Leader of Chicago Schools Is Obama’s Choice for Education Secretary

Arne Duncan strikes the right note with reformers and unions, faces daunting challenges ahead.

By + More

President-elect Barack Obama has made his pick for U.S. education secretary. His choice is longtime basketball buddy Arne Duncan, who is the chief executive of Chicago Public Schools, a troubled school system that has made notable improvement under Duncan's seven-year tenure. The announcement came today in a joint appearance at Dodge Renaissance Academy, an elementary school in Chicago.

If confirmed, Duncan will almost immediately face the daunting task of rebuilding bipartisan support for a new version of the No Child Left Behind Act, the controversial testing law that seeks to close the achievement gap by 2014. He must also decide how to fund Obama's campaign promises, which included expanding childhood education and investing in high-quality teaching programs, at a time when school districts across the country are cutting back and the education systems of other countries are outperforming America's. Additionally, Duncan will have to grapple with college affordability issues.

Chester E. Finn Jr., who has worked in previous education administrations and currently is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, praised Obama's selection of Duncan as education secretary. "He's earned his spurs in a huge and challenging school district, is a force for positive change nationally, has navigated Chicago politics, has stood up to Margaret Spellings, and manages with all that to be a thoughtful, affable, and likeable guy."

Duncan's appointment as education secretary comes as two camps in education—reformers and traditionalists—debate how to improve the nation's public schools, which most people agree are not moving fast enough to close the achievement gap and to prepare more students to compete internationally. The debate has grown quite heated in recent years. The most prominent figures in the reform movement include two big-city schools chancellors, Joel Klein in New York and Michelle Rhee in Washington. They, along with others, believe in keeping the focus on testing and accountability in order to improve schools. Among the reforms they favor: ending tenure and paying teachers based on student outcomes. Traditionalists include teacher union leaders and other critics of the NCLB testing law. They want to improve schools by moving away from testing, which they say has narrowed the curricula. They also favor a bigger investment in teacher training.

In recent weeks, rumors swirled that Obama would pick a side in the debate and settle for either a reformer like Klein or a traditionalist like his campaign education adviser, Linda Darling-Hammond. She is a Stanford University professor who has been a strong critic of NCLB. By choosing Duncan, Obama has struck the right balance. Duncan is seen as an acceptable choice by both sides. As the head of the nation's third-largest school system, he has earned a reputation as a reformer without being as polarizing as Klein and Rhee, both of whom have clashed bitterly with unions and parents and were rumored to be on the short list for the job. Duncan appears to listen to all sides, and as a result, he has been able to make sweeping changes that have led to higher test scores and graduation rates. However, Duncan's reforms have not always been popular:He has closed down failing schools and expanded charter schools, backed a gay-friendly high school, and welcomed a program that pays students for good performance.

Duncan's appointment immediately drew praise from the reformers camp. Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, said: "The Obama administration, with Arne Duncan at the head of the Department of Education, will lead the charge of breaking the existing ideological and political gridlock to promote new, innovative, and experimental ideas in education." Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, also seemed to welcome Obama's choice. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, she said, "He actually reaches out and tries to do things in a collaborative way."

Duncan grew up in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago and, like Obama, attended Harvard. The two men have been friends for over a decade and are frequently spotted playing basketball together. Despite their friendship, the Obamas chose not to send their daughters to Chicago public schools. Instead, they enrolled them in the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where Duncan went to school as a child. The Obamas have defended their decision to send their daughters to private school, saying they are doing what's best for them. (The Obama girls will attend Sidwell Friends School, a private academy in Washington, in January.) The Chicago Tribune has more on Duncan's tenure as the head of Chicago schools here.

Obama transition
Duncan, Arne