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Education secretary Arne Duncan: headmaster of US school reform

As students head back to school, educators nationwide are implementing controversial school reform wrought by Arne Duncan. Pushing competitive market approaches and armed with unprecedented funding and support from the president, he is possibly the most powerful education secretary ever.

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As the story made national headlines, both Obama and Duncan weighed in with support for the district plan. One of Duncan's priorities is dramatic improvement at the bottom 5 percent of the nation's schools. The mass firings at Central Falls showed "courage and doing the right things for kids," he said in a written press statement. "When schools continue to struggle we have a collective obligation to take action."

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Teachers far beyond Central Falls felt betrayed.

"We have to be very careful in an environment like this not to give license to scapegoaters and demoni­zers [of teachers]," and Duncan's and Obama's comments gave that license, says Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

"This kind of [turnaround] strategy has been tried in education and has in the main failed," she says. "It creates a chilling effect against doing something we know is important: recruiting great teachers to go and to stay in hard-to-staff places."

From the perspective of Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deb­orah Gist, though, Duncan's statement indicated that he shared her unwillingness to "wait around for all of the adults to feel comfortable about the changes.... We needed to move forward."

Ultimately, the union and the superintendent in Central Falls came to an agreement in May that avoided mass firings – with teachers agreeing to longer school days, a new evaluation system, after-school tutoring, and other changes they had resisted. Commissioner Gist and Duncan supported that plan as well, but the resolution didn't make headlines the way the original teacher-firing plan did.

Despite the rifts over reform efforts, Duncan has managed to cultivate good working relationships with the national unions.

"He's very accessible," says Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2 million-member National Edu­cation Association, who meets with Duncan about once a month. "During the Bush administration ... we didn't have any meetings with the Department of Education."

But teachers like Melanie Allen are wary. She was among those who met with Duncan at an elementary school in Boston's Chinatown this spring. When he asked what teachers most need, Ms. Allen said they need support to work as teams. Later, the ­middle-school English teacher told the Monitor that for all the good intentions of Duncan's reform agenda, she worries that when ideas like merit pay are implemented, they will backfire. "If competing, there's an incentive to keep best practices to yourself; it undercuts the important work schools need to do," she says.

Two Chicago teachers offer opposing views of Duncan's agenda.

"[With] all the privatization and testing, it seems like the Obama administration has bought into this side of [reform] as opposed to having any practical knowledge of what goes on in the classroom," says Lars Johannsen, an English teacher at Ariel Community Academy.

But Jesch Reyes, who taught at an elementary school serving mainly poor African-American kids during Duncan's tenure in Chicago, saw Duncan take teacher input seriously. "He wouldn't just say, 'That's a great idea....' He did his own due diligence, followed up," Mr. Reyes says. "[He] was quite knowledgeable about the kind of things that happen in a classroom."