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.

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Evan Young's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

would not expect much from Arne. Since Arne Duncan didn't know how to lead, inspire and build a strong professional community within neighborhood schools in a systematic way, he along with Mayor Daley and the Chicago Commerce Club came up with the great con, by letting cronies open charter schools. These schools would then cherry pick students and either not accept students with special needs or would squeeze them out. These schools would not be held accountable to the same standard as the neighborhood schools. The Chicago Sun-Times is finally investigating the corruption in the Charter Schools. The teachers are usually inexperienced and not certified teachers. Even the charter school administrators are now anxious since a good portion of their start up money was given by foundations and businesses. With the downturn in the economy, they are worried. Look folks, Arne didn't know how to work the professionals he had available in the classrooms. He could have have implemented a longer instructional day for the students. By the tenth grade, a CPS student has about one academic year less of instruction time then a comparable student in the New York City schools. With a longer school day, teachers would finally be able to meet regularly in same grade and cross team cycles to analyze student work, target areas that need improvement and evaluate the progress in a proven manner to build high performance schools. Truth be told, Arne cut corners and had his marketing team put lipstick on the pig that was his "enlightened" reform policy. I too wished Obama picked Professor Linda Darling-Hammond.

Lynn Geri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Here I have presented what I believe to be a paradigm that will generate what the Earth and society are calling for from our schools... and what individuals want from being educated. From learning facts to developing Will, Being and Functioning Capabilities.

A physical football field has the dimensions of width, length, availability and a kind of surface and markings that allow football to be played in that arena. An education field has the psychological dimensions of purpose, aim, ideals and structure that allow education to take place. The statements below describe the dimensions of a particular kind of energy field, that create a paradigm shift that develops the being and will of the school community individuals.


Self-determination for individuals, families, communities and nations.

The health of all nature, including a child's nature.

Develop the capacity in a student to reflect on how he lives his life and to integrate his highest ideals into his life.

Schooling is structured around dialog, between people as well as with nature, as the means of discovery.

realitygirl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a retired teacher. I have never seen education turned so upside down as is now the present situation. Arne Duncan continues to tell of his mother's experience as a tutor. There are many people who succeed as tutors. Public education ia more than a tutoring setting. The schools now have dysfunctional administrators, counselors, librarians, and social workers as well as teachers who refuse to create a good learning environment because administrators allow chaos in the building. The principals in the past made sure that every person in the building supported one another. The principal also continued to monitor students and staff in the building by walking "throughout the building" during the complete day. Often, the present principals sit in the offices all day while the children run rampant and create violence in the school building. As a result, the support staff such as counselors and social workers, especially in low performing schools, do not complete their jobs or refuse to do the work because there is no support from the administrators. Also, the support staff often become friends to the principals to tell untrue information about classroom teachers just to keep a paycheck. The students are still running the building with no guidance and support from the principal. The staff becomes dysfunctional, refuse to work to help students, and begin to tell malicious information on the teachers who are not close to the principal and refuse to tell the principal untruths about their coworkers. I keep hearing that Duncan want the brightest teachers especially in low performing schools. I would like to see principals in the low performing schools who do the job of a principal and not just sit in a building all day just to collect a paycheck. The NCLB act has caused more failure for students and staff because resources are not in the building and there are very few people who would want to work in the violence, chaos, and confusion of low performing schools in high poverty areas. President-elect Obama said he would support teachers and would help children to learn because there is no care for them. Closing schools and opening charter schools that are low in performance and certified teachers will now create the most uneducated society that this country has ever known. Showing the support of one charter school does not mean success. There are too many charter schools that fail and the students have to go back to the public schools.

realitygirl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am very disappointed in this choice for Secretary of Education. When students fail, they are kicked out of the schools. When schools fail, they are shut down. I campaigned for President-elect Obama because he said he would support teachers. Well, I think he has straddled the fence by not being upfront and honest during his campaign. Most people want to kick low performing students out of school(this has always happened). Therefore, Arne Duncan and President-elect Obama are not "Reformists" but incompetent school leaders from the past. They still do not know how to help low performing students.

Scoutmom's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Where does Ducan stand on Catholic Schools. I know Obama would like to do away with them. Catholic schools are a positive and stuctured alternative to public schools. Not all of them are perfect. You get the good and the bad, just like in public education. I support having a educational choice. It is the best thing for the children. I am sorry if that leaves the inner city public schools with the bottom of the barrel.

Public school teachers are paid much better than private or Catholic teachers. I am now paid less as a Catholic school teacher than. I was as a public school teacher 20 years ago. It is worth it to be allowed to have the freedom to teach again. personal opoionion. I bailed out after 3 yrs ago. I was tired of fighting for the kids needs. I was tired of seeing money going to the strangest stuff and having my hands tied when a student needed me.

Good luck to all of you. I have just about taught in all possible situations thanks to my husband moving around. I love what I do, where ever I do it. I like it better now that I am no longer afraid of having a gun pulled on me or my tires slashed.

chip fraser's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am hopeful for President Obama's presidency because he has demonstrated a strategy and a plan to get us across this river of sludge created by the last 8 years of terrible decision-making.

And while I love our president's energy and hope-based leadership, I am saddened by what I read about his thoughts on education. He sounds more like our twin evils of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jack O'Connell who think that testing is the key to turning around the edcuational system. How wrong can people be?

Everyone knows that education is broken and archaic but until we get rid of the thought process and the leadership that supports boring and antiquated, we will continue making the same mistakes!

For example, continuing to preach a college prep curriculum without re-establishing an alternative route (i.e, vocational education) we will continue to witness ridiculous dropout rates and our children becoming less engaged. Everyone realizes that technology, discussion, and "live" classrooms will jazz up the student's desire to be there and actually learn something!

The concept that good teachers would change bad schools is absurd. The climate has to changed and the so-called "bad schools" are a direct reflection of the community and the lack of connection between the parents and the educational system.

I'm not saying to stop testing but don't make it the mission of education. Get children engaged and all sorts of learning can take place. As Piaget pointed out in his research on constructionism, experience and cooperative learning inspire creativity and critical thinking.

Let's get hip people, old English is wonderful for a few people but hip-hop brings more kids into the circle, and keeping the circle moving increases the opportunity for success.

I am glad to send you a copy of my program that is WORKING at a continuation school with at-risk students who had been written off.

Armand Peloquin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Part of the problem with so-called unmotivated students is that many come to school with social and emotional problems or issues that affect their learning and engagement practices. Full-service community schools, if coordinated correctly can address these issues. Many students with these problems are difficult for teachers to reach because teachers are not psychologists, social workers, medical doctors etc.
Another item which states and the federal government should look into is returning vocational/technical training in schools. These programs are not a "dumbing" down of curriculum as some would say, but honest training programs in a variety of marketable skills that can be quite lucrative for the students' futures. Not everyone uses trigonometry or calculus, why not make school curriculums open for all students. Not everyone wants to go to college. Implementing a variety of curriculums to fit student needs than fitting the "demands" of federal and state politicians, can do much to motivate many students.

jeremy cohn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really didn't read this whole thing just skimmed through sum of it srry :{ I'm being very lazy.................................Ps Woooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo Go Obama

Ed Greenspan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wish Mr. Duncan well during his tenure as education secretary.
I certainly hope that he will reconsider his views regarding all-year around school.
I am a retired New York City teacher. I taught for 32 years before retiring in 2001. N.Y.C. as well as other large urban centers doesn't need a longer school year or school day. Here is why:
We have far too many discipline problems in our schools. Older disruptive students need work-study programs to give them some sort of esteem and to make education a privilege. Currently, too many students have a complete lack of respect for education as well as authoritative figures. In N.Y.C., we used to have the 600 school concept for disruptive children. When that was done away with, our schools suffered accordingly.
Younger disruptive pupils can't tolerate the school day as it is structured right now. Longer days and years? Forget it. You're throwing good money away.
Speaking of money, it will take lots of it to air-condition all the schools. In N.Y.C., most school buildings are not air-conditioned and those that are are only partially air-conditioned. Schools without air-conditioning during the summer months are unbearable to be in. Nothing educationally will be achieved by sitting in a room with a mere fan blowing.
Instead of proposing an increase in the school year, let's be working on lowering class size. Both the mayor and Chancellor in N.Y.C. have skirted around the issue. The fact remains that too many of our classes have far too many pupils.
It takes 5-10 years as a teacher to develop proficiency in the classroom. Anyone who says otherwise is just kidding themselves. We don't need administrators who either never or rarely taught supervising pedagogues. In N.Y.C. we have a 24 year old principal who had to ask his or her staff about what a shelter drill entails. Imagine that.
Mr. Duncan, please send experienced teachers into the field to report back to you what is going on in our schools. Retired teachers and supervisors could best do that job.

Sharon Lotz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The only person who seems to know what they are talking about is Ed Greenspan. Every study I have ever read about education says the same thing. SMALLER CLASS SIZE DIRECTLY EFFECTS TEST SCORES. When are parents going to stop leaving these decisions up to "educators" and start taking back their right to demand better schools by reducing class size? I have not worked with Arne Duncan so I have no first hand knowledge of what he did or didn't do. But I did listen to the interview and one thing that struck me is the same issue I have raised time and again with our Board of Education....why are we waisting facilities that could be used for after school programs, community organizations that work with kids or even just provide a safe and productive place for kids to hang out instead of on the street?
I absolutely agree with the one teacher who talked about "invisible" principals. All administrators seem to want is to fill out paperwork and be left alone. The good one's are the one's who walk the halls and know the kids, we need more of them.

Lastly, I went to an all girls catholic school. I personally loved it and felt I got a great education. However, my sister HATED it and promised to run away from home if my mother didn't transfer her back to public school. There is no ONE SIZE FITS ALL...we should support all types of schools and allow students to find the best fit for the type of learning they need. I pray that Mr.Duncan can at least move this education system toward small classes! That would be the best first step!

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