How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, by Arne Duncan (Simon and Schuster, 256 pp., $26.99)

Changing the Course of Failure: How Schools and Parents Can Help Low-Achieving Students, by Sandra Stotsky (Rowman and Littlefield, 130 pp., $25)

Taken together, new books from former education secretary Arne Duncan and scholar Sandra Stotsky offer a good synopsis of the changes in American schooling since the 1960s. Duncan, who served in the Obama administration from 2009 through 2015, offers an account of what appear to be the final years of national school reform as practiced by both political parties. Stotsky, a professor of education and former Massachusetts state education official, describes national efforts in the 1950s and 1960s on her way to critiquing much of what the U.S. has tried to accomplish, both before and during Duncan’s tenure.

For Stotsky, national education policy was on the right track in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as the nation’s response to Sputnik and other challenges sparked a vast effort to upgrade teacher training, curriculum, and textbooks. In Stotsky’s telling, content-based education held the promise of sweeping away the worst theories of the education schools, which favored a “whole-child” approach over strong academics.

American schools were also struggling to undo the legacy of racial segregation. This effort would evolve from simply finding ways to mix students of different races to closing the achievement gap between races and other groupings of students. It was in this context that the Johnson administration forged the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the largest federally funded program ever devoted to this purpose. While the ESEA paid lip service to bolstering content and standards, Stotsky points out that its funding was directed to improving outcomes for the lowest-achieving students—the focus of national education policy ever since.

For Stotsky, this is the root of the problem. She argues that there has been too much emphasis on the schools’ role in student failure and no attention to “students’ actual efforts or work habits.” This has led to a host of school-reform efforts despite “little or no evidence that massive low achievement is susceptible to educational interventions.” Moreover, many reports of miraculous turnarounds in recent years have been based on dubious evidence. Washington, D.C.’s improvement in high school graduation rates was found to be tainted by the district’s practice of granting diplomas to students who barely attended classes in their senior year. Test-score gains in Atlanta were undermined by a cheating scandal. Where genuine success has occurred, rigorous studies find that it tends to be marginal. Rather than praising these incremental, but real, improvements, reform advocates and policymakers remain fixated on the quest for dramatic change.

By the time Duncan arrived in Washington, policy wonks from both parties had been working for more than a decade in search of a consensus on national education policy. They wound up doubling down on a commitment to closing the achievement gap, which, as they saw it, was not limited to youngsters from low-income families. The problem could best be attacked by broad curriculum guidance—what became the Common Core—and tougher standards on required tests of reading and mathematics.

Duncan is refreshingly frank about a time when “we really failed”: in 2013, when he “infamously jammed my foot in my mouth” with a comment that the pushback to his reforms was coming from “white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought.” Yet for Duncan, this was a communications mistake, not a failed approach to reform. He never considers whether the suburban moms had reason to be dismayed by the rapid changes in educational assessment of their children or that their views deserved to be heard. Nor does he consider something he should have learned from his experience in Chicago: that schooling works best when parents and educators are in accord, and that parental trust in schools is paramount to facilitating school improvement.

Duncan’s brief discussion of his time in the Chicago schools is often personal, reflecting on inspiring educators and students who benefited from their efforts. Oddly, his key takeaway is technocratic: assessment standards should be toughened because data showed that students who attained passing scores on Illinois state exams would later fall well below the ACT score needed to gain admittance to college.

Duncan begins his book by declaring, “Education runs on lies,” and he’s right, but he ignores two of the biggest ones—that preparation for college is the sole purpose of K-12 schooling and that college completion is the only path to successful adulthood. Once in Washington, his signature program, Race to the Top, encouraged states to align the passing grades on their assessment tests with the score that tracked with college readiness by the end of high school. Most states took the bait, and reported scores plummeted under the tougher new standards. This alienated parents, just as Duncan’s efforts to evaluate teachers based on their students’ test scores solidified teacher opposition. Combined, parents and teachers made a formidable opposition, most visible in the practice of suburban and rural parents refusing to let their children sit for the mandated state tests.

The disconnect between the realities of college readiness and the expectations to which Duncan’s reforms held students, teachers, and schools led to the loss of faith in those reforms. Communication was not the main problem—substance was. Today, only about 40 percent of students follow what reformers see as the standard education progression: high school graduation by age 18, followed by enrollment in college and either a two-year or four-year degree by one’s mid-20s. Even after all the hard work in Chicago by Duncan’s administration and those that followed him, only 27 percent of Chicago’s eighth-graders were deemed proficient in reading or math in 2017 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a marker for college readiness.

While school performance has always been related to the demographic characteristics of students, some innovative schools have been successful with students facing greater challenges related to poverty and family structure. It’s reasonable and necessary to increase the supply of these more effective schools. Stotsky might disagree with that goal, and her book is certainly convincing in arguing that much that has been tried in this area has failed. Duncan remains a true believer, but his efforts in Washington serve as a reminder that parents and families are crucial in education policy. No matter how noble the goal, parents will defend the status quo if they believe that it works best for their children—and they’ll work to stymie efforts to fix what they don’t believe needs fixing.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images


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