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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While Duncan's advocacy of school turnarounds, merit pay plans, and charter schools has frustrated many teachers, it has also earned him plaudits from others. And his popularity among reform-minded Democratic and Republican politicians sometimes makes for strange bedfellows. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has shared the stage with Duncan and civil rights advocate Al Sharpton, for instance, in promoting such reforms.Skip to next paragraph
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"I think he's a moderate-to-liberal Democrat, but I think he's courageous, sincerely committed to reform, puts children first," observes Mr. Gingrich. "And to have someone in his position willing to take on the teachers' unions is very significant."
Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, credits Duncan for his unusual level of "willingness to reach across the partisan aisle," including direct meetings between the two as the committee has been considering how to revise the massive federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, an undertaking that will require bipartisan collaboration.
The leverage Duncan is exercising doesn't sit well with everyone. "Washington doesn't know how to remedy schools, and you should forgive me, but neither does Arne Duncan," says education historian Diane Ravitch, a onetime supporter of No Child Left Behind who now thinks it's had a corrosive effect. Race to the Top, in particular, is an aggressive intrusion of federal power, says Mrs. Ravitch, an assistant secretary of Education during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.
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Whether or not the reforms are the right ones, Race to the Top and other grant competitions have catalyzed them faster and more broadly than anyone expected.
At least 13 states have changed laws to allow more charter schools. The six states that prohibited evaluating teachers based on student achievement have all dropped those restrictions, and at least 11 states now require such linkage. And 35 states plus the District of Columbia have adopted the voluntary Common Core Standards designed to make high school graduates college- and career-ready – the closest this country has ever gotten to national education standards.
With so many states cash-strapped by the recession, some educators and civil rights groups have criticized the competitive approach to funding, saying all districts need the money.
Obama and Duncan won back some good-will from states this summer when, after the two stumped to save teachers' jobs, Congress sent an additional $10 billion to states for that purpose.
Duncan defends the competitive approach for a small share of federal education dollars, saying it's not a top-down dictate but a way to reward innovations. Most federal funds are still distributed to all states based on longstanding formulas.
"When all you do is formula [funding], you just feed the status quo," he says. "If you give people a chance to put their best foot forward ... we're going to have more and more proof points around the country of the extraordinary difference people make in students' lives, and I think it's going to change the national conversation."
Duncan is not about to squander a "once in a lifetime opportunity" for education reform. "I know what's possible," he says, recalling friends from Chicago who grew up in poverty and went on to do remarkable things. "This isn't theory for me.... No one can tell me what kids can't do."