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Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has a new book out, How Schools Work: An Inside Account
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Credit: Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call via Getty Images

If I ever try to write a memoir, you have my permission to slap me. There are so many ways that things can go wrong, and just a few in which they go right.

Do I have the standing to generate interest in my story? Do I have anything interesting to say? Can I weave a tale that links my life to the things I care about?

All rhetorical questions, as I have no intention of taking electronic pen to paper. But I do read memoirs—most recently, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education (2018), by Arne Duncan.

The 53-year-old Duncan has been, in my view, the most influential of the 11 Secretaries of Education since the founding of the U.S. Department of Education in 1980.

That’s not necessarily a compliment. Mr. Chips was influential. So was Walter White of Breaking Bad.

These references to fictional characters are not incidental. In How Schools Work, Duncan traffics in fictions, but with just enough truth to carry along the unsuspecting reader. Much of what you hear about education is a lie, he argues. We should believe Duncan because his personal story demonstrates that he cares about kids. His words convey that he is folksy, caring, sincere and misunderstood.

Related: Did Arne Duncan bring American education, ‘kicking and screaming,’ into the 21st century?

I don’t doubt that Duncan cares about children and youth, and his attention to their well-being in this account is much more persuasive than those in the memoirs of Joel Klein or Michelle Rhee, colorful school reformers often mentioned in the same breath as Duncan. The chapter of his book devoted to gun violence and gun control is particularly compelling. But the personal travelogue he recounts, tracing his origins in Chicago through his tenure as the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and then U.S. Secretary of Education, and into the present day, doesn’t add up to much.

Regrets? He’s had a few, but not too many. And even these lack much self-reflection. He’s not a politician, he admits, but he has strong opinions about public policy, bolstered mainly by vignettes and anecdotes. A good story goes a long way, and issues often rise or fall on the policy agenda as much on the basis of stories as on hard evidence.

This is the essential contradiction of Arne Duncan: He claims to be driven by data, but he prefers a good story.

After graduating from Harvard, Duncan played professional basketball in Australia, and upon his return to Chicago, worked for the Ariel Foundation, which offered programming based on Eugene Lang’s “I Have a Dream Foundation.” Similar to Lang’s approach, the Ariel Foundation offered support, mentoring, and paying the cost of postsecondary education for a cohort of sixth-graders at a Chicago elementary school. The vast majority of these youth graduated from high school, which Duncan describes as “intensely gratifying.” (Unfortunately for Duncan, the What Works Clearinghouse operated by the U.S. Department of Education has found no evidence demonstrating the model’s effectiveness.)

Related: Evaluating teachers: Precise but irrelevant metrics?

Later, when he joined the Chicago Public Schools at the invitation of Mayor Richard Daley, he became enamored of a high school program called “After School Matters,” championed by Mayor Daley’s wife, Maggie. Duncan recounts his efforts to win over an “old-school” principal who didn’t think the program would work. The program “was an immediate success,” he tells us, and the principal came to see “hundreds of kids flock to the program,” and “how important it was to them.” Over the years, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, After School Matters has served over 200,000 Chicago teens. (A careful evaluation sponsored by the Wallace Foundation found some positive effects on youth development, but no detectable effects on school performance or job skills. No matter: “I knew in my heart that afterschool programs mattered,” Duncan tells us.)

“He’s not a politician, he admits, but he has strong opinions about public policy, bolstered mainly by vignettes and anecdotes. A good story goes a long way, and issues often rise or fall on the policy agenda as much on the basis of stories as on hard evidence. This is the essential contradiction of Arne Duncan: He claims to be driven by data, but he prefers a good story.”

Then, as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, Duncan decided to close three low-performing elementary schools. He laments that his tenure in Chicago will be remembered for this more than for creating community schools, increasing access to Advanced Placement classes in high schools, and raising the high school graduation rate by 12 percentage points. There is a dramatic retelling of his efforts to persuade parents that closing these schools was the right thing to do.

Once again, the story has a happy outcome. After the schools were closed, they reopened under new leadership and improved rapidly. Over time, “the angriest parents from these first three closures became some of our staunchest allies,” Duncan asserts. (Just a decade later, Chicago closed 49 elementary schools, and research found that closing the schools had a long-term negative effect on the math scores of students from closed schools, and a smaller, negative short-term effect on their reading test scores.)

Finally, as U.S. Secretary of Education, Duncan determined to visit every state and see schools and communities that got little attention. He recounts a trip to Carrolton, Georgia, a poor, predominantly white community west of Atlanta. The home of Southwire, a large company producing electrical cabling and wire, Carrolton started a program called 12 for Life designed to boost the high school graduation rate. Pointing to the decline in the county’s dropout rate, Duncan proclaims: “It’s a model that works, and it’s been replicated across Georgia and has also been the subject of a Harvard Business School study.” (A federal evaluation found no effects of 12 for Life on students’ grade-point averages, the number of suspensions or the number of school dropouts.)

Related: Lessons of nope: Joel Klein fails to educate us on how to fix our schools

Duncan devotes three of the 10 chapters in his book to the Race to the Top competition, the basis for my claim that he has been the most influential Secretary of Education in American history. This competition propelled many states to alter their education laws and policies to bolster their chances of feeding at a $4.4 billion federal trough in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Even states that ultimately were not awarded Race to the Top funds bent their policies toward the competition’s priorities. What a brilliant stroke! Even the chance of a carrot had the desired effect! (A federally funded evaluation concluded that, because academic performance in the states that won awards was already trending upward at the time of the awards, the effect of Race to the Top on students’ academic learning was unclear.)

A key Race to the Top priority was breaking down the firewall that separated teacher evaluations from direct measures of student learning. As a practical matter, this involved rating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores, often via “value-added” statistical techniques designed to isolate a teacher’s effect on student academic performance. Duncan was—and remains—persuaded that “great” teachers who raise their students’ test scores make a huge difference in their life chances. (I lost track of the number of times that Duncan describes a teacher or school as “great.” Repetition of this word, so common in the reform lexicon, is not a virtue.) It’s a small leap to conclude that a great teacher is defined by the ability to raise test scores.

But is that what makes a “great” teacher? A good chunk of How Schools Work is a love letter to Arne’s mother, Sue Duncan, who founded a children’s center on the South Side of Chicago in 1961 that to this day offers afterschool and summer programs to African-American children and youth. She’s an extraordinary educator, and Arne Duncan’s experience in and around the center helped mold the educator and leader he would become. Sue Duncan’s “main currency,” though, was not the teaching of literacy or mathematics, but “love.”

Related: COLUMN: Just how many ineffective teachers are out there?

“Nowhere did she mention academics” in her basic motto, Arne Duncan tells us. She made a difference in kids’ lives through how she cared for them—to the point of bringing 25 pounds of apples and three pounds of cheese to the center every day so that children would not be hungry—and made them feel loved.

“Duncan’s story concludes with a chapter that promises much more than it can deliver. Echoing the book’s title, the final chapter, ‘How Schools Work,’ doesn’t even pretend to tell us that. Rather, it is a call to action, seeking to generate a sense of urgency about American school reform.”

But there’s no evidence that Sue Duncan boosted children’s test scores. Would the value-added models that Arne Duncan finds so seductive have identified his mother as a “great” teacher? I really doubt it. And that in no way is a knock on Sue Duncan, whose personal ethic, like that of many teachers, emphasized care. Rather, it exposes the contradictions of Arne Duncan’s thinking about the work of teaching. What or whom would he believe—the data, or his lyin’ eyes?

Duncan’s story concludes with a chapter that promises much more than it can deliver. Echoing the book’s title, the final chapter, “How Schools Work,” doesn’t even pretend to tell us that. Rather, it is a call to action, seeking to generate a sense of urgency about American school reform. There’s little connection between the chapter and what precedes it, and the message is muddled.

On the one hand, Duncan asks us to acknowledge that our K-12 public education system is no better than middle-of-the-pack on key performance metrics, and that our relative standing in the world has fallen dramatically since the 1980s. Perhaps he doesn’t remember the “rising tide of mediocrity” chronicled by the National Commission on Excellence in Education in its 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk.”

On the other hand, Duncan seeks to stir up some enthusiasm for school reform, so he is obliged to argue that it is working. Over the past four decades, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have risen, even as more and more children of color populate American schools. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high, and college-going and completion rates have also risen sharply.

Related: Duncan vs. Duncan

It’s a puzzling policy argument. Policy analysts tell us that the best way to elevate an issue on the policy agenda is to use quantitative data to demonstrate that there’s a shortfall in some desired outcome; that the problem is getting worse; that it affects a large or important fraction of the population; and that it resonates with widely held values or beliefs. Arguing that things have been getting better—in fact, improving since long before the reforms of the last decade—allows “stay the course” to be as plausible a response as something bolder.

I guess Arne Duncan is right: He really isn’t a politician.

This story about school reform was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Aaron Pallas is the Arthur I. Gates Professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University and Northwestern University, and served as a statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education.

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