Education Pick Is Called 'Down-to-Earth' Leader

Arne Duncan has won support by reaching out to the teachers union and the Chicago community.
Arne Duncan has won support by reaching out to the teachers union and the Chicago community. (AP)
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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

In seven years as chief executive of Chicago public schools, Arne Duncan has supported a range of measures to shake up the status quo in urban education, including new charter schools, performance pay and tough accountability for struggling schools.

But he has also gained a reputation for reaching out to the teachers union and the community, helping to neutralize some potential critics and win allies.

Now, Duncan will take his political skills and reform zeal from the country's third-largest school system to Washington to become the next education secretary, a post that will require him to try to bridge deep divides among education advocates, labor leaders and civil rights groups over how to fix U.S. schools.

Yesterday, President-elect Barack Obama introduced Duncan as his nominee at a news conference at a Chicago school. "When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners," Obama said at Dodge Renaissance Academy, adding: "When faced with tough decisions, Arne doesn't blink."

With Duncan at the helm of the 408,000-student system, test scores have improved, participation in Advanced Placement classes has risen sharply and graduation rates have edged up. However, the trade publication Education Week this year reported that the city's on-time graduation rate was 51 percent for the Class of 2005, ranking it behind most of the country's 50 largest school systems.

"While there are no simple answers," Duncan said at the event, "I know from experience that when you focus on basics like reading and math, and when you embrace innovative new approaches, and when you create a professional climate to attract great teachers, you can create great schools."

Under Duncan's leadership, charter schools were expanded, and a performance-pay plan was launched with the blessing of teachers. He supports a program to bring people into teaching who have little classroom experience but strong academic backgrounds. In 2006, he called on Congress to double funding for the No Child Left Behind law.

Duncan's résumé appeals to some who identify themselves as reformers, but his calls for increased funding and his willingness to partner with teachers also win the approval of unions and school officials who think the federal government imposes too many sanctions without offering enough support.

"Duncan is someone we believe can work with everyone, and that's going to be an important part of setting a new tone to get things done in the new administration, instead of treading water," said Joe Williams, executive director of the New York-based Democrats for Education Reform.

Duncan, 44, has close ties to Obama and has helped shape his education platform. During Obama's time in Illinois, they visited schools in Chicago but also bonded over pickup basketball. (Duncan co-captained Harvard University's team and played professionally in Australia for a few years.)

Across the spectrum of education advocates, Duncan wins praise from many quarters. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings called him "a visionary leader and fellow reformer who cares deeply about students."

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, head of the country's largest teachers union, noted Duncan's push for increased funding and flexibility: "For too long, federal education policy has been about teaching to the test, and Duncan could use his new position to move beyond those failed policies and provide every child with 21st-century skills."

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