Since the Obama administration chose Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education there have been a variety of reactions. “Off with his head” and “He’s a witch. Burn him!” have been heard at many teacher’s union meetings and uber-left blogs. I for one feel the need to stand up for Arne Duncan. We should give Arne a fair shake before we send him to the gallows.
One problem many have found with Duncan is that he has never been a teacher. That poses no problem. Duncan has worked in education policy and management since 1992. I think that sixteen years experience in education policy and management qualifies a man to be the head of education policy and management in the United States. Much of that time Duncan has spent working at the top of the third largest school district in the country, Chicago.
Another argument I read, and one of the most outrageous, was that Arne doesn’t believe in democracy. If those who use this argument mean that Duncan sometimes makes decisions unpopular with teachers unions, then I’ll agree with them. As the head of Chicago schools Duncan has had to make tough decisions that didn’t win him any brownie points with the teachers. According to Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart however, “[Arne] had my home phone number. He always returned my calls, and I returned his. You can’t not talk when you need something done.” Sounds like a real fascist to me.
“But he’s a reformer who supports * gasp * merit based pay!” What is so wrong with rewarding those who perform well or letting go those who don’t? A poor teacher will get through about a half to three quarters of the material in one year. The next year teachers must spend extra time on catching up before beginning new material. You can see the dangerous cycle for our children. A good teacher however can cover up to a year and half of material in one year. Children with a good teacher are also more likely to retain the information, rather than just learning to the tests.
Duncan’s reforms have worked in Chicago. In one of Duncan’s charter schools every single senior graduate last year. The Chicago school district as a whole had a 52% dropout rate last year. Teachers are required to meet weekly with a mentor to discuss individual child needs, in order to find week spots in lesson plans. Duncan may have pushed high teacher accountability, but he also has lobbied for greater funding for Chicago schools and given credit to schools that don’t meet standards.
Arne Duncan represents the middle road most of us expected the Obama administration to be. Duncan is willing to try a wide range of reforms. He will admit when things don’t work, scrap them, and try again. Duncan will take advice from both sides of school reform: those who want tough accountability standards and those who want more flexibility, money, and support. Duncan is the right man for the job. Give him a chance and he will prove it.