Thursday, April 07, 2011

Obama’s Lesson Planner

Jonathan Alter with a nice and well-deserved profile of Arne Duncan:

On Duncan's left, teachers' unions (especially the National Education Association) try to impede common-sense reform ideas like tenure reform and merit pay. But the liberal chorus that slimes many reasonable reformers as "anti-teacher" can't do that with Duncan. His lavish praise of teachers ("unsung heroes") and support for new-teacher training give him cover to push essential reform that the unions don't like.

The good news is that even the most incendiary Republican has nothing but nice things to say about Duncan personally. That's because of his extraordinary emotional intelligence. "On the street I had to learn to read people and situations and judge character well, because my life depended on it," he says. Duncan, whose mom, Sue, runs an after-school tutoring program in a rough Chicago neighborhood, sees education as the dividing line between life and death: "Kids who got an education got out. Kids who stayed on the streets—a lot of them died."

His record of achievement is already secure. After talking about national standards for decades, the U.S. has finally adopted them. This is an example of Duncan's quiet skills. By deleting the word "national" and working through the governors, he bested conservatives who have long refused to accept standards from Washington. Using the lever of Race to the Top, 41 states have adopted "common core" standards in just two years. "For the first time, a child in Mississippi and a child in Massachusetts will be judged by the same yardstick," he says.

Duncan's passion is evident every day. "I'm in two, three, four schools a week. I totally need it," he says. "It gives you energy and lets you know why you're fighting." He shoots hoops often with students and brings each school a signed ball.

The tide of reform is moving faster than anyone expected. For all the depressing news about education, the Obama years are a time of great excitement in the reform movement—like the 1960s for civil rights. Arne Duncan knows this debate won't be ended with a three-pointer at the buzzer. It's about energetic and imaginative play that changes the flow of the game.


Obama's Lesson Planner

Cabinet star Arne Duncan's mission to fix America's schools has a shot at success.

Jonathan Alter, Newsweek

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