Nobody Better Than Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan is expected to be announced as the next secretary of education later today. Freakonomics readers will remember Arne as the hero of our chapter on teacher cheating. He was head of the Chicago Public Schools when Brian Jacob and I were investigating how teachers and administrators were doctoring standardized test sheets.

With seemingly nothing to gain and much to lose, Arne embraced our results, even allowing us to do audit testing to confirm our hypotheses. Eventually, a handful of teachers were fired.

Since then, I’ve interacted with Arne a few times, and in a variety of settings. I always walk away dazzled. He is smart as hell and his commitment to the kids is remarkable. If you wanted to start from scratch and build a public servant, Arne would be the end product.

About five years ago, I joked with him that he was not even 40 years old and he had the second-best job in education. He had nowhere to go but down, since the only better job would be secretary of education.

For all his accomplishments improving schools, perhaps even more remarkable are his accomplishments on the basketball court: he and his buddies have won the national Hoop It Up Three-On-Three basketball championship on multiple occasions.

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  1. Quin says:

    As David Brooks said earlier (

    “Many of the reformist hopes now hang on Obama’s friend, Arne Duncan. In Chicago, he’s a successful reformer who has produced impressive results in a huge and historically troubled system. He has the political skills necessary to build a coalition on behalf of No Child Left Behind reauthorization. Because he is close to both Obamas, he will ensure that education doesn’t fall, as it usually does, into the ranks of the second-tier issues.

    “If Obama picks a reformer like Duncan, Klein or one of the others, he will be picking a fight with the status quo. But there’s never been a better time to have that fight than right now.”

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  2. Gus says:

    I think Linda Darling-Hammond might have been better. But I know little about Duncan. The best news of all is that it’s NOT Joel Klein, but I hear that Duncan is quick to blame and fire teachers and feels standardized testing has a role going forward.

    Ms. Darling-Hammond headed up Obama’s transition team on Education, so it’s possible she is very happy with Duncan. On the other hand, it may have been a way to woo her supporters and then zap them with Duncan who Greg Palast calls “Klein-lite”. I hope not.

    Take it from mature professional-become-inner city NYC schoolteacher who came in to try to ascertain what’s wrong and help fix things — standardized testing is destructive to students, teachers, parents and schools and only benefits bureaucrats looking to manufacture a positive narrative by juggling a bunch of stats and scores. And still it fails.

    As LDH extensively writes, treating kids all the same is the opposite of what we know works. They are not clients, they are not robots, and increasingly, they are not mounds of clay – in this highly individualized, info-overloaded age, they are resistant to arbitrary, “nationalized” curriculum choices that are not meaningful to their lives.

    Kids are very cynical about unfunded top-down mandates and outdated, outmoded or backwards teaching methods – often they have more powerful computers in their pockets then are provided in the school tech lab (if at all), which they are banned from using.

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  3. sarahmas says:

    I am a big fan of Arne Duncan. Even better, this selection leaves the door open for Paul Vallas to return to Chicago, maybe actually bringing some integrity to the leadership of our city.

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  4. Richard Berlin says:

    I second Gus’ comment; Darling-Hammond would have been a much more progressive choice from the standpoint of their stated polices. Kudos to Duncan for allowing researchers in to investigate the manipulation of test scores by teachers…but for every plaudit he deserves on that score, he earns a demerit for failing to admit that standardized tests are not designed to support the inferences that NCLB wishes to use them for. (Ref. Daniel Koretz for more.)

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  5. Bob says:

    I’m just happy people are chosen based on background and proved competence, and not on an ideological or business-relationship basis.

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  6. Sos says:

    Thanks for posting this.

    I don’t know if you’ve read any of the comments from readers at the local Chicago papers’ sites, but there’s no shortage of critics of Arne Duncan. From what I can tell, the criticism comes mainly from those who can barely spell, let alone be able to take on a position as difficult and thankless as the head of CPS.

    Other than healthcare and entitlements, this is, in my opinion, the most challenging domestic political issue we will face (the economy works itself out). I am happy to see that Obama’s picked someone who will work to craft a better system rather than working to cram his or her agenda and ideology through.

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  7. B. Jackson says:

    I did some work for CPS in a previous life, and Duncan is reviled by many within the organization. In the world of education, people from the ‘outside’ (i.e. those who don’t have a teaching background) are viewed with enormous skepticism, if not outright hostility, by teachers and administrators with a teaching background. Seems like the comments on the blog frequented by CPS insiders is about 95% negative on Arne:

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  8. Kelly says:

    It has been suggested that Obama is selecting his cabinet based on their b-ball skills. LOL. (That might be how GWB selected his… who knows?) Your glowing endorsement is indicative of a much deeper motive: the betterment of our country as a whole.

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