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Education has been my life’s work, starting on the South Side of Chicago where I grew up along with my sister and brother, as a part of my mother’s inner city after-school tutoring program, Sue Duncan’s Children’s Center, where I learned to, as she says “cherish every child.” —Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan was confirmed as Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education on January 20, 2009.

Arne Duncan

Raised in Hyde Park and Harvard educated, Duncan played professional basketball in Australia for four years before returning to Chicago in 1992 to become director of the Ariel Education Initiative, a program to enhance educational opportunities for children on Chicago’s South Side.

Duncan joined the Chicago Public Schools in 1998 and was appointed CEO of Chicago Public Schools on June 26, 2001.

Mr. Duncan is known as one of a handful of innovative, reform-minded big city schools chiefs. How that will translate to the national level remains to be seen. …Mr. Duncan recognizes the need for local leadership and innovation. And that he supports amending federal policy to grant states greater flexibility and autonomy….

What is clear is that Mr. Duncan’s past work has earned applause from school reformers. He supports charter schools, public school choice, and merit pay for teachers and school leaders. Duncan also supports holding schools accountable for results and maintaining transparency about school performance through public reporting.

Strong words of praise for Obama’s Secretary of Education from the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Duncan’s CPS Initiatives

As noted in the previous article, school choice is a foundation of the REN 2010 intiative.

With Choice, CPS faces a huge gap between supply and demand. Tens of thousands of students are eligible. Only a few hundred slots are available because our high performing schools are already full. CPS worked with ISBE to give priority to students in schools CPS closes due to low performance. Thus, the displaced students have the opportunity to attend some of the best performing schools in the city.

The building of 100 new public schools obviously can’t take place overnight. Fortunately, REN 2010 isn’t focussed solely on school choice. Over the course of his administration, Duncan has implemented a number of other initiatives, including:

  • Increase the number of nationally certified teachers to 1,200 by 2008. Last year, the 327 CPS teachers which earned the credential brought the district total to 1,158.
  • Performance pay for teachers. A four-year pilot intended to cover 40 schools. The bonus offers include all school staff, from janitors to teachers.
  • Duncan used back-to-basics reading and math instruction. The Chicago Reading Initiative mandated two hours of reading instruction daily at all elementary schools and included funds for more literacy teachers at under-performing schools. A similar intiative was subsequently put in place for math.
No Child Left Behind

One of the Bush Administration’s very first legislative proposals was the No Child Left Behind act. The effectiveness and desirability of NCLB’s methods were and are hotly debated.

Bush Signs No Child Left Behind

As the leader of one of the largest and worst performing school districts during the implementation of NCLB, Duncan’s experiences are likely to have a large impact on the future of education policy, including any changes to NCLB.

What then does Arne Duncan think of NCLB?

Arne Duncan addressed a Congressional committee on Education Reform concerning the successes and challenges of implementing NCLB in Urban and Suburban Schools:

Congress should maintain NCLB’s framework of high expectations and accountability. But it should also amend the law to give schools, districts and states the maximum amount flexibility possible—particularly districts like ours with a strong track record of academic achievement and tough accountability.

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate HELP Committee Duncan stated:

I know that the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind will be a priority for the 111th Congress. I have seen first-hand the impact of the federal law on our students and schools. I have seen the law’s power and its limitations. I agree with the President-elect that we should neither bury NCLB nor praise it without reservation. I support the core goals of high standards for all – black and white, poor and wealthy, students with disabilities, and those who are just learning to speak English. Like President-elect Obama, I am committed to closing achievement gaps, raising expectations and holding everyone accountable for results.

Clearly, Duncan doesn’t seem to be advocating the repeal of NCLB. But he seems to have well-formed opinions regarding some of its shortcomings and (hopefully) some ways to improve it.

Duncan’s Critics

I’ll examine some of the criticisms of the REN 2010 initiative in a subsequent article. This anti-Duncan article seems to fit here however. Its a bit over the top, but….

Obama’s Betrayal of Public Education? Arne Duncan and the Corporate Model of Schooling

In spite of what Duncan argues, the greatest threat to our children does not come from lowered standards, the absence of privatized choice schemes or the lack of rigid testing measures that offer the aura of accountability. On the contrary, it comes from a society that refuses to view children as a social investment, consigns 13 million children to live in poverty, reduces critical learning to massive testing programs, promotes policies that eliminate most crucial health and public services and defines rugged individualism through the degrading celebration of a gun culture, extreme sports and the spectacles of violence that permeate corporate controlled media industries. Students are not at risk because of the absence of market incentives in the schools. Young people are under siege in American schools because, in the absence of funding, equal opportunity and real accountability, far too many of them have increasingly become institutional breeding grounds for racism, right-wing paramilitary cultures, social intolerance and sexism. We live in a society in which a culture of testing, punishment and intolerance has replaced a culture of social responsibility and compassion. Within such a climate of harsh discipline and disdain for critical teaching and learning, it is easier to subject young people to a culture of faux accountability or put them in jail rather than to provide the education, services and care they need to face problems of a complex and demanding society.

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