It was inevitable that political hay would be made from this link, but in the process a more fundamental insight has been overlooked: The Chicago Annenberg Challenge was a total failure. And to this day, Senator Obama remains committed to its failed approach.
But instead of being in a position to waste tens of millions of private dollars, as he was then, Obama is now asking voters for the power to waste hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. Before granting him that power, Americans should understand what went wrong.
The Chicago Annenberg Challenge was part of a nationwide effort launched by TV Guide mogul Walter H. Annenberg on a blustery December day in 1993. In a White House ceremony hosted by president Clinton, Annenberg pledged half a billion dollars to create model public schools and districts. He and the scholars he appointed to lead the project hoped their models of excellence would be replicated all over the country, transforming American education. Thanks to matching donations, the Challenge ultimately raised more than a billion dollars.
It failed not just in Chicago, but around the country. The first problem was that many of the “model” schools and districts lacked results worthy of replication. The final report of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, for instance, noted that, overall, students in its model schools had learned no more than students in regular public schools. Classroom behavior and other non‐academic measures “were weaker in 2001 than before the Challenge.” And even the schools that did show meaningful improvement couldn’t be consistently replicated within the Challenge districts themselves, let alone around the nation.
In an odd quirk of history, the Wreck of the Annenberg was foreshadowed by President Clinton during the launch ceremony. Clinton thanked Annenberg for his generosity, and added that the “people in this room who have devoted their lives to education are constantly plagued by the fact that nearly every problem has been solved by somebody somewhere, and yet we can’t seem to replicate it everywhere else.” Clinton would go on to explain that the most pressing need in American education is “to have a system to somehow take what is working and make it work everywhere. Nobody has unraveled this mystery.”