Editorial -- Barack Obama's Selection of Arne Duncan as Education Secretary

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

IT WAS WIDELY expected that President-elect Barack Obama's choice of an education secretary would finally reveal which of the warring approaches to school reform he favors. Instead, his selection of Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan cheered both the disrupters and the incrementalists of education change. That could be a good sign for America's schools -- if Mr. Duncan is able to unite the two sides in support of meaningful improvements.

In announcing his nomination of Mr. Duncan, Mr. Obama rejected the notion that there must be an either-or approach to making schools better. Both sides, he said, have good ideas and intentions, and he held out Mr. Duncan as someone not beholden to one ideology but capable of creating a new vision for the country's education system.

There is much to recommend Mr. Duncan. His practical, hands-on experience in heading the nation's third-largest school system will be of enormous value in confronting the nation's biggest education problems: the ills afflicting urban education and the achievement gap that persists for minority students. By many measures, including test scores, attendance and graduation rates, Chicago schools have improved during Mr. Duncan's seven-year tenure. He pressed to get the schools back to basics, was not afraid to innovate and dealt with underperforming schools and staff. He is a fan of charter schools and a champion of early education. He knows that some school traditions, such as the limited calendar of instruction, are no longer supportable. It is encouraging that Mr. Duncan was among the urban school superintendents who this summer urged Congress not to back off the accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, calling them a huge step in the right direction. His criticism of 50 different definitions of student success will, we hope, translate into a push for national standards when (as we also hope) he works toward the reauthorization and improvement of NCLB.

Mr. Duncan has a reputation for bringing people together; he was able to pioneer changes such as teacher merit pay in cooperation with the teachers union. No doubt, though, battles lie ahead, and it is important that the soon-to-be secretary, widely seen as a compromise nominee, not flinch when it comes to -- and these are his words -- "challenging the status quo, pushing the envelope and driving change."

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