As students head back to school, educators nationwide are
implementing controversial school reform wrought by Arne Duncan.
Pushing competitive market approaches and armed with unprecedented
funding and support from the president, he is possibly the most
powerful education secretary ever.
Growing up in Chicago, Arne Duncan learned early that education
was a stark dividing line - sometimes literally between life and
death. At the South Side after-school center that his mom founded,
he knew kids who'd made it all the way to fourth grade unable to
read. And on the asphalt playgrounds of that rough area, he shot
hoops with boys who later died in gang warfare. Mr. Duncan thought
he'd glimpsed the worst kind of circumstance that can swallow up
But then, on the desolate plains of the Northern Cheyenne
Reservation in Montana, the secretary of Education met Lame Deer
High School freshman Teton Magpie. And that, as Duncan recounts with
a surge of emotion, was a vivid glimpse at an even lower rung of
despair in the American education system.
Sitting in a circle with students and teachers and, in the native
American tradition, passing a feather to the person who had the
floor, Duncan listened to the usual litany of requests for computers
and fancy equipment. But an air of defeatism pervaded the place: In
the past six years, only eight students have gone on to four-year
colleges. Duncan was incredulous.
And then Teton spoke. More than anything, he said, he just needed
challenging classes and mentors so he could be the first in his
family to go to college.
Duncan says he was hit by how mentally crushing it is to grow up
surrounded by poverty - 70 percent of the reservation's adults are
unemployed - and a sense that even school, the one place that might
afford the opportunity to climb out of it, was letting kids down.
"Sometimes we need someone to come in and give us a little hope,
because hope dies," Teton says now, recalling that day in 2009 when
he met Duncan and how the secretary has kept in touch to encourage
Multiply moments like those with Teton, and add Duncan's own
unusual background that took him from the inner city to Harvard to
pro basketball, and you begin to understand the force of his
determination to be a changemaker.
As the 2010-11 school year opens, educators nationwide are
implementing controversial reforms wrought by Duncan. Students at
some of the nation's worst schools will be coming back to a whole
new way of doing business. And many schools will be focused even
more systematically on accountability, showing that their students
are gaining ground academically - with more teachers finding that
their jobs depend on it.
Momentum for reform has been building for years and seems to be
achieving critical mass with Duncan's market-based approaches.
Perhaps most empowering for Duncan is the unprecedented money he
has been able to dangle as incentive. One of his first jobs as
Education secretary was to distribute $100 billion of economic
stimulus money. President Obama wanted him to invest part of that in
promising reforms, which gave rise to Race to the Top, a competition
in which a select few states will win a share of $4.3 billion.
The money represents less than 1 percent of annual federal,
state, and local education spending, but the leverage for an
Education secretary is unprecedented. Dozens of states have fallen
into line with reform criteria - such as lifting caps on charter
schools and tying teacher evaluations to student achievement - to
improve their chances of winning.
"He's the most influential secretary that we've had since the
Department [of Education] was created in 1980," says Charles Barone,
federal policy director of Democrats for Education Reform in New
York and a Democratic congressional staffer when the No Child Left
Behind law was crafted during George W. …