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Will Arne Duncan Shake Up America’s Schools?

5 minute read
Kathleen Kingsbury

A willingness to compromise. In the heated world of education politics, that was the clearest message coming from President-elect Barack Obama when he tapped Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan to become the next Secretary of Education. (See Obama’s other Cabinet picks.)

Duncan, 44, has overseen the nation’s third-largest school district and its more than 400,000 students for the past seven years. He’s considered by most to be a quiet consensus builder. In Chicago, his knack for forging alliances can be seen in his strong relationship with the local teachers’ union despite his embrace of reforms the union is leery of, including school choice, pay for performance and a willingness to close down failing schools. “Duncan mirrors the President-elect’s style of governing — get all sides around the table, listen carefully and experiment with meaningful reforms,” says Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley. “While tough-headed, he’s rarely antagonistic, nor a kick-butt, take-names kind of reformer.”

One other big plus: Duncan will be sure to have the President-elect’s ear. They are personal friends and often play basketball together, most recently on Election Day. Like Obama, Duncan is Harvard-educated, and his Chicago roots run deep. The schools chief grew up in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where the Obamas have lived for several years. He went to the same private school the President-elect’s daughters attended until recently. After Harvard, where he was co-captain of the basketball team, Duncan spent a year playing the sport in Australia before returning to his hometown in 1992. Within short order, he was garnering national attention for starting an innovative — and successful — public school, Ariel Community Academy. He was tapped by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to run the city’s schools in 2001. (Read more about Obama and education.)

On the campaign trail, Obama frequently applauded what Duncan has accomplished in Chicago, long considered to have one of the country’s most challenging school districts. Under Duncan’s watch, the city’s schools for the past seven years have seen increases in some state test scores, though they continue to lag behind the Illinois average. But the graduation rate has risen 6%, and 53 new schools have opened. Duncan has spearheaded merit-pay incentives for both teachers and students as well, and suggested opening the country’s first gay-friendly high school. In each of these endeavors, he has tried to get the backing of Chicago’s often recalcitrant teachers’ union. This effort has earned him praise from both of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions. (See pictures of a diverse group of American teens.)

If confirmed by the Senate, Duncan will have to hit the ground running. One of Congress’s first acts of business in 2009 will likely be negotiating the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush Administration’s landmark education legislation, which has managed to rankle both Republicans (for interfering with state initiatives) and Democrats (for placing so much emphasis on standardized testing). Duncan supports the law’s overall mission of accountability, and two years ago called on Congress to double the funding for it. “In an education landscape filled with strong and often sharply contrasting ideas, I believe that he will provide the leadership needed to bring diverse stakeholders together and break through the political gridlock,” says California Representative George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

In recent years, the U.S. education sector has roughly divided into two camps: unions that support more traditional views on teacher tenure and other issues vs. hard-line reformers such as district chiefs Michelle Rhee in Washington and Joel Klein in New York City, who stress accountability. This past summer, both sides circulated competing education manifestos laying out their views. Duncan was the only big-city superintendent to sign each.

In straddling these camps, Duncan echoes Obama’s frustration with what the President-elect has called “tired educational debates.” In his announcement of Duncan’s nomination, Obama made clear that he wants to move past such standoffs. “It’s been Democrat vs. Republican, vouchers vs. the status quo, more money vs. more reform,” he said. “There’s partisanship and there’s bickering, but no understanding that both sides have good ideas and good intentions.”

In a testament to Duncan’s entrepreneurial spirit, Obama chose to introduce his new schools chief at the Dodge Renaissance Academy on Chicago’s West Side. Duncan shuttered the failing school in 2002 and reopened it in 2005 as a laboratory for teachers seeking advanced degrees in education. The school has since been hailed as a model for teacher-residency programs. Dodge is “helping us rethink the way we train teachers in this country, and the way we run schools,” says Ted Mitchell, president of the California board of education. “We’re delighted that the President-elect has recognized that promise. It fits with his vision of positive change.”

How much change are schools in for? Duncan, who is particularly attuned to the achievement gap between high- and low-income students, has hinted that he does not approve of the way Illinois schools receive the bulk of their funding from local tax revenue. “It’s morally inexcusable that children who happen to be born in wealthier communities, white ones, get a better education than those who live in poor communities,” Duncan told TIME last August. “Clearly, as a state, we’ve lacked the political courage to fundamentally challenge the status quo, not just tweak it at its edges.” He added, “It doesn’t need a tweak. It needs a fundamental change.”

— With reporting by Steven Gray / Chicago

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