Understanding Education Secretary Arne Duncan: How His CEO Experience Translates for America’s Public Schools

Understanding Education Secretary Arne Duncan: How His CEO Experience Translates for America’s Public Schools
Learn about Education Secretary Arne Duncan and how his experience in Chicago will shape the reforms facing the American education landscape today.
As Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools during the years from 2001 to 2009, Arne Duncan enacted major changes. Now, Duncan has taken the national stage as President Obama’s Education Secretary.
Education policy experts agree that the best way to understand how American public education may change under Duncan’s guidance is to look at Duncan’s performance as CEO of the Chicago public education system. A recent New Yorker profile of Duncan highlighted the many reforms that Duncan championed during his tenure as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, which included:
  • “The turnaround” and shutting down under-performing schools – The New Yorker article describes the turnaround as Duncan’s “signature move” as Chicago Schools’ CEO. Duncan’s “turnarounds” in Chicago involved shutting down schools that had persistent records of low performance on measures such as standardized test scores and high school graduation rates. The students whose schools were shut down would often be transferred to newly opened charter schools.
  • Opening new charter schools – Opening new charter schools was another of Duncan’s most significant undertakings as CEO of Chicago schools. The program that he championed, called Renaissance 2010, consisted of a network of charter, contract, and performance schools opened in the wake of the closures of low-performing schools.
  • Using data to track student performance – As the Chicago schools CEO, Duncan pushed for public schools to collect more data on student and teacher performance and to use the data to guide decision-making.
  • Drawing on resources outside the education community to improve schools – Duncan’s record as CEO in Chicago also shows a willingness to work with businesses and organizations outside of the traditional K-12 education community in his quest to improve school performance. According to Tim Knowles, director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, Duncan “attacked the human capital problem” by recruiting teachers and administrators from places other than traditional schools of education. Knowles cites the fact that “a law firm runs one school on the West Side” of Chicago as evidence of Duncan’s ability to draw on outside resources to change the way schools are run.

This video offers a look at President Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

How Duncan is Changing the Nation’s Public Education System
Since Duncan became Obama’s Education Secretary, he has continued to push for education reform, and the changes that get made under his sway have the potential to radically alter the landscape of American public education. Among the changes that Duncan is pushing for as the United States’ Education Secretary are:
  • Getting data-tracking systems off the ground – The “Race to the Top” program that Duncan is leading has $5 billion dollars in stimulus money with which to reward states who meet certain benchmarks that Duncan has set. Among the steps that states can take to get a bigger share of the $5 billion dollar fund is setting up statewide data systems that track student and teacher performance over time. 
  • Tying Teacher Pay to Test Scores – To qualify for Race to the Top Funds, states must eliminate legal barriers that prevent schools from tying teacher pay to test scores, as USA Today reports in its coverage of the program.
  • Looking for Help from Outside the Educational Establishment – As Education Secretary, Duncan appears to be continuing the pattern he began during his tenure as CEO of Chicago Schools of looking to those outside the traditional schools of education for help in reforming schools. Education Week reports that Duncan “has made reaching out to the corporate and philanthropic communities a priority,” working with organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Teach for America. 

This video offers an interview with Arne Duncan.

What Duncan’s Critics Say
  • Turnaround program in Chicago has not resulted in measurable gains – A Chicago Tribune analysis of the 2009 standardized test data for Chicago schools revealed that the elementary and high schools opened under the Renaissance 2010 program are performing no better than the average for public, non-charter Chicago schools.
  • Too Much Emphasis on Testing – In an Education Week article on Duncan’s proposed policy changes, several education experts voiced concern that Duncan is too focused on standardized test scores as the measure of a school’s success or failure. In the New Yorker article, Steven Rivkin, an economist at Amherst College, also voices concern about Duncan’s reliance on standardized test scores. Standardized test scores, says Rivkin, are “very noisy measures of knowledge. It’s hard to come up with a model that can define the impact of the teacher separate from the community and family.”
Too Soon to Tell?
Many say that school reform is a slow process.  University of Chicago’s Tim Knowles says that turning around failing urban schools is a “ten- to twenty-year phenomenon,” but that there’s “good evidence that [Duncan] go the aircraft turned around” in Chicago. Duncan’s supporters, along with his critics, may have to wait a number of years before they can truly assess the effectiveness of the changes he enacted in Chicago, as well as the reforms he is pushing for across the United States.
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