Monday, September 06, 2010

Education secretary Arne Duncan: headmaster of US school reform

A lengthy, well-done profile of Duncan in the Christian Science Monitor, which quotes DFER's Charles Barone:

"He's the most influential secretary that we've had since the Department [of Education] was created in 1980," says Charles Barone, federal policy director of Democrats for Education Reform in New York and a Democratic congressional staffer when the No Child Left Behind law was crafted during George W. Bush's presidency.

Indeed, says Chester Finn, who was an assistant secretary of Education under President Reagan and a K-12 expert at the conservative Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif., Duncan has rendered the Republicans "speechless" – and cooperative – because "there's nothing they want to argue with him about."

Ultimately, proponents from all across the political spectrum say, Duncan could help dramatically narrow achievement gaps and even bring the United States back to high standing internationally. Or, as critics such as the irked teachers' unions see it, he'll further devastate an already demoralized teaching profession and subject children to more of the high-stakes testing that's been sucking the soul out of American schools.

…The street smarts Duncan developed as a kid serve him well in the halls of power, say those who know him and like to illustrate his skills in basketball metaphors: He's humble enough to listen and collaborate on the assist, but he's got fierce instincts for when to drive to the basket.

Duncan's "cool, calm leadership style" first impressed Shaun Dono­van when Duncan was co-captain of the Harvard basketball team. Mr. Don­ovan, now Obama's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, remembers a game when Duncan's play had students in the stands who'd never met before hugging in elation.

Duncan tends to pass rather than go for the glory himself, say friends. It's a humility that comes through off the court, whether he's reading to kids or attending a cabinet meeting, says Donovan, who plays with the secretary of Education and President Obama. He's heard both the president and Duncan credit the discipline and teamwork of the sport as a model for life and leadership – it teaches you, for one, that if you try to do something on your own, you'll fail.

"In Washington, people like to take credit.... [Duncan] is the opposite," wanting to shine a light on schools and people who are achieving great results, says Jon Schnur, the CEO and cofounder of the nonprofit New Leaders for New Schools and a onetime adviser to the Obama campaign and to Secretary Duncan.

"A lot of people bring different issues and options to him and talk about the politics of this or that," Mr. Schnur says, "and Arne says, 'I'm not a politician.... The question for me in every policy decision is, 'What's in the best interest of kids?' "

To answer that question, Duncan does a lot of listening – the lean-forward, sleeves-rolled-up, look-you-in-the-eye kind of listening that makes people on every side of a thorny issue feel respected.

During his first year as secretary, he visited educators, students, and parents in 23 states on a "listening and learning tour." On a single day this spring, he delivered a commencement address and then packed in two roundtable discussions – one with award-winning Boston public school teachers and another with a team of educators, administrators, and union officials in nearby Revere, Mass., who had overcome differences to create a new "innovation school" that embraces a host of reforms.

He spent just enough time talking to praise the groups for their efforts and tell them what he was there to learn. Then he sat listening, taking occasional notes in a white binder.

When he visits schools, he leaves a signed basketball. And when there's time, he squeezes in a pickup game with the kids, opening the door to a whole different level of conversation.

But paired with the listening, Duncan has a bold, decisive streak, a willingness to take a stand that even core constituencies might balk at.


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.


By Amanda Paulson, Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2010

 Subscribe in a reader