Who Should Be the Nation's Next Education Chief?

A look at the early contenders.

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No one yet knows who President-elect Barack Obama will appoint as U.S. secretary of education. But what's clear is that his choice will have an array of challenges to confront. Besides improving access to early-childhood education programs and making college more affordable, two of Obama's campaign promises, the next education secretary must fix the unpopular No Child Left Behind Act, which Congress has not reauthorized. The United States also faces growing competition from countries that are churning out more students who can compete globally. If Obama is serious about improving education, his choice for education secretary must be someone who can tackle all these challenges at once. That may mean breaking with tradition and appointing someone who not only has a background in elementary and secondary schools but brings something new and different to the table.

So far, Obama has not offered any names. But education policy experts have named several possible contenders. Tell us who would be a strong pick and who we may have missed.

Joel Klein, chancellor of public schools in New York City. A darling of the education reform movement, he has brought innovation and greater accountability to the nation's largest school system. He gets credit for his efforts to pay teachers and principals based on student outcomes and for replacing big, failing schools with small theme schools and charter schools. Teachers and parents, however, have complained about his management style, saying he is too brash and unresponsive to their concerns. Is the country ready for his reformist agenda or would he demand too much, too fast without enough support from key players?

James Hunt, a former governor of North Carolina. He created a statewide preschool program and pushed for more rigorous academic standards and better pay for teachers. He also lobbied strongly in favor of opening a statewide residential magnet school that serves students interested in math and science. Hunt was criticized, however, for not paying more attention to higher-education as governor. Would he strike the right balance as education secretary?

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University. She dispensed advice to Obama during the campaign. It is not clear, however, how her views against alternative teacher certification programs like Teach for America square with those of Obama, who promised voters he would recruit more teachers and pay them better. Would she welcome enough innovation as education secretary?

Arne Duncan, chief executive of Chicago Public Schools. While Klein has gotten a lot of attention for his efforts to turn around failing schools in New York City, Duncan has pursued a quieter path and achieved promising results. His efforts to close down underperforming schools and expand charter schools have been highly successful. Under him, Chicago schools have also beefed up the curriculum for math and science. He is also a friend and adviser to Obama. He has a keen sense of the problems facing schools, but can he bring enough urgency and get the nation on board?

Colin Powell, former secretary of state. Since leaving the Bush administration, Powell has been crusading for greater accountability in education. He founded America's Promise Alliance, an umbrella group of business leaders, politicians, and educators, which has brought attention to the nation's alarmingly high dropout rates, especially among high school minority students. But are these credentials enough?

Other possible choices for secretary of education include Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Jon Schnur, cofounder of New Leaders for New Schools, and Caroline Kennedy, among others.


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