Blog: The Educated Reporter

Duncan’s record.

I never thought President Obama appointed Arne Duncan education secretary because he had done wonders in Chicago. Rather, he was a politically savvy choice whose approaches Obama approved of. Anyone who paid attention to Chicago media during Duncan’s tenure would have known that there was no consensus on the effectiveness of his reforms, except to say results were mixed. (Which seems to be the best you can say for any urban superintendent of the last decade, and anyway, who was the last education secretary who went into the job having had reformed a horrid system?)

So it surprised me to read in a Washington Post piece yesterday that the bubble was being burst, because I guess I had forgotten that there was a bubble. The news peg was Chicago’s mediocre math NAEP scores. Don’t get me wrong; Nick Anderson’s piece was good and important, and I especially loved the quote in which Duncan, who judges a hell of a lot on test scores in his new job, tries to explain these ones away by saying he was more focused on “outcomes.” I did think the headline was overly ominous. But the main thing is this: The only reason this was news to the Post was that journalists outside of Chicago hadn’t done a good job of evaluating his record around the time of his appointment as secretary.

This is a problem in journalism: It is too easy to produce quick, glowing stories about the past accomplishments of the new principal, the new superintendent, the new cabinet secretary, when the reality is far more complex. Of course Obama had talked up Duncan’s deeds in Chicago. But in this case, balancing information was not hard to come by, if you paid any attention to local media.

As Alexander Russo points out, the Post published a story exactly a year previous about Duncan’s potentially “model” reforms. It was not the only paper to leave out the more critical chunks. The 2009 NAEP scores should not have been the only reason readers outside Illinois eventually got a more balanced picture of the secretary.



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