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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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