Catalyst Chicago has been reporting on Chicago education for twenty-five year, operating as "an independent news organization that serves as a watchdog and resource for school improvement in Chicago." While they do offer plenty of space to features like guest writers plugging the awesomeness of reform, their news coverage is pretty balanced-- they do not appear to have any requirement that their reporters never cover bad news about charters.
But last week Catalyst ran the fluffiest piece of fluffery ever in Maureen Kelleher's paean to Arne Duncan. Surely this is not going to be the narrative that anyone pushes about Duncan as he approaches his post-federal earning years.
First, Kelleher flashes back to Duncan's elevation to the head job of Chicago schools (he was successor to Paul Vallas). Duncan's big success-- adopting a tracking method for freshmen. On the other hand...
Duncan also championed expanding school choice and lent new urgency to
the work of transforming struggling high schools -- initiatives that
drew heat from the political left. These efforts had more mixed results.
Next we move on to Duncan's career as Secretary of Education in, perhaps, some parallel universe.
Duncan has encouraged states to innovate around accountability systems, offering waivers from No Child Left Behind’s rules.
This is true in much the same way it's true that a mugger encourages you to put your hands up and offers to take all of your cash. To talk about the waiver program as if it was a mild suggestion, even a favor, to state systems, is to miss the whole point. States, over a financial barrel, and looking at the unachievable goals of NCLB (100% above average by 2014), had a choice about accepting Duncan's offer in the same way that apartment dwellers have a choice about whether or not to pay the rent.
Finally, we look into Duncan's future.
As noted by the Washington Post, Duncan's family is moving back to Chicago while Duncan says he's sticking out the rest of the Obama Presidency. While some have expressed skepticism, I can believe it. Summer is the time to move kids without messing up their world, and this summer is likely to be less messy than next. Why not. Of course, as widely noted, his kids will attend an elite non-Common Core unreformed private school. That would have been a good thing to mention.
But Kelleher turns to Peter Cunningham for quotes. Cunningham is a long-time Arne associate who now heads up the $12 million dollar website-that-will-not-be-named, but which now looks almost hard-hitting compared to Kelleher's piece. Cunningham says Duncan is no quitter, with grit and drive and stuff.
Duncan's sister confirms he's not looking for work right now. Probably true-- Duncan can line up consulting work in the ed industry with an hour's worth of phone calls, so why rush anything.
Considering what other education secretaries have done after their
terms, Cunningham doesn’t see Duncan returning to district leadership,
either. Consulting, elected office and work with think tanks and
foundations are more likely. While in CPS, Duncan’s team built
relationships with private foundations and federal grant administrators
that more than tripled the district’s take of competitive grant funds.
I'm not sure which thinky tank would have him, but I get a smile out of imagining him going off to work for Mike Petrilli at Fordham. The implication of that last sentence seems clear to me-- Duncan will be able to hook people up with some serious money.
So, not so much as a sentence to consider the reality, the controversy, or the legacy of Duncan's work in office. Between this and the Post profile, it's beginning to look like we're going to be subjected to a year or more of valedictory essays filled with attaboys but no consideration of the damage to public education done by Duncan.
Look, I have no desire to see the guy drawn and quartered and publicly pilloried, but he has presided over an unprecedented re-engineering of the entire purpose of US public education-- one of our oldest and most honored institutions-- and in the process has come close to destroying one of the legs on which democracy stands. Backlash against his work has created entire new movements that didn't exist a decade ago, and Congress has spent part of their time writing a new law arguing about just how much power should be stripped from his office simply in reaction to how he has used that power.
I don't need to see Duncan personally attacked, but any retrospective or faux retrospective has to look at where we are in education policy, what choices have been made, what the effects have been on us as a nation, if for no other reason than we need to have a serious talk about where to head next. A business as usual, nothing to see here, so how do you like living in DC puff piece is irresponsible.
Duncan's one gift is that he has such an aww-shucks lovable lunkhead air about him that people don't so much notice that he has been laying waste with a battleax. As he nears his exit from office, we cannot afford to pay attention only to the aw shucks and ignore the damage done with the battleax.