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by Pearl Hahn

President Obama selected Arne Duncan to succeed Margaret Spellings as the US Secretary of Education. The Secretary of Education position is one of several federal positions appointed by the president that requires confirmation of the US Senate. Hopefully, whoever is president makes appointments based on merit and skill rather than outside pressures or to return favors.

Duncan, like Obama, is from Chicago, and has allegedly known him for over a decade. (They played basketball together the day Obama was elected). He attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, then Harvard University, where he studied sociology. He has never taught in a school (I do not think teaching experience is necessary to be an effective education administrator). However, he has served as a Deputy Chief of Staff for a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, and was later appointed to serve as CEO in 2001.

Today, Obama’s appointee is making a bit of a splash due to a report questioning academic gains that took place under his seven-year tenure. While Duncan has been lauded for improvement in public education over the years, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago claims that city schools have not improved much, if at all, since 2003.

Yet, in December 2008, Obama boasted that under Duncan, elementary school test scores jumped “from 38 percent of students meeting the standards to 67 percent”, an improvement of 29 percent. The Civic Committee, however, puts the number closer to 8 percent.

Many question whether such a gain is even worth applauding, considering that students’ overall performance is still very poor. For example, about half of Chicago students drop out of city high schools, and over 70 percent of 11th-graders fail to meet state standards.

Obama made a similarly misleading claim concerning ACT test scores. He said city students’ ACT test score gains “have been twice as big as those for students in the rest of the state”. While this is technically true, (their score rose 0.9 points between 2002 and 2006, while state scores rose only 0.4 points during the same period), city students scored a composite 17.4, in contrast to the state average of 20.5, which is significantly higher.

I recall a statistics professor once reminding my class that statistics can be manipulated to prove all kinds of conclusions- they’re like girls wearing bikinis on the beach- it’s what you don’t show that counts.