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MEDIA WATCH: Washington Post takes a closer look — sort of — at Arne Duncan's claims for his seven years in Chicago

At least one national news organization — the Washington Post — has taken a small second look at Arne Duncan's claims for a Chicago turnaround during his seven plus years as CEO of CPS. In a December 29, 2009, story, Post staff writer Nick Anderson got halfway to the truth about CPS, although he allowed some points to be flim flammed.

By the time of the August 2006 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education (above photo) Chicago schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan had been carrying out the school closings script provided to him by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley for four years (the closings began in 2002, with Duncan's announcement that a "renaissance" — small 'r' at the time — was needed to save the students at Dodge, Williams, and Terrell elementary schools in Chicago. By August 2006, Duncan had closed more than 40 schools, claiming the schools had "failed." "Failure" was measured by scores on standardized tests, and often presented in the narrowest possible way, so that a school that dropped in scores for one year might be closed if Duncan put it on what became know as the "Hit List." Despite routine promises ("I'll get back to you on that..." was one of his favorite phrases; he never did if the question was inconvenient) to track students, Duncan made sure that verification of his claims that the closings were "working" was never done. Instead, Duncan and his public relations staff, headed by Peter Cunningham, simply repeated the same marketing claims over and over. When Duncan was appointed U.S. Secretary of Education by Barack Obama in December 2008, he brought the same methods and the same staff to Washington, D.C. to try and do the same programs across all 50 states and any territories which might depend on funds from the federal government. Generally, the corporate press ignored Duncan's lies and simply repeated his claims without verifying anything. The tradition continued in December 2009, when The Washington Post reported on Duncan but ignored his Chicago record and continued the blackout of Duncan's most serious Chicago critics, most of whom are African American educators with decades of experience and more academic and professional credentials than Duncan or anyone in his inner circle. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.For example: CPS provided no information other than a "parental" anecdote about the security problems at Johnson Elementary School before AUSL came in to turn around the school. Every time AUSL does a turnaround for the media, there is a "parent" around who talks about how dangerous the school was before AUSL arrived.

The Washington Post article follows:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan's legacy as Chicago schools chief questioned (By Nick Anderson Washington Post Staff Writer, Tuesday, December 29, 2009; Section A, Page One)

CHICAGO -- Soon after Arne Duncan left his job as schools chief here to become one of the most powerful U.S. education secretaries ever, his former students sat for federal achievement tests. This month, the mathematics report card was delivered: Chicago trailed several cities in performance and progress made over six years.

Miami, Houston and New York had higher scores than Chicago on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Boston, San Diego and Atlanta had bigger gains. Even fourth-graders in the much-maligned D.C. schools improved nearly twice as much since 2003.

Chicago Public Schools 'Chief Executive Officer' Arne Duncan responds to a critic during the October 22, 2008, meeting of the Chicago Board of Education. Two weeks later, Duncan was on his way to becoming U.S. Secretary of Education following the election of President Barack Obama. After a flurry of media adulation, Duncan is now facing greater scrutiny because of his claims about the record of his work in Chicago. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The federal readout is just one measure of Duncan's record as chief executive of the nation's third-largest system. Others show advances on various fronts. But the new math scores signal that Chicago is nowhere near the head of the pack in urban school improvement, even though Duncan often cites the successes of his tenure as he crusades to fix public education.

"Chicago is not the story of an education miracle," said Chester E. Finn Jr. of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington. "It is, however, the story of a large urban system that has made some gains and has made some promising structural changes."

For more than seven years, starting in 2001, Duncan tried to rejuvenate his city's struggling schools: jettisoning staff, hiring turnaround specialists, shutting down those deemed beyond hope. He pushed a back-to-basics curriculum, spawned dozens of charter schools and experimented with performance pay. State and federal test scores and graduation rates rose on his watch, and Chicago became a laboratory for innovation. As a result, the reputation of its schools has improved markedly since 1987, when an earlier education secretary, William Bennett, called them the worst in the country.

'Focused on outcomes'

Yet questions have arisen this year about the magnitude of Duncan's accomplishments. The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, which represents business, professional, education and cultural leaders, concluded in June that gains on state test scores were inflated when Illinois relaxed passing standards and that too many students still drop out of high school or graduate unprepared for college. The Consortium on Chicago School Research, a nonpartisan group at the University of Chicago, reported in October that Duncan's closure of low-performing schools often shuffled students into comparable schools, yielding little or no academic benefit.

"Obviously, you always want to get better faster," Duncan said in an interview when asked about the federal math scores. "I was focused on outcomes -- improving graduation rates, making sure that students who graduated had a chance to pursue higher ed. You can have the best test scores in the world, but if kids aren't going that next step, you're not changing their lives."

Duncan also said he had adjusted his school closure policy a few years ago to ensure better opportunities for students. He said that he was unhappy that the state had relaxed passing standards and that graduation rates remain unacceptable. About half of Chicago students fail to graduate on time with their peers.

In January, Duncan said at his Senate confirmation hearing: "We're proud to have made significant progress . . . and to really be a model of national reform. But again, hard work is going to continue there and is far from done."

In the interview, Duncan said he is careful not to exaggerate his record. Critics, however, say his legacy is routinely overblown.

"There's been this rhetoric about dramatic gains, dramatic success, that we have to replicate this model because of its dramatic success," said Julie Woestehoff of the advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education. "And here in Chicago, we're looking at these schools and going, 'Uh . . . ' "

In 2003, President George W. Bush's education secretary, Rod Paige, faced similar, perhaps stronger, criticism when his much-highlighted record as leader of Houston's schools in the 1990s came under scrutiny. Questions were raised that year about the reliability of Houston's reported dropout rates.

Duncan's record is of more than historical interest. He wields considerable power through the combination of his Chicago connections, shared with President Obama, and his oversight of billions of dollars in reform funding. The Education Department is dangling an unprecedented $3.5 billion in grants for school systems to turn around weak schools and $4 billion for states to pursue innovation.

Huge challenges

With 418,000 students in 675 schools, Chicago faces challenges on a scale exceeded only in Los Angeles and New York. Eighty-five percent of students come from poor families, and 12 percent have limited English skills.

Tours in a handful of Chicago schools this month found educators pushing against formidable obstacles to establish a climate of learning. For some, simply asserting control over a campus represents a big victory.

In the North Lawndale neighborhood west of downtown, dotted by decaying rowhouses and apartments, Johnson Elementary School was given a new staff this year and renamed the Johnson School of Excellence. Duncan, in one of his last actions before leaving Chicago, proposed the restart in January because of the school's perennially low test scores. The nonprofit Academy for Urban School Leadership, which pairs master's degree candidates with teaching mentors in a residency program, runs the school and 13 others under contract. Johnson serves 300 students from pre-K through grade 8.

In the last school year, officials said, police were called to the campus nearly every day to deal with angry parents or disruptive students.

"It was a war scene," said Jennifer Earthley, mother of a fourth-grader and a fan of the new regime. "The administrators were afraid of the children. The children did what they wanted to do. We have been on the low end for a long time. All we have been looking for is a passionate group of people who care."

Now, attendance is up and fights are down. Students are drilled on respect, manners and lining up in the halls. In one fourth-grade classroom, teacher Katelyn Funderburk counted "5-4-3-2-1" after asking students to pull out their textbooks. "Steven Earthley got it opened fast and folded his hands," she said. "Thank you."

Hitting the reset button

At William R. Harper High School in West Englewood, loudspeakers blared the theme to "Beverly Hills Cop" one afternoon and students swirled in the hallways as the principal shooed stragglers to class. "Let's go! Let's go!" Kenyatta Stansberry called out. "Y'all are going to be late. Let's go, baby! You need to run!"

The 700-student school, in an area blighted with crime and boarded-up houses, had fallen on hard times when Stansberry took over in 2007. She said she spent much of her first year dashing to altercations -- the intercom alert "10-10 on 2," for example, would mean a fight on the second floor -- and extracting the campus from the Crash Town gang's grip.

Then Duncan hit the reset button (another purge a decade earlier had failed to yield much improvement). Stansberry stayed, although most of the staff was let go. She was given extra resources, including three deans to help manage students, money for gifts and incentives, and a reading catch-up program. Misconduct fell, attendance rose and test scores edged up a bit. More ninth-graders were rated on track to receive a diploma.

Neighborhood troubles remain a deep concern. Stansberry said four of her students died violently off campus in the last school year. Such killings became a national issue this fall after a student, Derrion Albert, was beaten to death near Christian Fenger Academy High School on the city's South Side. Duncan returned to Chicago in October with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to pledge a campaign against youth violence.

As if in solidarity with that goal, posters of Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. flank the whiteboard in English teacher Fadia Afaneh's room at Harper. She high-fived her ninth-graders as they placed commas correctly in sentences, transforming street lingo into standard English. Much of what she teaches is remedial, Afaneh said, but she is determined to help students advance. First, she teaches them to write a complete sentence. Then, a paragraph.

"Basically, all kids deserve an excellent education," she said, "and that doesn't always happen in this country. I know."

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