How Good Is Arne Duncan’s Legacy

I’ve seen both Ezra Klein and Cato’s David Boaz except this exact same paragraph about Chicago Public Schools under Arne Duncan:

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.

I don’t really understand this line of criticism or even why it’s supposed to be damning. I don’t think that anyone ever said that becoming Secretary of Education was like a prize that’s supposed to be handed out to the urban education chancellor who gets the very best results on the NAEP TUDA. Rather, common sense indicates that if you’re going to pick the chief of an urban public school system that you want to find one who’s delivered positive results. And the data shows, rather clearly, than under Arne Duncan Chicago public school kids improved their performance.

Now it’s true that New York City Public Schools under Joel Klein arguably did even better. But if you look back to press coverage of the choice you’ll see that Duncan’s asset over Klein was never based on denying this. Rather, the feeling was that Duncan and Klein have a similar general approach to education policy—an approach that Obama supports—but that Duncan has more of a reputation as a consensus-builder and Klein more as a fighter/bulldozer type. Duncan, consequently, was deemed more likely to be able to build legislative support for a reform program. Many of the other cities that have shown good results in recent years have school systems that are much smaller than New York or Chicago, so their leadership, while impressive, may not have been deemed as qualified to run the federal bureaucracy.

Chester Finn, in the same piece as that critical graf, had a smart take:

“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.”

In education, I think we should be suspicious of miracles. Improving schools is hard. Improving whole school systems is harder. Improving educational outcomes is rendered even more difficult by the fact that things that happen outside the classroom make an enormous difference—school administrators are operating a lever that has limited efficacy. But better schools do make a difference for the kids who attend them, and better school systems make a huge difference for the cities that have them. So improvement is worth seeking, especially non-miraculous improvement that can be scaled-up.

On Duncan, long story short he was the chief executive of a large urban school system that implemented some reforms that had theoretical support behind them and that seem to have led to some real improvements. He’s also someone the president knew personally, whose political style matches Obama’s, and whose reputation suits the administration’s political strategy. That seems like a very reasonable choice to me, though there are also other big city school chiefs who have done a good job and a number of different people around the country who could succeed as Secretary of Education.