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.


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."


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.



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.

Richard Berlin

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.)


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


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.

B. Jackson

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:


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.

Geology Rocks

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.


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.

B. Jackson

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.


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.

Princess Leia

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. :)

B's Aunt

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

Tough Reformer Finally

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.


alexander russo

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


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.

Laurence Sopala

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.


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.

Don Mynack

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?