Why is Arne Duncan messing with Texas? I asked the Secretary of Education about this a few hours after he injected himself into the presidential-election scrum. Policy wonks like me had woken up to baffling reports that Duncan told Bloomberg Television's Al Hunt that the Texas school system "has really struggled" under Rick Perry, the GOP governor who just announced he is running for President. "Far too few of their high school graduates are actually prepared to go on to college," Duncan said in the TV interview, which is scheduled to air this weekend, telling Hunt that he feels "very, very badly for the children there."
When I asked Duncan about this dire assessment in an interview I had scheduled today for my next School of Thought column, the former head of the Chicago school system was light on specifics:
"Texas has challenges. The record speaks for itself. Lots of other states have challenges too. But there is a lot of hard work that needs to be done in Texas and a lot of children who need a chance to get a great education."
But what about the fact, I responded, that on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Texas' fourth- and eighth-graders substantially outperformed their peers in Chicago in reading and math?
"I would have to look at all the details, but there are real challenges in Texas. And like every other state, they should be addressed openly and honestly as in Illinois, as in Chicago, and everywhere else."
Confused? Me too, and I do this for a living. Overall, Texas students scored right around the national averages in reading and math on the NAEP. And according to an Aug. 17 report by the group that administers the ACT college-admissions exam, Texas high school graduates only narrowly trail national averages for college readiness. True, the national averages aren't great, but Texas is right there with the pack. So why is Duncan dissing the Lone Star State? Its minority students outperform minority students in Chicago, albeit by smaller margins. And with a high school graduation rate of about 73%, Texas may be slightly below the national average, but it's doing a lot better than Chicago, which only graduates about 56% of its students.
Granted, the reactionary posture Perry and his state's education officials have toward ideas that don't have a Texas twang is ridiculous in the interconnected 21st century. And it's debatable how much credit Perry deserves for education reforms that largely predate his administration.
But the bottom line is that although schools in Texas are no great shakes, they're hardly the nation's worst.
Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for TIME.com, usually appears every Thursday.