George Lucas Educational Foundation

Who Will Be Obama's Secretary of Education?: The President-Elect's Front-Runners

Here is our A-list of contenders.
By Lauren Smith
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Barack Obama promised a lot when he vowed to improve America's public schools -- namely, an $18 billion overhaul of the system. The question buzzing around Washington, DC, today is, who will Obama choose to lead this ambitious charge? Our sources say his A-list includes the following people:

Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago Public Schools

Duncan, who joined the Chicago school system in 1998 and became CEO in 2001, has been busy reforming it since then, implementing strategies to transform weak schools and close those that are beyond saving, and he is a big charter-school proponent. Duncan spoke with Edutopia about Chicago's after-school program in this video; watch another Edutopia interview with him. Photo credit: Illinois Family Institute

Joel I. Klein, New York City schools chancellor

Klein's successes in New York City include the expansion of small schools and charter schools. His reform program, Children First, has taken on a huge and troubled public school system. Klein formerly served as deputy counsel to former president Clinton. Photo credit: New York Observer

James Hunt, former governor of North Carolina

Hunt homed in on early-childhood education during his gubernatorial terms, making educating low-income and minority children a priority and focusing on improving teacher quality and using technology in the classroom. In a 2002 interview with Edutopia, he called technology "the teacher's best friend." He also served on current U.S. education secretary Margaret Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Photo credit: Courtesy of the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy

Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University professor

Darling-Hammond, Obama's leading education adviser, codirects Stanford's School Redesign Network, which pursues and promotes research to improve secondary schools. Though her stance in favor of merit pay over teacher tenure has drawn some fire, she has been the force behind Obama's positions on school restructuring, teacher quality, and high-quality education for all students. When Edutopia spoke to Darling-Hammond last year, she discussed the benefits of social and emotional learning. She also cowrote an article about project learning. Photo credit: School Redesign Network

Some prominent dark horses are also under consideration:

Colin Powell, first secretary of state under George W. Bush: Powell founded America's Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the country's high-school-dropout crisis.

Inez Tenenbaum, former state schools chief in South Carolina: Tenenbaum pushed through reform initiatives to improve accountability and literacy in her state.

Roy Barnes, former governor of Georgia: This controversial governor attempted to end teacher tenure.

Andrew J. Rotherham, adviser to Obama: Rotherham, in addition to cofounding Education Sector, launched the Progressive Policy Institute's 21st Century Schools Project, which focuses on fixing systemic inequalities in education and redesigning the U.S. education system.

Jonathan Schnur, chief executive of New Leaders for New Schools: Schnur, who leads an effort to recruit and train urban-school principals, was a policy adviser on K-12 education in the Clinton administration for seven years.

Robert E. Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education: Wise promotes changing high schools so that every student graduates prepared for a postsecondary education.

Michael Cohen, president of Achieve: Cohen held several senior education positions in the Clinton administration.

Paul G. Vallas, superintendent of the Recovery School District of New Orleans: Vallas, after reforming schools in Chicago as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, was tapped as CEO for the RSD, a school system designed to transform underperforming schools into successful places for children to learn.

Diane Shust, director of government relations at the National Education Association: Shust previously served as the NEA's manager of federal relations, directing lobbyists working on behalf of the organization's 2.7 million members on issues such as education, child advocacy, health care, and social security.

Lauren Smith, a freelance writer for education-focused publications, has reported for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Bangor Daily News, and the Scripps Howard News Service.

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Julie A. Worley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Whoever is chosen to fill the position of United States Secretary of Education must address the need to Abolish Physical (Corporal) Punishment (Paddling) of Children in Public Schools that still takes place today in 21 states. The state legislatures of 29 states in our nation have banned the unacceptable practice of paddling school children. Educators model physical violence as an acceptable solution to problems when they use physical punishment of our children. The atmosphere of fear and intimidation by threat of physical violence is not conducive to academic/social achievement and must stop immediately. Important matters regarding school safety and student discipline are left up to local school boards who adopt policies lacking common sense in response to fear based thinking. For example, the Harrold Independent School District in Texas currently allows undisclosed employees to carry loaded, concealed guns with the support and approval of Governor Rick Perry. Texas is also considering tracking truant students with GPS anklets. Local school boards are unresponsive to constituents/parents and there is no accountability. Our nation's goverment leaders must ensure a reasonable protocol be established and followed to ensure that all children receive a safe learning environment. Human Rights Watch and ACLU issued a report on 8/20/08 titled "A Violent Education" with recommendations to Government Leaders to Immediately Abolish Corporal Punishment of Children in Public Schools. The report cited U.S. Department of Education statistics for 2006 where public schools reported disciplining over 200,000 school children by hitting them with wooden paddles or other instruments for such minor infractions as chewing gum or violating school dress codes. My husband and I were referred by the U.S. Department of Education to a non-profit organization for information regarding Corporal Punishment of Children in Public Schools.

Michael Pearce's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe it will be Harold Ford Jr.

David Warlick's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree. I only know a few on the list and I agree that we need vision. But we need much more that a vision of 21st century education that stops at the door of the school house. What I've read of Darling-Hammond's work indicates that her visionary and research-based ideas cut right down to the relations between the teacher, learner, curriculum, classroom, textbook (or what ever that evolves into very quickly), and the future we are preparing these children for.

-- dave --

scottie smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do believe that James Hunt has a more holistic view in that early childhood education that is well structured and academically challenging is what needs to be explored in public education.

Ted Nellen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many years ago, a professor told me that educational policy is the equal combination of pedagogy and politics.

For those of us who are teachers, hearing names like Duncan, Klein, and Vallas scares us, but not the general public. How they have accomplished their goals can be questionable from a pedagogical point of view. They have adapted words like CEO and accountability into our lexicon. Now as we have seen how badly business has fared in the past few years, why would we want to copy a business model. They lack pedagogy, they are all politics.

I have had the pleasure of working with Prof Darling-Hammond and believe she would be a good person for this position, as wouold many other professors I have had and know about, but not the best, since she is all pedagogy and no or very little politics.

So, who to select. I don't see Thomas Kean's name on this list and he should be considered. He was a former president of a college and a governor. He has both pedagogical and political skills.

I hope whoever is the next Sec of Ed makes technology a high priority. I would also like to see a bit of pedagogy and politics in the next Sec of Ed.


Dave Blackburn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wanted to see energy, education, and economics heads picked together to send strongest signal that we cannot drift into excellence. If research tells us anything it is that we cannot overlay the future onto the current system. Gates spent $1 billion only to find out that it cannot be done. Diverse provider implementers like Vallas is hawking in New Orleans has some merit, but the future can best be secured by an overhaul, just like the big 3. If there is to be a car czar then for sure there must be a school czar. A blueprint might be core and core plus. Core would be K8. End school as we know it at grade 8. Core plus is multiple pathways to careers like the peace corps and other mandatory 2 year service stints as well as career development with industry and higher education. We know that Bard's early college works. it is not an overlayment. It starts at grade 10 or even 9. The service obligations enable youth to discover who they are while putting themselves on the line for community and nation. After service, all students refine discovery for a year taking college courses and working with industry like CART in Clovis CA. Then those students who select college attend early college in concert with higher ed and those who choose industry work with industry like they do in German guilds. All of these ideas are working here and in Austrailia and other nations. We just need someone Czarina pull it all togehter in concert with energy and economics.

None of the talked about sec of ed candidates has what it takes for such a trifecta.......for sure it must be a reformer a community moblizer like Obama not a NEA apologist like Hammonds. No Vallas blowhards .......rather a Caroline who has worked in the trenches for public education and social justice and civil rights. If Blacks and Hispanics are the majority by 2045 or so and now only hold 2% PhDs.....then we better get serious about the future of our nation and who will be in leadership positons by 2040......need to get busy.


Joyce Saly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Despite six years of the Klein administration's misinformation to the public, there is sufficient data to prove that his reforms have been basically ineffectual and have produced no significant improvement in student achievement.

The Klein administration claims of a 12 percent increase in Reading and a 19 percent increase in Math scores on the New York State Assessments are inflated. These results include the scores obtained in 2002-2003 well before the implementation of Klein's reforms. Without the 6 percent increase in Reading and the 15 percent in Math in 2002 - 2003, the figures read a dismal 6.4 percent rise in Reading and only 4.2 percent in Mathematics.

The only independent check on student achievement in New York City also shows a completely different picture from that claimed by Klein. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress administered by the US Department of Education, considered the gold standard in testing, show that student achievement in New York City has stagnated since 2003 with virtually no improvements for Black, Hispanic and low income students.

We need real accountability and transparency, not Klein's version of it. Mr. Klein's public relations team has made sure assessment information is not accurately presented to the public. The failure of Klein's reforms become all the more evident when we consider all assessment measures - declining SAT and High Schools Advanced Placement Subject Tests, one of the worst graduation rates in the country (43rd out of 50 large US cities), a 50 percent drop in students attending gifted programs in NYC, etc.

Clay Burell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Drop Joel Klein and talk of his "successes." New York stake-holders largely disagree with that assessment of his work.

While I like Dave Blackburn's idea above, I'm sorry to say I don't think it has a snowball's chance.

Darling-Hammond is not the union patsy the MSM makes her out to be. She's much more. She can take the assessments upon which NCLB "accountability" is measured and turn them into tools for higher-order learning, instead of the dumbing-down bubble exercises they are now. She's an expert in international assessment approaches of the nations strongest in education, and that perspective is sorely needed in blindered America.

Finally, I almost weep tears of joy as I thank you for not including Michelle Rhee on your list.

ralunda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

when pres-elec-obama selected duncan for the sec of education i cried no, duncan don't have to qualifications for the job......or the knowledge, he need to select someelse who has the qualifications for the position...

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