Arne Duncan Obama’s Choice for Secretary of Education
On Tuesday Barack Obama ended months of speculation by announcing Arne Duncan as his nominee for Secretary of Education. Duncan, 44, will bring seven years of experience as the chief executive of the Chicago Public School system, the third-largest school district in the nation.
Solid Reputation in Education
Experts agree that Duncan brings with him a solid reputation as a leader willing to confront the major issues facing public education. Duncan has a record of addressing teacher quality and inferior schools, having closed several deemed as poor performers within the city.
As the CEO of the Chicago system, Duncan created a panel that crafted curriculum-based assessments to guide teaching. He also increased spending on anti-violence prevention measures and implemented the basics of a program that allowed teachers to evaluate one another.
He has also spoken strongly in favor of the accountability aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act. He is on record as stating that lawmakers should “maintain the law’s high expectations and accountability” but the law should be dramatically reshaped so as “to give schools, districts, and states the maximum amount of flexibility possible.”
Some Criticisms Emerge
Because Duncan is a personal friend of the president-elect, some conservative pundits immediately asserted the appointment speaks of cronyism. Duncan first met Obama in the 1990s, making the acquaintance through wife Michelle. Duncan is also a fellow Harvard grad and routinely plays pickup basketball with Obama.
Other conservative bloggers have expressed disappointment that Duncan is neither a union buster nor a full-fledged accountability hawk. In simplest terms, the choice of Duncan was a choice against the likes of Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, two more hard-nosed big city educational leaders.
A more legitimate concern centers upon Duncan’s lack of national political experience and his background centering solely upon K-12 education. Revamping America’s school systems will take ample political skill. In addition, with many folks calling for sweeping changes in post-secondary education, Duncan will bring little to no experience to the higher-education arena.
A Solid Choice
Duncan clearly has considerable expertise in the issues facing K-12 education. He is also from a family of educators – his late father was a psychology professor at the University of Chicago while his mother founded and has run a well-respected Chicago tutorial program for more than 40 years.
He has demonstrated a strong willingness to focus on accountability even if he falls short on the conservative stump-meter on this issue. Chicago is one of the very few school districts to employ the concept of school reconstitution – the closing of under-performing schools and the subsequent termination of school staff at the school.
Accordingly, the strategy has demonstrated the importance of leadership and teacher quality; those once-shuttered, low-performing schools have since doubled and tripled test scores.
Perhaps more importantly, as achievement has increased, the city dropout rate has decreased every year Duncan has been in charge of the district. During the announcement, Obama also noted that “the gains of Chicago students have been twice as big as those for students in the rest of the state.”
Typical of Obama
The choice of Duncan certainly appeases the advocates seeking accountability. However, the nomination will also please the teacher unions as Duncan has been seen as someone who is willing to work within current structures to improve schools.
Randi Weingarten, head of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, reportedly offered this assessment during the lengthy debate leading up to the choice: “Arne Duncan actually reaches out and tries to do things in a collaborative way.”
Duncan’s focus on a middle ground and his willingness to collaborate with various constituencies had the Democrats for Education Reform pushing hard for his appointment. The DFER offered the following assessment of Duncan.
“In his seven years at the head of the nation’s third largest school district, Chicago Public Schools has demonstrated sustained improvements in student achievement, graduation rates, and college-going rates. Duncan has credibility with various factions in the education policy debate and would allow President Obama to avoid publicly choosing sides in that debate in his most high-profile education nomination.”
Ultimately, in making his choice, Obama again sought the exact opposite approach of his office predecessor. The “my way or the highway” tone President Bush set with his nominees included the selection of the confrontational Rod Paige to the education secretary position during the president’s first term in office.