Duncan Carves Deep Mark on Policy in First Year

By Michele McNeil — January 19, 2010 12 min read
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A year ago, Arne Duncan was known as a long-serving urban district chief who had used his collegial management style to push innovation and close failing schools in Chicago.

This week, he enters his second year as U.S. secretary of education pursuing a similar national policy agenda that could place him among the most influential leaders in his department’s 30-year history.

Empowered by up to $100 billion in economic-stimulus aid for education—and the support of President Barack Obama, whom he has long known—Mr. Duncan has pressed hard on such priorities as charter schools, teacher performance pay, common academic standards, and turnarounds of low-performing schools.

He has used his bully pulpit to assess blame for a K-12 system he sees as marred by mediocre student performance, dismal graduation rates in some cities, and stubborn achievement gaps between minority and white students.

Observers are now watching to see whether Mr. Duncan will succeed in codifying the administration’s agenda through the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, last revised eight years ago as the No Child Left Behind law.

And as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act enters its second and final year, Mr. Duncan is expected to continue wielding the leverage that the stimulus law’s nearly $10 billion in competitive-grant programs for education gives him.

Already, he has held out the prospect of $4 billion in Race to the Top Fund grants to persuade states to lift their caps on charter schools and to ease the way for teacher merit-pay programs. (“States Change Policies With Eye to Winning Federal Grants,” Jan. 6, 2010.)

He has told states and school districts receiving $3 billion in Title I School Improvement Grants that they must take “dramatic” steps to fix the worst schools, such as shutting them down.

And he’s using a $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund to spur districts to partner with the private sector in making reforms.

See Also

Teachers Respond: An online forum for Letters to Obama has given classroom teachers a way to express their frustration and ask for a policymaking role, writes Anthony Cody in his commentary, “Teachers’ Letters to Obama.”

Mr. Duncan, 45, who previously served seven years as the chief executive of the Chicago school system, acknowledges that the hard work remains.

“Giving out the awards is just a starting point; that’s the easy part, frankly,” he said in a far-ranging interview this month.

“Everyone’s going to make some mistakes, and how do we learn from it? Or, if someone’s really knocking something out,” he said in a Duncanism for succeeding, “how do we take that to scale right away? That’s the really interesting part.”

Critics Span Spectrum

With such exposure—and money—comes criticism from different directions.

Officials in a number of states and in Congress object to what they view as overly prescriptive mandates for fixing schools.

Duncan on Competition and Race to the Top

U.S. Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said he was cautiously optimistic about Mr. Duncan’s agenda. But, he said in a statement, the Race to the Top, in particular, “has the potential to become another top-down, heavy-handed program.”

Teachers’ unions range from wary to angry over attempts to link teacher salaries to student test scores, a key motive behind Mr. Duncan’s push for the elimination of state laws barring the use of such data for that purpose.

Yet even people who don’t like Mr. Duncan’s priorities say he’s been skillful at advancing them.

“My report card is that he gets an A for being effective and a D-minus for the bad ideas,” said the education historian Diane Ravitch, who co-writes the Bridging Differences blog on Education Week’s Web site.

She sees the administration’s agenda as too focused on standardized testing of students and joins others in criticizing its priorities as an extension of President George W. Bush’s policies. (“Obama Echoes Bush on Education Ideas,” April 8, 2009.)

Prominent advocates of progressive approaches to education echo such views.

Michael Klonsky, a longtime Chicago activist and the director of the Small Schools Workshop, credits Mr. Duncan for helping increase federal aid through the 2009 stimulus package and for bringing teachers’ unions to the policy table.

But he faults the secretary for putting too much emphasis on testing and on promoting the use of private management companies to run low-performing schools.

“In some way, Duncan’s policies are worse than what we experienced over the last eight years,” Mr. Klonsky said, referring to the Bush administration.

Joe Williams, the executive director of the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform, praised the policy direction, however, and especially how Mr. Duncan has used the Race to the Top to advance it.

“It’s been far more focused on reform than a lot of people expected,” he said of the administration’s agenda.

Managing the Department

Duncan on Building a National Team

The U.S. Department of Education is a 4,000-employee operation that manages about $70 billion each budget year and whose policies affect 50 million public school students nationwide.

In leading the agency, Mr. Duncan prides himself on a management style that’s inclusive—he really does ask that everybody call him Arne—and says that approach is intended to give the members of the team he’s assembled the freedom to execute his broader goals and strategies. His top picks have included leaders from foundations, state capitals, school districts, and the corporate sector.

The power center for the department—Mr. Duncan’s inner circle—is his six-member executive committee, which comprises the secretary himself; General Counsel Charles P. Rose, previously a lawyer in Chicago; Deputy Secretary Tony Miller, a former partner at a private investment firm; Undersecretary Martha Kanter, a longtime community college official; Chief of Staff Margot Rogers, formerly of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach Peter Cunningham, who was one of Mr. Duncan’s spokesmen in Chicago.

A larger policy committee, made up of six assistant secretaries—such as Thelma Melendez, who represents elementary and secondary education, and Carmel Martin, who oversees planning, evaluation, and policy—is the workhorse of the department. Its members meet weekly to hammer out policies and guidance.

“Arne has a track record here and in Chicago of picking good, interesting people,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder of the think tank Education Sector, who was a domestic-policy aide in the Clinton administration.

Spur of the Stimulus

The assembly of that management team proved crucial, given the speed with which it was put to the test.

The ARRA was signed into law on Feb. 12 of last year, less than a month after Mr. Duncan was confirmed. The department was immediately given responsibility for nearly $100 billion in new federal aid and told to hand it out as quickly and as responsibly as possible.

Mr. Duncan took advantage of a relatively small slice of that money—the $5 billion contained in the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation funds—and used it as a carrot to entice money-hungry states into making changes.

“We took the ARRA money and leveraged it in a way to produce results at the state and local level that were far and beyond what I imagined we could do,” said Mr. Rose, the general counsel. Last year, for example, Illinois and Tennessee raised their caps on charter schools, an administration priority.

Mr. Duncan has gone out of his way, meanwhile, to address critics who say he won’t follow through on promises that the discretionary grant money will go only to applicants that clear a high bar.

“Just watch. People will be stunned by what we do,” he said.

His statements may carry extra weight, given his ties to President Obama from their Chicago days.

Duncan on ESEA Reauthorization

“The president and I have known each other for a long time, and we have a great working relationship,” Mr. Duncan said. “He tried to pick people who he trusted, and he’s given them the room to do their job. ... I try to do the same thing with my guys here. You can’t micromanage something this big.”

Mr. Duncan and his department have been largely untouched by public relations problems serious enough to knock them off course, though they have weathered some controversies.

In September, for example, officials spent days dealing with criticism before President Obama’s back-to-school speech over lesson plans created in the department that asked students to write letters to themselves about how they could help the president.

Mr. Duncan has caught flak for refusing to back an extension of the federal school voucher program for the District of Columbia.

And he’s sought to deflect calls from conservative sources seeking the ouster of Kevin Jennings, a leading advocate for gay and lesbian students who was named the chief of the department’s safe- and drug-free-schools program.

Preparing for the ESEA

As 2010 gets under way, action on a major piece of unfinished federal business, a reauthorization of the ESEA, is not assured, given other domestic priorities such as the health-care overhaul.

Still, Mr. Duncan’s team is putting its battle plan together.

At a recent meeting to nail down his upcoming schedule, Mr. Duncan said he wants to meet about the ESEA with the “Big 8,” or the chairmen and ranking minority members of the education committees and the subcommittees overseeing K-12 matters in both houses of Congress, soon after the State of the Union Address. He’s already planning a meeting with teachers’ union leaders.

“The heart of our strategy is to secure bipartisan support and enthusiasm for this on the very front end,” said Mr. Cunningham, the communications chief.

Mr. Duncan puts great stock in relationship-building and public outreach. He has given speeches around the country to mayors, school superintendents, and teachers’ unions, and made 31 stops on the department’s 50-state Listening and Learning Tour, intended to gather public input on education issues.

His packed daily schedule is often interrupted for impromptu demands on his time. One recent day, for example, he was asked to squeeze in space for Michael Dell, the founder and chief executive officer of the computer maker Dell Inc. Mr. Dell ended up getting 10 minutes as the pair walked from the White House after an event with President Obama that honored math and science teachers.

Duncan on the Influence of Foundations

Mr. Duncan has made reaching out to the corporate and philanthropic communities a priority. Such relationships can raise eyebrows, however.

The secretary has been criticized, in particular, as being too cozy with the Gates Foundation, the Seattle-based philanthropy formed by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, whose largess has made it a major player in the world of education reform. (Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week, receives grant support from the foundation.)

Mr. Duncan has hired several people who have worked at the foundation, including James Shelton, the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement. And Mr. Duncan has pushed policies—particularly in the area of teacher effectiveness—that mirror work the foundation is doing.

For its part, the foundation is helping to further Education Department priorities in such ways as providing technical-assistance planning money to states in the competition for the coveted Race to the Top grants.

“I have no problem with the Gates Foundation as a significant private actor trying to engage in policy,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market-oriented think tank. “I do have a real concern when the U.S. government enters into what feels like a quasi-partnership with any private entity that’s engaged in shaping or advocating particular policies.”

But Mr. Duncan is unapologetic.

“I see Gates as part of a hundred different relationships that we’re very actively working on to leverage scarce resources,” he said. “It’s not just about getting out of your government silos, but getting out of your corporate and your philanthropic silos. We’ve worked really hard at that part.”

Speaking Out

And Mr. Duncan is not afraid to dish out criticism of his own.

He told delegates to the National Education Association’s annual convention in San Diego last summer that teachers should be evaluated and paid based in part on student performance and that teacher tenure needed to be changed.

In October, he went to the University of Virginia’s education school and delivered some harsh remarks on teacher colleges, describing them as the “Bermuda Triangle” of higher education.

Duncan on the Challenge of Communicating

His outspokenness shows no sign of slackening.

In a recent planning session with speechwriters, before a Jan. 14 speech to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Mr. Duncan pressed to shine a spotlight on coaches at universities with low graduation rates—or high arrest rates—for student-athletes. He pointed to the University of Florida, where football players have been charged with 24 crimes in the past four years, according to media reports. He wanted to coin a term called the “arrest-to-GPA ratio”—that any team in which the number of arrests per year is more than twice the team’s GPA is not a team to be hailed.

In the speech, Mr. Duncan did not take universities to task by name, but blasted “renegade” coaches for not curtailing bad off-the-field behavior and for having teams with high arrest-to-GPA ratios. He criticized teams with graduation rates of zero and called for penalties for their coaches.

Nor has Mr. Duncan been shy about involving himself in state and local business.

Last June, he fired off a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, warning him that if he cut K-12 spending while leaving a sizable chunk of money in the state’s rainy-day fund, he could jeopardize future stimulus aid.

Such comments are in keeping with Mr. Duncan’s strategy of confronting stakeholders in the debates over education, handing out credit and issuing challenges. “We’re trying to generate a national conversation. It’s difficult,” said Mr. Cunningham, the department’s communications chief.

Not everyone is won over.

Ms. Ravitch, who served as an assistant education secretary under the first President Bush and is now on the faculty of New York University, believes that Mr. Duncan is overstepping his role. That concern was not assuaged when she met with the secretary at his request in October.

“One of the questions he asked me was, ‘What should I do about Detroit?’ “ Ms. Ravitch recalled, referring to the low student achievement in the scandal-racked school district. “That’s a strange question, because he’s not in charge of Detroit. One of the problems is his conception of the role of the secretary of education—how he thinks he’s the national superintendent of schools. He’s not.”

Though he might not have such a title, Mr. Duncan is eager to embrace an expansive role in pushing for what he is fond of calling “dramatic” change in the nation’s public schools.

“I think part of my job is to align the country behind these common goals,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Duncan Carving Deep Mark on Policy


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