Reform Starts Now: Obama Picks Arne Duncan | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Reform Starts Now: Obama Picks Arne Duncan

His selection for secretary of education shows that public education is a priority.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
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President-elect Barack Obama talked reform while announcing Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan as the next U.S. secretary of education.

"For Arne, school reform isn't just a theory in a book, it's the cause of his life," Obama said at Tuesday's press conference. Obama specifically mentioned pay-for-performance teacher salaries and charter-schools development as strategies with strong potential.

"If charter schools work, let's try that," Obama said. "Let's not be clouded by ideology when it comes to figuring out what helps our kids."

VIDEO: An Interview with Arne Duncan (2007)

Running Time: 11 min.

Duncan described his clear-eyed view of education in a June 2007 interview with Edutopia when he said, "Quality public education is the civil rights issue of our generation."

Duncan, known for transforming underperforming schools and experimenting with new models, has a record as a pragmatist with a taste for innovations. His version of reform, judging by his record, centers on boosting teacher quality and supporting students with added services such as after-school programs. In the Chicago Public Schools, where 85 percent of the 400,000-plus students live below the poverty line, test scores, attendance, and teacher retention all went up during Duncan's seven-year tenure, while the dropout rate declined.

The Buzz

For weeks, pundits, educators, and education bloggers have speculated on what Obama's pick would show about his true beliefs on education.

"Arne Duncan has a type of personality that Obama seems to prefer, which is a pragmatist who will bring about change, but he'll do it in a way that will minimize confrontation in conflict," says Jack Jennings, president of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy. "He's brought about change in Chicago, but it hasn't been a head-on clash with the teachers' union. He's done it in a way that they all walk away from the table congratulating each other."

Supporters say Duncan has the right constitution for the job. On both substance and style, he has won praise from divergent interest groups, including the American Federation of Teachers and the New York City-based Democrats for Education Reform.

Duncan shut down Chicago schools that performed poorly and reopened them with entirely new staffs. He started coaching and mentoring programs for teachers. He also supported a boom in new charter schools with diverse models, from military academies to single-sex schools, and piloted a program to pay teachers bonuses for top performance -- two controversial innovations Obama supports.

An Uncertain Future

Of course, an education secretary can't exactly dictate reform from on high. But he can use the bully pulpit to put a spotlight on certain problems and solutions, says Jennings, and hand out grants to support new innovations. He can also provoke change through regulations -- most notably those that guide implementation of the No Child Left Behind law.

On NCLB, Duncan is a middle-of-the-roader; he supports the law's goals of high expectations and accountability but has challenged Congress to improve it by doubling its funding and amending it "to give schools, districts, and states the maximum amount of flexibility possible."

Not the least of Duncan's hurdles will be the nation's preoccupation with the economic crisis. In a sign of the media's interest in education, the first question at Obama and Duncan's press conference after the announcement of Duncan's nomination was about the Federal Reserve Bank lowering its interest rates.

The financial squeeze hitting schools could hinder Duncan's efforts.

Making money and resources key to success, Duncan and Obama both made the case for education by defining it as the path to prosperity; Obama called it the "single biggest determinant" of the economy's long-term health.

"We're not going to transform every school overnight," Obama said. "What we can expect is that each and every day, we are thinking of new, innovative ways to make the schools better. That is what Arne has done. That's going to be his job. That's going to be his task."

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

Comments (23)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

stacey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to know if obama is for the homeschooling families that all over the U.S. and if he plans to try to change that or take our rights away from us? Or is he going to support our rights to homeschool our kids? I pray that Obama will support our rights as parents to homeschool our kids and not try to make this about himself!

Thanks Stacey

Patrick Groff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In a future essay please describe exactly how much Chicago children's academic
test scores improved while these youngsters attended schools that were governed by Arne.

Patrick Groff
Professor of Education Emeritus
San Diego State University

Deborah Rosetti's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I voted for Obama proudly, but as a twenty year veteran teacher (14 years in elementary ed. and 6 years in art), I believe firing teachers of failing schools and putting up loads of charter schools is definitely not the way to go. That makes as much sense as taking licenses away from self-sacrificing low-salaried dentists for working in poor communities because their children have a lot of cavities.

If President Obama or Mr. Arne want to know what needs to happen to improve schools, they need to keep politics out of it and ask the teachers. They are the ones who went to education programs at the universities studying under professors who've spent countless hours up at night researching teaching methods that are best. With politics now taking over our school systems, we (the teachers) are not allowed to use any of those researched, proven methods that we learned. Children go to school according to where they can afford to live. Give more resources towards enrichment, field trips, art and music to those low income areas (like the higher income communities have), and watch the test scores rise.

Remember the fifties and early sixties, when the US had the top scores worldwide? The administrators (principals) acted more as a servant to help the teacher (the then thought "expert") out. Bring it back to what worked when the test scores were high. Our education system wasn't broken in the first place. It's all the "fixing" on it that has broken it. We are not in the business of politics or public relations. To bring good education back, empower the teachers (the educated). Thanks.

Gerald Colvin, Ph.D.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In 1971 The Caif. Legislature enacted a law which for the first time required tenured teachers be evaluated by uniform standards established within each school district. The law was known as THE STULL ACT. State senators Albert Rodda and John Stull believed there was a need to divest the system of incompetence hiding behind tenure. The key part of this new law was the requirement for the creation of a set of uniform standards for teaching behavior which would stand up to the scrutiny of the court when a teacher appealed dismissal. Establishment of validity and reliabiliy of the evaluation process were key elements needed to enforce the program. To date less than ten teachers have been dismissed under this law because these key elements were never incorporated. Recognizing the need to produce an evaluation paradigm which provided the appropriate elements to effectuate the new law I undertook as a doctoral dissertation at U.C.Berkely the application of a means to produce and establish the desired coefficients of validation and reliability for the mandated evaluation instrument. The results of the process used to generate these elements proved appropriate. The dissertation was completed and a Ph.D. was awarded me in 1973. The results of my efforts were satisfying in that the Frederick Burke Foundation sponsered an application for a grant from the Calif. Legislatue to establish a center for school districts to learn the methodology I had proven to be suitable for duplication. This effort was also endorsed by the Association of Calif. School Administrators as well as the teacher's unions. The application was turned down due to lack of funds in the state budget. Nothing has been done since then except for the study to gather dust on the shelves of the library in Tolman Hall at U.C. Berkeley.

william p rowe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Lets support Mr. Duncan. The notion of rearranging,transferring,replanting,revitalizing staff as Duncan did in some Chicago Schools seems healthy.If anyone out there has a merit pay scheme that has met its goals for 3 years,please bringit forward because there is always pressure for merit pay,which always meets with resistance,conflict even strikes but Ive never seen a success story to lead us in a positive direction.Thanks!

Ellen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am afraid that obama is not for homeschooling your children. Homeschoolers are smarter, and can't be controlled, and obama, I think, wants to have control over our lives. I urge you to keep homeschooling no matter what.

Ellen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is blatently unfair to teachers to get paid by the performance of their students. Some kids are just plain lazy and won't work no matter what the teacher does. Many kids come from lousy parents who are uneducated themselves so don't care if their kid gets his education. We should make people pay for their education instead of the tax payer. That way, the kid and parent will have an investment in their education, and therefore will appreciate it more. Look at poor countries that make the people pay for their own education. They appreciate it, and the kids will do anything to get the privelege of going to school.

Amy Schramm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If someone is not doing there job, nor doing it well, they should not have that job. Take any field and measure it. Teachers have not been held accountable for poor performance because they have had protection from a tenure system that is outdated and unrealistic. The teachers union is keeping the industry stuck and in a state of constant atrophy. It is a public, 'United States of America', responsibility to provide all children with a sound education for an equal chance at success in life, whether or not their parents or neighborhoods are failing them. We have to do what is in the best interest for all children from all walks of life, not what is the best interest for your pocketbook or mental bias. Then in the future, we will be producing equal Americans who truly have equal rights, that will care about the global well being of their children, all because someone cared about theirs.

DMARKWA's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Every occupation has it's expectations. Meet them or move on. Anyone who gets into the education business and doesn't take into account that part of that choice included the good with the bad, is living in a dream world. Every occupation comes with negatives and positives. Either you rise up to the challenge or leave and play the game you really wanted to play.

Under-motivated kids are part of the educational reality. If every teacher had motivated, high performing kids, it would be the one of the easier occupations that people would flock to. As it is, the challenge of under-performing kids is part and parcel of the career choice. So Ellen... grow up or find another occupation. There is no shame in admitting you aren't up to the task. Let someone else take a few swings.

Warning: There is no occupation you will go to that will not have the same detractors, only in different ways and different faces. So cowgirl up and embrace the real challenge. Your teaching needs to get better until you reach every one. That is your quest. That is your challenge and that is the wonder of your current job.

Gary Latman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am not encouraged by Obama's choice for Secretary of Education. Based on my experiences under Arne Duncan's leadership, I had my school, which was on probation, but which had made significant improvements, backslide to become the worst high school in the city under 3 successive principals placed in the school by Mr. Duncan. The creation of magnet schools and academies had drawn the most academically capable and ambitious students out of our feeder elementary schools, leaving us the most challenged and at-risk students, and an enrollment of 30-35% special needs students.

Instead of looking at our students and what our school needed, Mr. Duncan used a "one size fits all" policy, which closed our vocational education program and pushed a college prep. curriculum. At the same time, social promotion became the unofficial practice again, and we started to receive students who were several years below their grade level, and if we failed students, were asked to justify it with the remediation plans we implemented for each an every student who failed. When we continued to show no improvement in the standardized tests on this uneven playing field, Mr. Duncan fired the entire staff, hiring almost an entirely new staff, calling the school a "turn-around" school.

As a teacher very much affected by this policy, I admit I am biased, but I believe such a drastic process broadcasts a negative message about the very dedicated teachers who work in extremely challenging schools. It punished all of us who were dedicated to the inner-city community where we had taught for years, and in many ways successful, because it assessed us on the basis of standardized tests and school attendance.

But let me end this on a positive note: if Mr. Duncan has learned any lesson from his "one size fits all" educational policy, it should be that with the assistance of technology, every student can have an individualized educational plan, because everyone has special needs. I would suggest that Mr. Duncan spend some time with the ed-tech visionaries who frequent this and other similar blog, wiki, and ning educational networks. I would send Arne back to school for some professional development. Unfortunately, I'm afraid he may believe the spin about all of the great successes he has had, that has been shoved down our national throats.

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