ scapegoating teachers and schools in poor areas and favouring private, particularly elite schools over public provision, are being enforced with rigour here in Australia. By a supposedly ‘Labor’ Government, although it is just as Rightwing as its predecessor, led by Bush’s sanitary appliance, John Howard. The end result is bound to be even worse results for disadvantaged communities, but that clearly is the aim. Keep the rabble in their place, ensure elite domination of the university enrolments and most lucrative careers,but keep up the vicious pretence of tender concern for under-privileged children. And under no circumstances ever pay any heed to the plebs if they try to make trouble. As ever the rule of the psychopaths grinds on.

  5. Max Shields said on December 19th, 2008 at 8:10am #


    You are absolutely right. Incentives to do something that should be inheritantly interesting is to undermine the process – in this case of learning.

    Children who need to be bribed are NOT learning, they are going throught he motions.

    We are lost. Our education system has been so bad for so long that we now have the results in high places making decisions.

  6. Brian said on December 19th, 2008 at 12:12pm #

    Great last line in your post! I hadn’t thought about that, but you are correct. You get all these people to get good at filling in those bubbles and they become multiple choice thinkers. Problem is, the choices that need to be made have to be created and these people are limited to choosing from the choices they’ve always had.

  7. bozh said on December 19th, 2008 at 4:15pm #

    the shibboleth, No child left behind, means that many children will be left behind.
    if one grades/rates anyone, the grader/rater is hurting children. how does a child, who finishes last in one’s class, feel? well, u gussed it: left behind and abased/hurt/upset. or accepts the judgment that one is stupid?
    all that and there is no justification for grading children.
    grading cattle is OK; it doesn’t know it is being graded. thnx

  8. Tom said on December 23rd, 2008 at 11:26am #

    You need to look no further than the current state of Detroit’s car companies to see why the education system in our country (and especially in big cities) is heading downward at an alarming rate.

    The UAW has a stranglehold on those companies and is sucking them dry. Unfortunately, like other parasites, it will kill the only host that can support them. Then what? The public educational system in this country is only propped up by taxes (just what Detroit wants) and does not provide anywhere near the level of return for the money.

    Charter schools and vouchers let parents choose the school that will best provide for the students. Many teachers in the unions fear these changes because they have become lazy and overpaid. The unions know that non-union teachers are being compensated quite nicely, but have to work hard to keep these jobs. These same unions don’t care about the job of teaching the children, but only about keeping jobs for their memebers, regardless of performance.

    We American taxpayers need to be steeled against another round of doomsday prophesies from the Teacher Unions, under the premise of ‘Proper Teaching’.

    Lastly, I’m glad that Duncan will let the Navy have a presence in your school. Maybe it will help to clean up the atmosphere of dread that most students have just walking into those doors. The armed forces are not the cause of the problems in your schools/neighborhoods, faculty that shirk their responsibilities and parents who just don’t care ARE.