Education Letter to the Editor

Give Arne Duncan Time to Show Leadership Style

January 23, 2009 1 min read

To the Editor:

In his online Commentary “Wrong Choice for Secretary of Education” (Jan. 12, 2009), Kevin K. Kumashiro, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, speculates on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s likely position on teachers’ unions during his tenure, saying that Mr. Duncan was not supportive of them as Chicago’s schools chief. His views contrast with those of Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the author of a biography of the union leader Albert Shanker. With so much on the line at this moment in education history, it’s worthwhile to note the differences.

Mr. Kahlenberg was one of the guests for Education Week‘s Dec. 17, 2008, online chat about Mr. Duncan’s nomination. I asked him what he thought Mr. Duncan would mean for the future of teachers’ unions. He replied that the choice strengthens the hand of union reformers by not threatening their very existence; instead, he said, it would spur them to come up with reasonable solutions to pressing questions.

It’s impossible to know at this point, of course, who is correct in the matter. But anyone who reads Mr. Kahlenberg’s exhaustively documented biography will understand the basis for his judgment about Mr. Duncan. Contrary to popular belief, although Albert Shanker remained a staunch unionist until his death in 1997, his priorities slowly moved to the right. This was probably because it reflected his idealistic desire to promote social mobility, combined with a tough-mindedness about the realities of human nature.

Rather than make predictions about what Mr. Duncan will do in his new post, it’s only fair to allow him time to demonstrate that he is open to reasonable compromises reflecting the legitimate arguments of opponents. I think that’s what Mr. Shanker would say if he were alive.

Walt Gardner

Los Angeles, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as Give Arne Duncan Time To Show Leadership Style