To understand the legacy of outgoing education secretary Arne Duncan, look to the Crescent City. Hurricane Katrina, Duncan said once, was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” What the disaster did was enable state legislators and out-of-state reformers to transform the system on an unparalleled scale. Nearly all of the schools were converted to charters, which receive public funds but have less oversight than traditional public schools. Some 7,500 unionized teachers and other employees were fired, many of them people of color. The city’s teaching core went from 71 percent black in 2004 to less than 50 percent last year.
To avoid closure, new schools had to focus on raising standardized test results. Scores did go up; more than 60 percent of elementary and middle-schoolers passed state tests last year, up from 37 percent in 2005, and graduation rates have risen. But it’s not clear the gains are due to the kinds of reforms that people like Duncan champion, such as tying teacher accountability to test results. The flood of philanthropic and federal money that went into the charter system after the hurricane was unprecedented; such an investment might have improved the city’s traditional (and broke) public schools, too, if they hadn’t been shuttered.
Duncan, who announced his resignation last week, took over at the Department of Education several years after the New Orleans overhaul began. But he’s pointed to the city as a sort of blueprint for remaking public education across the country. It’s the place where his vision for school reform was most fully realized. Whether the overhaul was a miracle or misguided is a question about Duncan’s legacy more broadly.
Once called a “budding hero in the education business,” Duncan proved himself a champion for those who saw a money-making opportunity in America’s beleaguered public school system—the charter school and testing industries, for instance. Pushing a market-based vision of reform, Duncan oversaw mass school closures and a deepening obsession with standardized tests, which he said was necessary to prevent teachers from “lying” to children about their preparedness. He opened the door of the Education Department to “the Billionaire Boys’ Club,” people from philanthropic groups like the Gates Foundation and the NewSchools Venture Fund. Teachers, on the other hand, felt shut out, and alienated by a narrative of educational inequality that framed it less as a legacy of racism and poverty than a reflection of their own shortcomings. The corps of professional educators shrunk and grew less diverse.