School & District Management

‘We Must Do Better,’ Duncan Says in Confirmation Hearing

By Alyson Klein — January 21, 2009 4 min read
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There was little doubt last week that Arne Duncan was on track for swift confirmation as President Barack Obama’s secretary of education.

What remains unclear, as Mr. Duncan prepares to take the helm of the Department of Education, is where he would take federal education policy over the next four years, with the already-overdue reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act looming in Congress.

Mr. Duncan told the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Jan. 13 that he supports merit-pay plans for teachers, wants to expand prekindergarten programs, and favors using early-intervention strategies to help combat the high school dropout problem.

He didn’t provide a detailed prescription for reworking the 7-year-old federal school improvement law, which was scheduled to be reauthorized in 2007, but he stressed support for accountability and rigorous standards.

“At the K-12 level, we want to continue to dramatically raise standards and improve teacher quality,” Mr. Duncan said. “We must do dramatically better. We must continue to innovate. We must build upon what works, and we must stop doing what doesn’t work.”

As the schools chief in Chicago, a job he began in 2001, Mr. Duncan, 44, implemented sometimes-controversial policies, including closing low-performing schools, expanding charter schools, and offering alternative pay to teachers, while working in collaboration with the local teachers’ union.

During a two-hour hearing, committee members asked few probing questions and praised the nominee’s record.

“Mr. Duncan, there is no question that schools across America can benefit from the same kind of fresh thinking that you have brought to Chicago public schools,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who presided over the hearing because Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the committee’s chairman, was unavailable. “You have very impressive credentials and experience.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who served as secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and is considered one of the chamber’s leading GOP voices on K-12 policy, also had kind words for Mr. Duncan.

“President-elect Obama has made several distinguished Cabinet appointments, but in my view of it all, you’re the best,” Sen. Alexander said.

Sen. Alexander asked Mr. Duncan about his support for charter schools and the Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to districts for alternative-pay programs. The fund has been criticized by the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, in part because they say it diverts resources from other federal teacher professional-development programs.

Mr. Duncan called the Teacher Incentive Fund “one of the best things” that outgoing Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings had done, and said he would like to expand it. But he emphasized that Chicago implemented its grant in collaboration with its teachers’ union.

Mr. Duncan said he has “been a strong supporter of charter schools.” Although he expanded those independent public schools in Chicago, he said the 408,000-student district was selective about whom it allowed to open such schools, but then gave those who were chosen flexibility.

“This has not been ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’,” he said. But “once we approve a group, we give them significant autonomy,” he added.

A Review of Programs

Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, also lauded the secretary-designate’s record, but said he would continue to remind Mr. Duncan about the challenges facing rural schools. And he said he hoped Mr. Duncan would help the committee continue its record of bipartisan cooperation.

“Education has always been a bipartisan issue, and we need to keep it that way,” Sen. Enzi said.

Even conservative Republicans who have advocated scaling back the federal role in education gave Mr. Duncan a warm reception.

Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who has criticized the No Child Left Behind Act for what he sees as its intrusion into an area best reserved to the states, said he had had a good conversation with Mr. Duncan before the hearing.

Sen. Coburn asked at the hearing whether Mr. Duncan would consider examining a provision in the NCLB law that requires special education teachers to be highly qualified in the subjects they teach. He said Oklahoma was at risk of losing some of its best teachers because of the requirement. Mr. Duncan said he would study the teacher provision.

In responses to questions from other senators, Mr. Duncan said that he would support increased funding for students in special education, and that he favors allowing students in special education and English-language learners to use alternative assessments under the No Child Left Behind law.

He also said he hoped to get closer to the goal of universal prekindergarten, a key campaign proposal of President Obama’s.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as ‘We Must Do Better,’ Duncan Says in Confirmation Hearing

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