Ezra is absolutely right that the strength of Arne Duncan at the Department of Education will be his ability to synthesize the best approaches of both major camps in the Democratic education wars; those who focus on poverty, and those who focus on shaking up bureaucracies. But just a reminder to Ezra, Seyward Darby, and other folks who are lauding test score gains under Duncan in Chicago (or under any other superintendent): A major problem of the testing apparatus under No Child Left Behind is that states can make up their own standards. A report from the Center for American Progress and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that Illinois is in the middle of the pack when it comes to the rigor of its standards.
So blogger-sociologist Eduwonkette, who works handily with statistics, looked at Chicago's performance not according to Illinois tests, but according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Also known as "The Nation's Report Card," the NAEP is administered by the Department of Education to students across the country and, in typical American fashion, counts for nothing, despite experts' recognition of its findings as the best benchmark we've got. Eduwonkette found that under Duncan's tenure, gaps between black and white students actually grew:
There are no statistically significant declines in these gaps in 4th or 8th grade reading or math. In many cases - for example, 4th and 8th grade math and 8th grade reading - it's not that the black-white achievement gap is declining, but not by enough to be statistically significant. These gaps are actually growing. Sigh.
This doesn't meant Duncan is a bad superintendent, or that we can't learn anything from him, or that he shouldn't be secretary of education. His leadership on early childhood education, polytechnic secondary schools, and careful growth of the charter sector is a model. But we have to be very careful when we talk about student achievement and the achievement gap, because we just don't have agreed-upon ways of measuring success and failure. Indeed, that's a major problem with NCLB that I hope Duncan will address as secretary.