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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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