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Why Obama Gets An "a" For Choosing Duncan

Arne Duncan wasn't Mayor Richard Daley's first choice to lead Chicago's public schools in 2001. But when Daley's top pick declined the offer, he turned to Duncan, who at the time was young and relatively unknown to the public, despite having served as deputy chief of staff to outgoing CEO Paul Vallas. Now, seven years later, Duncan has been tapped as Obama's secretary of education--and many Chicago education leaders I spoke to said they're sad to see him go.

That comes as no surprise, considering all that Duncan's done to improve the Windy City's schools. He's pushed for aggressive reforms that have at times placed him at odds with the city's education establishment. But he's also managed to appeal to that establishment, averting teachers' strikes like those that plagued the city in previous decades. "Duncan always took a pass on the education fad of the day, choosing instead to invest in long-term approaches supported by solid research," the Chicago Sun-Times said in an editorial this morning.

Indeed, Duncan's proven that he's the right pick for the Cabinet job. He's been a leader in the education reform movement, which supports tough policies on teacher accountability, merit pay, high-stakes testing, and fixing failing schools. And yet, he's also been keenly diplomatic with traditional forces like teachers' unions--more so than the likes of Michelle Rhee in D.C. and Joel Klein in New York. It's this blend of innovation and savvy that Obama's betting will serve Duncan well in Washington. 

During Duncan's tenure, scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test in elementary schools have risen consistently, and alternative teacher certification programs have gained footing. He's also directed school overhaul programs like Chicago's Renaissance 2010, which closes failing schools and opens new ones, and a turnaround strategy, which removes faculty and staff from failing schools and replaces them with new leadership. (Obama introduced Duncan this morning at a turnaround school, Dodge Elementary.) Both of these innovative concepts have upset the teachers' union because private organizations often manage the new or revitalized schools. Yet Duncan has also worked with the union, even negotiating with leaders on a new merit pay program, which many teachers opposed.

Still, some critics say Duncan is "reform-lite." Alexander Russo, a blogger and education reporter in Chicago, noted yesterday that Duncan "failed to win substantial concessions from the Chicago Teachers Union in the last contract" and "failed to attract (or retain) white and middle-class families" in his reform efforts. Renaissance 2010 has had limited success; a recent study by Catalyst Chicago, an education publication, showed that only two percent of the city's students removed from failing schools went on to attend new schools. "Nearly half of the displaced students landed at schools that were on academic probation," the study found. What's more, while elementary schools have seen significant gains in test scores, high schools still present serious problems. "[D]istrictwide high school test scores remain stagnant--only 31 percent of juniors meet state standards--leading many to question whether CPS graduates can succeed in college or in the job market," Catalyst reported.

Other critics say that Duncan's selection only solidifies that Obama has yet to come down on either side of the debate between reformers and the education establishment. "[Duncan] is seen as a blank slate in terms of ideology or vision," Elizabeth Green at the New York blog Gotham Schools wrote last night. "Indeed, he hasn't done much publicly to indicate where he stands in the Democratic Party's education wars." Earlier this year, he signed two rival education manifestos, one backed by reformers, the other by more traditional establishment types.

But many people I spoke to said that change is always slow to come, and that Duncan's middle-ground approach is what makes him an effective reformer. Tim Cawley, managing director of Chicago's Academy for Urban School Leadership, said Duncan knew "blowing up the system" wouldn't work and instead chose a diplomatic road for pushing entrepreneurial ideas. "He was willing to try new things and to sell them. It's picking a 'walk before you run' approach," Cawley said. An education expert close to the transition said Duncan's selection is in line with Obama's professed pragmatism when it comes to the education wars. "Obama made the point [in the campaign] that this is false dichotomy.... a false choice between reform and the other group," the source said, noting that Duncan is the type of leader who would embrace "best practices" presented by either side of the debate. Obama reiterated this point in his official announcement of Duncan's appointment this morning: "He's not beholden to any one ideology--and he doesn't hesitate for one minute to do what needs to be done."

To be sure, much remains to be seen in terms of which education policies Obama will prioritize most strongly and whom he'll select to support Duncan in deputy posts. These decisions will help define the education department's relationships with congressional leaders, unions, and other groups. But, with Duncan at the helm, the department seems likely to head in a sensible, reform-minded direction.

--Seyward Darby