Duncan's Chicago record poor model for America
By Deborah Lynch
Like millions of Americans, I was thrilled and
filled with hope over Barack Obama's victory on
election night. I have been a supporter of Mr.
Obama since his days in the Illinois Senate.
And, in a very small way, as past president of
the Chicago Teachers Union, I helped him get
his first labor union endorsement when he was
running for U.S. Senate, that of the Illinois
Federation of Teachers.
But though it pains me to have to say this, I
cannot support his choice for secretary of
education, Arne Duncan.
How can Mr. Duncan be so rewarded for a
strategy of giving up on low-performing schools
serving primarily low-income children? It is
ironic that Duncan is now moving to the Cabinet
post when he essentially has admitted that he
does not know how to manage low-performing
schools. His entire approach has been to close
underperforming schools and turn their
management over to outside organizations, many
with no track records of school reform. Yet
during his tenure, the Chicago Public Schools
graduation rate remained stubbornly at barely
This is a travesty, not an example for the
A few short years ago, Duncan was a semi-pro
basketball player. He never studied education,
never worked in a school, and is not qualified
to teach. He was a political appointee who came
in with a philosophy which basically blamed low
student achievement on career teachers and on
their union. This philosophy of viewing the
problem as bad teachers, and their union
contract as an obstacle to reform, resulted in
the Renaissance 2010 model, unveiled in 2004.
Since then, Duncan has closed dozens of schools
and created a private district-within-a-
district of 80,000 former CPS students, all
funded by public education dollars.
These schools have no union staff members and
no local school councils and, for the most
part, no accountability. Charter and contract
schools do have to take state-required tests.
CPS claims that many of these schools do better
than our neglected neighborhood schools, yet
reputable, independent, national studies of
charter schools yield inconclusive results.
Duncan's latest twist on closing
underperforming schools is called the school
"turnaround." About two dozen school closures
and turnarounds are about to be announced this
month. Parents, staff and students pleading for
a reprieve year after year became an
embarrassment to Duncan and Mayor Daley. Now
they just fire all the staff in designated
Yet, do we close police stations in high-crime
areas and fire the police officers? No, we
provide the best support and resources possible
-- and that is what should have been provided
to our struggling schools.
When the union proposed a joint program of
cooperation and support for struggling schools
to Duncan after he closed three schools back in
2002, he gave lip service to the idea, then
ignored it. It did not fit with his philosophy
that the union was an obstacle to reform.
Low student achievement is not caused by "bad"
teachers clinging to union work rules. Teachers
working in the highest-performing high schools
in the state, such as Whitney Young, Walter
Payton and Northside College Prep, are all
working under the union contract. Several
elementary schools are using "Success for All,"
one of the three highest-ranked schoolwide
reform models in the U.S., without violating
The hard fact is that poor students -- and 85
percent of our students are low-income -- are
more expensive to educate. They are just as
capable as non-poor students of learning, but
they arrive in kindergarten already far behind
their more-advantaged counterparts. Research on
teaching them is clear and compelling: They
need master teachers, an extended school day,
and small schools and class sizes to break the
debilitating hold of crushing poverty on their
That's it. That's what can make the difference
and tip the balance on poverty and learning.
The reality is these conditions are not in
place in most of Chicago's schools, nor are
there other essentials, such as truant officers
or enough social workers or even security
These are the things the union should be
fighting for. Duncan's model has involved an
unconscionable scapegoating of the front-line
professionals and has had an extremely negative
effect on thousands of students. These
committed professionals serve our children each
and every day, despite a lack of support,
respect and resources.
I hope that President Obama talks to some of
these front-line teachers about how to improve
the nation's schools. The Duncan/Daley solution
of giving up on struggling schools has been an
absolute abdication of responsibility and
public trust, and should certainly not be seen
as a model for America.
Deborah Lynch was president of the Chicago
Teachers Union from 2001 to 2004.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES