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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  9. Geology Rocks says:

    Imagine that… a group of teachers hate their boss who allowed a group of economists the opportunity to hold members of their ranks accountable….. Never would of thunk that one.

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  10. misterb says:

    In the comments pointed to by B. Jackson(7), there was an accusation that Arne Duncan had fired over 2000 African American teachers. If that is true, it’s a serious complaint. Even if they were all under-performing (which seems unlikely), a group of that size should have been addressed with training and coaching rather than mass layoffs.

    The fact that Mr. Duncan is recommended by economists and reviled by teachers doesn’t seem like a good thing for our kids.

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  11. B. Jackson says:

    CPS stats show that there are ~9,000 African American teachers and Arne has allegedly fired 2,000 over 8 years, or 250/year. That makes 3% per year, which doesn’t seem astronomical to me.

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  12. Bild says:

    According to Duncan’s Wikipedia page, he played basketball against Duke teams that included Johnny Dawkins and Danny Ferry, and came off fairly well.

    Also, he spent a year researching his sociology thesis in inner-city Kenwood, Chicago. Although it was never published, it was nonetheless cited at least twice in the sociological literature.

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  13. Princess Leia says:

    All your friends are moving to DC. Are you, Steve? You have the hoops skill (pound for pound) and the paper behind your name, too. It might be fun. :)

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  14. B's Aunt says:

    Greg, I agree, being a teacher myself. Educating means educating, not endless testing, and at a high level of knowledge and process.

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  15. Tough Reformer Finally says:

    At last, Arne Duncan,a tough reformer, is going to be Secretary of Education. The Heavens have opened and there is much rejoicing. Duncan has shut down failed schools (and then reopened them successfully), has shown teachers the door who are not good enough for our kids, and cut bureaucratic staff so money can go to effective teachers and into the classroom. Duncan has pushed into the CPS the idea that our kids deserve the best teachers, best principals, and best managers and that we are never going to stop until we get every school and every classroom right so that all kids will be offered a great education. Tough is needed because the public school system has bred through its union-adults-first-mentality a culture of excuses to justify: a third of our minority children dropping out of high school, three-fourths of our high school graduates not being ready for college, and STEMS programs that are an embarrassment compared to the rest of the world. Darling-Hammond is a “Chicago Cub Reformer.” No matter how ineffective a teacher is she still loves them, no matter how many kids don’t learn to read, she won’t fire you. All you need is more training! No mattter how many kids drop out, it is still for Darling-Hammond a question of getting our teachers properly trained.

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  16. alexander russo says:

    actually, duncan had much to gain from letting you help find out cheats at the school level and then firing them – unless the cheating was happening at the central office, it was all icing for him.

    you are among a tiny few i know of who come away from talking with duncan impressed with anything but his enthusiasm.
    independent chicago education news, all day

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  17. SB says:

    Two litmus tests for how much of a “real” reformer this guy is:

    1) Does he support school choice?
    2) Does he support merit based compensation for teachers?

    If the answer to both is no or kinda, education will not see much change.

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  18. Laurence Sopala says:

    I’ve met Arnie Duncan, and he’s a very smart guy, and very down to earth. However, I think it would have sent a better message to appoint someone from a state or city where the schools actually have standards, like in NY. Chicago public schools are famously sub-standard and dangerous, and Mr. Duncan’s tenure hasn’t changed that much. Hopefully he has a real plan for our country’s schools that include something similar to NY’s (or India’s) teaching to high standards and mandatory levels like the Regents exams.

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  19. Emmett says:

    I’m an acedemic who loves basketball. I’ve played in Hoop-it-up tournaments. It’s trully a feat to win the national title.
    It really is no joke!
    As an aside: I never expected that my teams would be very good (and we weren’t). One year, I suggesested to my teammates that we name ourserleves “A Bunch of Little Girls.” It was a win/win situation realtive to our oponents’ atisfaction in beating us/ losing to us.
    Friends of teams who won: “You won! Yay! who did you beat? – A bunch of little girls?”
    If we won: “A bunch of little girls just beat you? How pathetic?”
    We weren’t that good at basketball. We had to find amusement wherever possible.

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  20. Don Mynack says:

    How about doing something REALLY innovative and getting rid of the superfluous and unnecessary Department of Education? Has it had any measurable impact on education at all, other than employ people? What’s the point of an agency that duplicates the functions of local and state officials with little or no benefit to the taxpayer?

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  21. Jim says:

    For those well meaning but uninformed contributors, who think their opinion of what is needed in education is valid because they once went to school, I recommend you spend some time reading Jerry Bracey. Specifically, the
    “Education Disinformation and Detection Agency”

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  22. Thomas Fiala says:

    We will see how well Duncan, a man many know little about, will succeed in this position. There is, however, a great deal of room to criticize teachers as far as how well they were professionally prepared and how well they perform as teachers. I know this as one of those who prepares teachers, in addition to admitting that there are teachers who fall through the cracks within colleges of education- become certified – and then find a job! This, in spite of the fact that all these normally have to pass a Praxis II test for certification. If you don’t know what I’m taliking about then you need to do your homework so your future comments are more informed. (This is a friendly suggestion!) All colleges of education need to set high standards for each and everyone of their graduates!

    However, I also believe that all teachers need to be National Board certified. If you don’t know what this means you need to find out for the same reason stated above. (I think Duncan is for this.) There are two main reasons for this certification: 1) This will better assure that we have highly qualified teachers in the classroom – just like doctors, and 2) When this happens we can then say with more scientific certitude – just like doctors might do – that the teacher’s are doing what they are supposed to do and we have seen improvement – but there are still those “patients,” which includes students, parents or other stakeholders, who are not taking their prescribed medicine. In addition, this will also help better identify structural factors such as race or gender etc., that stand in the way of educational achievement and equal educational opportunity!!

    As far as the person above who judges a “real” reformer as one who 1) supports school choice, and 2) supports merit based compensation for teachers, this is an overly simplistic analysis. In addition, this type analysis is often a “not so covert” conservative ploy. For example, if the issue is choice between private versus public schools, it is clear private schools have an advantage since, as all public school administrators know, you can more easily through kids out of a private school who are problematic. Of course, there is also much more to this and I don’t want to also be overly simplistic. Second, merit is fine if a teacher is considered meritorious if they get, for example, test scores for some groups of students from say 25% to 30%. That would be a 20% increase in scores, which is excellent! (Chew on that one merit folks!)

    As far as testing is concerned, the arguments above are right on! One test a year = fine, Two a year = maybe, more than two a year = bad news!!!!

    Sorry, I’ve gone on for too long already – but I would sure like to know about how this new secretary and former B-baller feels about what I have said.


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  23. Adam Bee says:

    “The fact that Mr. Duncan is recommended by economists and reviled by teachers doesn’t seem like a good thing for our kids.”

    That’s funny. I’d think any non-teacher would say just the opposite. Anybody approved by teachers is suspect.

    I for one am happiest about the prospect of James Heckman’s theories on early childhood education being enacted. It is nearly impossible to reverse the damages done to low-income kids in the first few years of their lives.

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  24. Jesse says:

    It strikes me that Levitt often seems really impressed by the motivations of people simply following their self-interest. I’m reminded of this:

    You have to admire Roland. Most academics at his stage in their career stay up at night worrying about what journals will publish their papers and what they will land if they get denied tenure. Roland, meanwhile, is trying to figure out what he can do to change the world for the better.

    I mean, I think one would have to admire Roland Fryer for getting tenure at Harvard at age 30 (a few months after the above was written). I’m not sure I have to admire him for dramatically raising his public profile because that hurt his chances at tenure (when it seems unlikely there was any such cost; just the opposite, in fact).

    Same thing here. “With seemingly nothing to gain and much to lose…” Please, can we not go overboard?

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  25. wlajfa says:

    Would it have been too much to ask to appoint an EDUCATOR to be in charge of the Department of Education? Duncan has NEVER BEEN A TEACHER–what would he or anybody else in that situation know about how to best educate kids? Isn’t that a primary, if not the primary, role of the Department of Education?

    The fact that Duncan was the Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools–the CEO title sends the message that schools should be run like businesses–does not mean much. Schools are NOT businesses and shouldn’t be treated as such. The generally positive attitudes towards Duncan here suggest that his supporters view schoolchildren not so much as unique human beings as products on an assembly line to be molded as the powers that be see fit.

    If an educator ever became nominated as head of the Department of Commerce, rest assured, heads would roll and the we’d never hear the end of it–“What in the $%^&! does a teacher know about business?” Yet Duncan is appointed to cheers. I guess it just depends on who you serve.

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  26. Derick says:

    25: The reason is that teachers today aren’t taught to be teachers so much as relativist liberal politically correct conflict resolution managers for kids. So it makes sense that an economist would be better at running education than an educator would be at running financial decisions. Heck, educators today aren’t good at educating; we’ve completely forgtten that learning is about *learning* not subtle cultural manipulations.

    24: “It strikes me that Levitt often seems really impressed by the motivations of people simply following their self-interest.”

    Yes indeed. You say that like it’s a bad thing? Smart economics (and smart ethics, to be frank) is all about accepting self-interest as a necessary part of human life and finding how it can happen in the most mutually beneficial way, as oppose to a short-sighted way, which is mutually destructive.

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  27. Caspar Milquetoast says:

    Duncan certainly cuts an impressive figure — he’s smart, dedicated and, like his predecessor, Paul Vallas, and his peers (Rhee, Klein, et al.) has brought business-like, no-nonsense attitude to running a chronically troubled big-city school system. I remember the bad old days in Chicago (annual labor strife and the rest of it), and this new generation of CEO-style leadership certainly seems a vast improvement.

    That said, maybe I’m too much of a cynic, but I have an abiding skepticism about just about everything that falls under the rubric of “education reform”. To me, much of what is touted as new and improved about Chicago’s school system seems a shiny, but very thin, veneer meant to obscure the intractability of the profound social and economic problems that are the real impediments to improving educational/vocational outcomes for Chicago’s poor kids.

    It’s true that Mayor Daley has worked hard to keep middle-class and upper middle-class families in the city by improving certain neighborhood schools and fortifying the network of high-performance magnet schools, and has likewise provided options (charter schools, etc.) to poor families who really want their kids to get a great education.

    But what about the other 80% of kids in urban public schools? They are poor African-Americans and Hispanics and they are still doomed by factors that, in my opinion, are out of the control of any public school system to ameliorate.

    Is there any evidence that Duncan, Rhee or anyone else has done anything to meaningfully improve outcomes for these kids? Even if you get rid of every stupid, unmotivated teacher (of which I’m sure there are many) and hire high-caliber teachers to replace them, is that going to have any significant effect?

    [As an aside, the one change that I understand could have a positive effect on outcomes for poor kids is improving access to early childhood education, and, in Illinois, the person who championed universal preschool as much as anyone else was…Rod Blagojevich, who signed Preschool for All into law a couple of years ago.]

    I am willing to be convinced that “school reform” is making a difference for the 80%, but I haven’t seen evidence of that, save for the now-ritualized claims of marginal improvements in abysmal standardized test scores and graduation rates. I would like someone to make the case to me that school reform is actually enhancing the education these kids get and their post-secondary school prospects.

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  28. Fritz says:


    Great to hear about Arne Duncan’s basketball skills. I do know he has tried a lot of things and has had an open mind. And he does have some fine accomplishments as CPS CEO.

    Do you realize how poor a job he has done with Hyde Park’s schools? (Hyde Park being the Chicago neighborhood where Obama, Duncan, and presumably you, Steve, live). Up until a few years ago many Univ of Chicago profs would send their kids to HP’s public schools, or better yet, take them out of the U of C’s own private school (Lab). But awareness has declined as U of C profs increasingly choose Lab, so indulge me …

    Look at Kenwood, the high school that serves all of Hyde Park. From its founding in the late 1960s to the early 2000s, it averaged five national merit semi-finalists per year, with only one year without a semifinalist. Since Arne took over in summer 2001 Kenwood has not had a single semi-finalist who took the exam under his administration.

    Furthermore, while Kenwood was once racially integrated it has become almost totally racially segregated: in a school of 1700 students, you can count the number of white students in each graduating class on one hand (this in a neighborhood that is 40% white).

    Lastly, Arne took the former principal that presided over this great decline (Careda Taylor) and actually made her deputy CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. In charge of high schools for the whole system, believe it or not.

    This is a very sad outcome as Kenwood had been built up for 35 years by the community into a great school and a model for the whole city. So you’ll excuse me if I reserve judgement on his promotion.

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