Meet Obama’s Cabinet: 7 Things to Know About Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

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His bio:  “Duncan has run the country’s third-biggest school district since 2001, pushing to boost teacher quality and to improve struggling schools and closing those that fail…A 44-year-old Harvard graduate, Duncan has played pickup basketball with Obama since the 1990s. Duncan co-captained the Harvard basketball team and played professionally in Australia before beginning his education career.  He ran a nonprofit education organization on Chicago’s South Side before going to work in Chicago schools under former superintendent Paul Vallas, now the New Orleans schools chief.” (Huffington Post)

His innovations and results in Chicago include:

  • “In 2000, 76% of Chicago public school students showed up for class on the first day of the year. By 2003, the rate was 89%. Duncan has sent district representatives to students’ homes to urge them to attend and offered tickets to sporting events to lure students to school. First-day attendance levels help determine year-long state funding levels.”
  • “To discourage students from quitting school, beginning in 2004, potential Chicago dropouts were required to sign a form acknowledging statements such as: ‘I will not be able to afford many things that I will see others acquiring,’ ‘I will be less likely to find good jobs that pay well, bad jobs that don’t pay well, or maybe any jobs,’ and ‘I will be more likely to rely on the state welfare system for my livelihood.'”  
  • “In September 2008, Duncan launched a program in 20 Chicago schools to pay students for good grades. Straight-A students could earn up to $4,000 per year through the program, funded by private donations.” (Time)

What his critics have to say: “Duncan’s attempts to improve schools created a two-tiered school district. They say during his tenure he ramped up efforts to offer more alternatives to neighborhood schools, including magnet schools, charters and schools managed by private groups.  The Renaissance 2010 initiative, developed in 2004 by Duncan and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to create 100 new schools, is a way to privatize and get rid of unionized teachers and local school councils, said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a district watchdog group.  ‘It’s ironic that the head of one of the largest public school systems should be a tool for those trying to destroy that system,’ Woestehoff said.  Since 2002, Duncan has closed, consolidated or turned around 61 schools while opening 53 new ones.”  (Chicago Tribune)

On his educational stimulus package:  “Public schools will get an unprecedented amount of money — double the education budget under George W. Bush — from the stimulus bill in the next two years…The bill includes a $5 billion fund solely for these innovations…They have until Oct. 1, when the next fiscal year begins, to start distributing the dollars.  What would the fund pay for? Rewarding states and school districts that are making big progress…To get the money, states will have to show they are making good progress in four areas:

  • Boosting teacher effectiveness and getting more good teachers into high-poverty, high-minority schools;
  • Setting up data systems to track how much a student has learned from one year to the next;
  • Improving academic standards and tests;
  • Supporting struggling schools. (AP)

Education, the economy and civil rights:  He says, “‘Long-term, the best way we bring ourselves back to economic health and really strengthen the economy is to have an educated work force. So these investments are tremendously important, and we have to continue to push very, very hard to make sure that happens.’…And, ‘I really think this is the civil rights issue of our generation.  And as a country I think we’ve lost our way. We’ve sort of stagnated where other countries internationally have really passed us. And so I think we have to do dramatically better, and I’m going to push very, very hard to do that at every level.'” (NPR)

What he thinks of No Child Left Behind:  “Duncan supports the focus on accountability for student achievement, but he wants to make the law less punitive. ‘I know there are schools that are beating the odds where students are getting better every year, and they are labeled failures, and that can be discouraging and demoralizing,’ he says.  Duncan also wants states to adopt academic standards that are more rigorous and aligned with those of other leading nations. ‘The idea of 50 states doing their own thing doesn’t make sense,’ Duncan says, referring to the current patchwork of standards and tests…Duncan says he is concerned about overtesting but he thinks states could solve the problem by developing better tests.” (US News & World Report)

Making it easier to get financial aid:  “Most everyone agrees that something is very wrong with the six-page federal form for families seeking help with college costs.  Created in 1992 to simplify applying for financial aid, it has become so intimidating — with more than 100 questions — that critics say it scares off the very families most in need, preventing some teenagers from going to college.  Then, too, some families have begun paying for professional help with the form, known as the Fafsa,a situation that experts say indicates just how far awry the whole process has gone…On the campaign trail, President Obama promised to eliminate the form and Duncan talked about the problem at his confirmation hearing, saying, ‘You basically have to have a Ph.D. to figure that thing out.’  But whether it will be replaced soon, and with what, remains an open question.” (New York Times)

Posted by: Mariela

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