arne duncan, education reform in america, new education policy
Education Secretary-designate
Arne Duncan

Will Obama’s Education Secretary Really Bring Reform to Failing Schools?

December 19, 2008 07:25 AM
by Jen O'Neill
President-elect Obama’s selection of Arne Duncan has the approval of prominent politicians, but some critics and teachers dispute his willingness to alter the educational status quo.

Duncan Begins With Long To-Do List

On December 16, President-elect Barack Obama named his choice for secretary of Education: Arne Duncan, Chicago superintendent of schools. Following the announcement, Obama declared that failing to improve classroom instruction is “morally unacceptable.”

Obama’s choice of Duncan received a thumbs-up from many, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association.

Duncan’s mainly cordial reception does not obscure the tough job that lies ahead of him, pending Senate approval. Once he assumes the position, he will have to attend to a number of pressing educational issues, including dismal dropout rates, improving teacher quality, transforming low-performing schools and revamping Bush’s pet project, No Child Left Behind.

In accepting the appointment, Duncan said, “No issue is more pressing than education. … It is the civil rights issue of our generation.”

Key Player: Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan comes from a family of educators. The Harvard graduate and former overseas professional basketball player grew up as a friend of Obama in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, chose Duncan to lead his school district in 2001. He quickly gained a reputation as someone who wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers or try unconventional methods to keep attendance up, including offering them tickets to sporting events to show up and paying them for good grades. His efforts appeared to have paid off: Time magazine reports that in 2000, 76 percent of Chicago public school students appeared in class on the first day of the year; by 2003, the rate was 89 percent.

Opinion & Analysis: Educational reformer or standardized testing standard-bearer?

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was intended to boost student achievement and raise educational standards; progress is measured via standardized testing.

Since NCLB was enacted, Duncan’s relationship with it has been somewhat tumultuous. He threatened to sue the U.S. Department of Education after the federal government tried to pull funding from under-performing districts. In addition, NCLB requires that bilingual students must take the same tests as students whose primary language is English, but Duncan decided that bilingual students’ test scores would not determine whether they would go on to the next grade.

However, Alfie Cohen argues in the Nation that Duncan is actually a strong advocate of standardized testing, and condemns Duncan’s practice of financially rewarding good marks while forcing poor scorers to repeat a grade. Duncan, asserts Cohen, is no true reformer.

While both Duncan and Obama have said publicly that they plan to institute more flexibility in assessing a school’s educational performance, Chicago’s teachers are not so sure they believe it, and some planned to protest the appointment yesterday.

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