Will Arne Duncan Be the Bold Education Reformer Obama Needs?

It's been like a crowded basketball court these past couple of weeks for school improvement advocates with more than a few elbows thrown as everyone vied for the "bold reformer" territory.

At stake has been the leadership and agenda of the Obama administration's Department of Education. The tough love efficiency hawks, as Professor Bruce Fuller referred to them in last week's New York Times, touted district leaders Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee or Arne Duncan for Secretary of Education. Unions pushed for a current or former governor; and grassroots groups, rank and file teachers, and many education leaders supported Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond.

Maybe all those sharp elbows explain why Obama nominated a former pro-basketball player for the Secretary job in choosing Chicago chum Arne Duncan. Duncan clearly is one of the stars of the efficiency crowd, openly touted by Democrats for Education Reform, conservative columnist David Brooks and a New Republic piece to name a few. But these folks may well end up disappointed that Duncan -- with Barack Obama as his boss rather than Richard Daley -- focuses on a broader agenda than their universe of reforms. As I pointed out before Duncan's nomination, Obama's education agenda has always been broader than simply merit pay, school choice and test-based accountability. In an Obama administration, Duncan just might prove to be a Secretary who can bridge the gap between the efficiency hawks and the broader/bolder reform advocates whom the hawks have attacked as status quo protectors. If he can, he could help facilitate the next generation of major federal education reforms.

Duncan was the only prominent figure to sign both circulating manifestos this summer vying for attention at the Democratic Convention -- the mission statement from the efficiency camp-associated Education Equality Project and the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education statement. Efficiency hawks are typically loathe to look outside the schoolhouse to improve student achievement. They argue that those who rely on external explanations for test scores are making excuses for the status quo. Meanwhile, the broader/bolder folks espouse moving beyond solely school-focused, test-based accountability policies to improve low-income student outcomes by also focusing on policies that ameliorate the social and economic disadvantages of being poor, such as the lack of access to healthcare and preschool.

Of course, both sides have a point. We shouldn't shun redressing internal school factors where they significantly impair student achievement. If a school doesn't have strong leadership, a coherent curriculum, high expectations and the teachers who can deliver, then substantial social investments into improving a poor student's readiness to learn at the starting gate may largely go to waste. Conversely, if the social investments in pre-school, after-school, and healthcare can also significantly improve achievement for low-income students by providing the supports typically available to middle-class kids, only the stingiest of Scrooges would deny them. Duncan, in signing both manifestos this summer, may be signaling not only an Obamaesque political astuteness, but a genuine willingness to rise above the skirmishes to take what's best for boldly moving forward in the governing style Obama has promised.

On two other fronts, Duncan has signaled he is not in lock step with tough love efficiency advocates. For some in that camp, being anti-union is apparently a sign of the true reformer. Duncan, on the other hand, recognizing that reform is best accomplished with teachers, has earned points from the unions for his efforts to collaborate with them even on tough issues like school closures and pay for performance. That doesn't mean always agreeing with the unions. Here in California for example, my organization, Public Advocates, has maintained respectful relationships with the teachers' unions despite sometimes finding ourselves on different sides of legislation. We differed sharply, for example, with the California Teachers' Association over a law enacted two years ago that permits principals in low-performing schools to reject "lemon" teachers despite their seniority transfer rights. (Not infrequently, ineffective teachers pushed out of better-performing schools trickle down the system to the lowest-performing schools.) According to at least one key staffer, the bill would not have made its way out of the Legislature without Public Advocates' vocal support. But the fact that we opposed each other on that occasion hasn't prevented our continuing to collaborate with the unions on other matters. Duncan seems to evince a similar posture of principled, respectful collaboration.

The efficiency hawks also tend to oppose traditional teacher preparation programs and tout alternative routes like Teach for America (TFA) and the New Teacher Project fellows. Duncan has voiced support for TFA and uses their teachers to fill shortages in Chicago. At the same time, he has pioneered a teaching residency alternative model that significantly improves on TFA's. The residency model does not place brand new candidates immediately in charge of their own classrooms like TFA does. Instead, for a year, it pairs novices with master teachers who retain control of the class. In exchange for committing to teach in a high-need school for three years after their year of training, residents earn a stipend to support themselves during their residency, at the end of which they earn a master's degree, full certification, and the responsibility to take on their own classroom. This innovative model may well prove the future for alternative preparation programs. In a little noticed provision in the Higher Education Act re-authorization passed by Congress this August, Senator Obama included a grant program for the establishment of more teaching residency programs -- like the one Duncan helped pioneer at the Dodge Academy in Chicago where Obama announced his appointment last week.

Of course, important issues lie immediately ahead for Obama and his education agenda. To ensure he and Duncan are receiving the best ideas of the broader/bolder advocates, they still need to make high-level appointments from that camp. Obama's $18 billion promised increase in education funding pales in comparison to his projected economic stimulus, but it is nonetheless at risk given the economy and just how much he'll be putting before Congress with the stimulus package. Finally, the basketball buddies also need to deliver on a key Obama campaign promise -- reiterated in his remarks introducing Duncan. In addition, to holding teachers and schools accountable for improving student achievement, Obama asserted that we must hold the government accountable too ("even me" he said on the trail).

Holding the government accountable for ensuring essential resources are in place, including high quality teachers in high-need schools, is critical to any real bold reform. That also means ensuring there are policies encouraging parent and community engagement in place at the district and state levels to press policymakers to do their share. One-way, top-down accountability systems that punish schools for not succeeding but effectively relieve government actors from responsibility for ensuring the conditions of success produce, at best, incremental improvements.

Barack Obama has promised an ambitious education agenda that enacts a bolder two-way accountability. He has now chosen a friend and confidant not far from his own ambitious but collaborative mode. Will they rise above the false dichotomies and the sharp rhetoric of recent weeks and months? The first step of Duncan's appointment is tentatively promising, but a lot of hard work lies ahead before the Democrats' disparate education factions are a smooth-running team working towards the same bold reforms.