Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, has become a laughing stock here in New York City. He has rashly inserted himself into local politics by repeatedly urging the New York state legislature to renew unlimited mayoral control, with no checks and balances and no parent input allowed.
In June, at the behest of Mayor Bloomberg, Duncan wrote a letter to the Citizens Union, a local good government group, stating that fixed terms for school board members whom the mayor could not fire at will would have "profoundly negative consequences for New York City's students."
He gave his support to continuing a board of education that is recognized to be a rubberstamp for the Mayor. The board has been recognized as such ever since Bloomberg got rid of two of his own appointees the night before they were to vote on his controversial grade retention proposals, in a notorious episode known as the "Monday night massacre."
Duncan has repeated as gospel skewed statistics provided him by the public relations office of the NYC Department of Education as proof of improvements under mayoral control, including the rise in state test scores, which many observers see as inflated.
He has consistently ignored the fact that the most credible measures of student achievement, the National Assessment of Education Progress, as provided by his own agency, the US Department of Education, show little or no improvement since Mayor Bloomberg's reforms were introduced in September 2003. In fact, as reported in our book, NYC Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein: What Parents, Teachers and Policymakers Need to Know, there has been no significant improvement in any grade or subject tested by NAEP in NYC except 4th grade math, and in that subject, 25 percent of students were provided with "accommodation" or extra help, far higher than in any other city.
Indeed, NYC showed the largest decline in 8th grade reading scores of any of the ten urban school district tested. And contrary to Duncan's claims that the Bloomberg reforms have narrowed the achievement gap, NAEP results show no narrowing of the gap between ethnic or racial groups in any grade or subject tested.
Duncan has also repeatedly cited improvements in graduation rates in NYC, without noting that these statistics have been called into question because of the widespread practice of "credit recovery," in which high school students can gain credit for courses that they had failed by completing an independent project
A recent audit from the City Comptroller found that in more than a quarter of transcripts of high school graduates, the record of their course credits had been changed -- with many of these revisions being made after these students had already been reported as having graduated.
Duncan also ignored the fact that there has been a significant increase in the number of students discharged from our high schools each year, who disappear from the rolls without ever being counted as dropouts.
In the class of 2007, the latest figures available, more than 21 percent of those who had entered high school four years earlier were discharged, about 20,000 in all. The discharge rate for first year high school students has doubled since the year 2000. Yet not one of these students was counted as a drop-out. Since a report on this disturbing phenomenon was released in April, co-authored by Jennifer Jennings and me, the DOE has ceased releasing discharge figures.
Duncan's praise for the questionable accomplishments of our Republican mayor have now been plastered all over Bloomberg's campaign literature, sent multiple times to every household in the city. Over the course of his campaign, Bloomberg has already spent more than $37 million of his personal fortune on his re-election, on the road to spending $100 million -- breaking all previous records, including his own.
Duncan's latest gaffe was his gushing words of praise for a blatantly propagandistic series of articles in the New York Post that ran for several months, entitled "City Schools, City Rules," part of a lobbying effort by the owner of the Post, Rupert Murdoch, to pressure the State Legislature to renew Bloomberg's unlimited power over our schools.
Duncan called the Post series "thoughtful" and praised the paper for its "leadership", even though these articles simply regurgitated the spurious statistics provided by the city's press office. His praise was then quoted in a self-congratulatory article published in the Post itself, after the NY Senate voted to renew Bloomberg's chokehold on the schools last week.
According to Gotham Schools, Richard Colvin, head of the Hechinger Institute at Columbia University, described the NY Post article that quoted Duncan: "It reads like nothing I've ever seen. It reads like the worst kind of back-patting, self-congratulatory press release that has no perspective whatsoever."
Indeed, Duncan's calling the Post series "thoughtful" is like describing spam as filet mignon.
It would all be somewhat comical if this politicization of education reform weren't so inherently dangerous. It's time for Obama to rein his appointee in -- before he causes yet further embarrassment to his administration.