Ezra Klein and Dana Goldstein observe that black-white achievement gaps, as measured on the National Assessment of Education Progress, generally increased during Arne Duncan’s tenure as head of Chicago Public Schools. I looked this up via the useful TUDA site and it’s true. At the same time, the evidence is overwhelmingly good. Of the five sets of metrics available (4th grade reading, 4th grade math, 8th grade reading, 8th grade math, and 8th grade reading) black scores improved on four metrics. And Hispanic scores improved on all five. The trouble is that the small white minority (about 10 percent) in Chicago public schools also improved and sometimes showed a larger increase than did black test scores.
Here, for example, is 4th grade math where you see that racial achievement gaps grew. On the other hand, scores for minority students went up . . they just went up more for white students:
I don’t think that’s necessarily the worst thing in the world. You see the same pattern for 8th grade math:
By contrast, in 4th grade reading you saw the same general upward trend but also a slight narrowing of the white/nonwhite gap:
In 8th grade reading, the whites stagnated while Hispanics improved so that gap narrowed. But black scores got worse. Since Hispanics improved by more than blacks declined, this constituted an overall improvement in average scores:
In terms of writing, 8th grade scores went up across the board in Chicago between 2002 and 2007, and racial gaps narrowed:
To me, this makes Arne Duncan look pretty good. It also exposes some conceptual problems with efforts to narrow the achievement gap. It would have been politically difficult for Duncan to somehow try to implement policies that were designed to prevent white students from improving their performance. Nor does it seems like deliberately thwarting the efforts of the highest-performing groups purely in order to close gaps makes much sense as a policy. I think about the most you can ask of a city superintendent is that achievement broadly increases — including for poor students and minorities — during his tenure. A federal policy maker, by contrast, has the ability to not only back policies that enhance achievement but also to back policies that substantially increase the volume of resources available to high poverty schools and, therefore, will plausibly have some gap-narrowing bite.