Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What Arne Duncan means for educational policy--the view from Chicago

(Cross-posted on Education Policy Blog)

President-elect Obama's choice of Arne (pronounced "arnie") Duncan for education secretary startled me a bit, because I expected Obama to name either an accomplished academic to the post (like Linda Darling-Hammond), or someone with broader experience in the trenches of education, that is, involving more than being a capital-fund-supported educational "reformer" or CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Duncan has never taught in a K-12 school--other than tutoring...attended the U of C Lab Schools and Harvard (and so has no experience being a student in a public school)...and lacks an advanced degree (even a master's degree) in education. Plus, while some credit Duncan with righting a sinking ship in Chicago during the last seven years, I think in fact any "improvement" in Chicago Public Schools has been primarily in terms of the public perception of the schools and some tinkering around the edges of accountability and choice.

So what are Duncan's qualifications to be education secretary?

1. Duncan is a consummate diplomat. Since the primary job of the education secretary is to "sell" federal programs to the public at large and other constituencies such as teachers unions, this is the primary reason he was chosen. He's well-spoken without coming across as aloof. He sounds like a regular guy, even though he's a Hyde Parker through and through, son of two well-respected University of Chicago academics. (I think perhaps Duncan's basketball career has given him a visceral connection to people who lack an academic bent: "I've been fortunate to go to some of the top schools in America...but I can tell you, without a doubt, that some of the best lessons I've learned in life are from playing basketball on Chicago's inner-city playgrounds. There's nothing like it", Chicago Tribune, July 11, 2001.) Like Obama, he has a huge natural smile that disarms his critics. I've heard Duncan speak in public a number of times, and while he advocates reforms (mostly along the very moderate lines of improved teacher training, replacing enormous failing high schools with small schools, more charter schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and using better data for decision-making), he NEVER says anything particularly upsetting or polarizing (in contrast, say, to Paul Vallas). Duncan is also not adverse to defending his boss (Richard Daley, for example), and he does so in a masterfully tactful manner that leaves even critics of that boss nodding their heads at Duncan's defense.

2. Duncan is smart. He listens. As mentioned above, he pays attention to data. Educationally-oriented academics (such as Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Initiative of the University of Chicago (and my former boss) love him. Duncan is persuadable. He doesn't think he knows it all, and is willing to let smart, dedicated professionals do their jobs within broad policy constraints. He's an excellent executive.

3. Duncan is a pragmatist. One thing about Barack Obama that strikes me--especially in terms of educational policy but perhaps more generally--is that he seeks pragmatic solutions to policy problems, while adhering generally to the consequentialist belief that the best policy is that policy that benefits the most people. ("Arne has always seen education as a civil rights issue." — Phyllis Lockett, CEO of the Renaissance Schools Fund, a non-profit that works with Chicago schools, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 16, 2008.) Duncan shares this pragmatism. Neither man, despite being Hyde Parkers, U of Cers (in some sense), and Democrats, is an idealogue. They will not pursue policies (such as the Bush program of "evidence-based" programs) that are merely screens for tactics in the culture wars.

4. Duncan is not only pragmatic, but he is also independent. He is not beholden to any political or entrenched interest. He's not "pro-union"; nor is he "anti-union." He's not for privatization of public schools, but he's not opposed to outsourcing when it improves results. He's also not opposed to closing underperforming schools. (When he first started doing this in Chicago, he raised a tremendous outcry of opposition from teachers, students, and community organizers. He learned from this experience and changed his tactics. Now, you hear almost no sustained opposition to this policy.) While he's surely a Democrat, and likely a liberal in his personal political views, he exudes a kind of beneficent concern for all stakeholders that will play very well in Washington policy circles.

5. He plays basketball....very well, and Obama likes to play with him.

6. His kids go to the same public school as my son does and daughter did. It's pretty much the best urban neighborhood school in the country. Will this continue? Hmmm......

So what are the implications?

1. NCLB will be drastically restructured to focus on supports for improvement rather than negative consequences for failure.

2. Opponents of charter schools have lost a huge battle. Their expansion will continue dramatically.

3. Urban school districts will receive special attention from Washington.

4. Washington will now begin to push a longer school day and longer school year, and the public will be gently pressured to force the unions to accept this without getting higher pay.

5. Funding for educational research will no longer be tied to ideological criteria such as "evidence-based" practices. Rather, research will be judged in terms of its likely benefit to generalized issues of educational practice.

6. The bowling alley in the White House will be replaced with a Basketball Court.

7. Barbara Eason-Watkins, who has been the quiet but effective and resolute Chief Education Officer of the Chicago Public Schools for the past 6 years, will become Chicago Schools Chief. Barbara (who was also my boss for about 3 months before she took her current position) is smart, friendly, tireless, effective, and has deep experience at all levels of the system. Expect Eason-Watkins to make news within the next few years, most likely by saying things that no white man could say in that position. She may shake things up a bit in Chicago (which would be quite welcome).

While I was startled that Obama made this pick, I think it was a good one. Duncan will do Obama's bidding without even having to be told what that is. He will be well-liked by pretty much everyone. And he will work to generally increase federal involvement where such involvement can make a difference, and will advocate strongly for "investment" in education in a way that will be convincing to most Americans.

(Direct quotes above are from,8599,1867011,00.html)


Craig A. Cunningham said...

Others have pointed out that Duncan has been a strong advocate of early childhood programs, and he will continue to be that in an Obama administration, which has pledged to spend $10 billion in this area.

Kathleen Kesson said...

Thanks Craig, for this detailed, "first-hand" information about Duncan. I was intrigued to read today, in a piece from the EDGE (Boston) that he supported what would have been the nation's second (after NYC's Harvey Milk School) GLBT-friendly safe school in Chicago, drawing the ire of religious fundamentalists and social conservatives, but it was shot down.

Manuela said...

Here's a different perspective on Mr. Duncan that I came across (much more in the whole piece at

"Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, presided over the implementation and expansion of an agenda that militarized and corporatized the third largest school system in the nation, one that is about 90 percent poor and nonwhite. Under Duncan, Chicago took the lead in creating public schools run as military academies, vastly expanded draconian student expulsions, instituted sweeping surveillance practices, advocated a growing police presence in the schools, arbitrarily shut down entire schools and fired entire school staffs."