In 2009, President Barack Obama selected Arne Duncan to be the country’s newest Secretary of Education. But who is he, and how is he qualified to lead our country to educational superiority?
The name Arne Duncan may not be a familiar one to many people outside Chicago, but that is President Barack Obama’s selection to serve as the Secretary of Education in his administration. And according to Obama, Duncan is the best person to tackle the problems in our education system. “When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners,” Obama said in a statement. “For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book – it’s the cause of his life. And the results aren’t just about test scores or statistics, but about whether our children are developing the skills they need to compete with any worker in the world for any job.”
Arne Duncan was born and raised in Hyde Park, Chicago. His father Starkey Duncan worked as a professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago, and his mother, Susan Morton, oversees the Sue Duncan Children’s Center, an after-school center on Chicago’s South Side that serves African-American children. During his youth, Duncan spent a lot of his time at the center with his mother, working to tutor children and also playing basketball with the children in the neighborhood. He decided to pursue a career either as a professional basketball player or a coach.
Duncan attended Harvard, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in Sociology. He played on the junior varsity basketball team at Harvard in his first year, and later was co-captain of the varsity team, where he was named as an Academic All-American. After graduating from Harvard, he played professional basketball with the Eastside Spectres of the National Basketball League in Australia. While living in Australia, he assisted with helping children in state custody. He has also played basketball with the Rhode Island Gulls, and he tried out to play for the New Jersey Jammers.
Although Duncan has never been a teacher himself, he has a wealth of experience in management and educational policy. In 1992, he was named to head up the Ariel Education Initiative, which is a program designed to provide sound educational opportunities on Chicago’s South Side for underprivileged children. At the Ariel Community Academy, a grammar school sponsored by the initiative, 80% of the students who graduate are accepted for enrollment in elite high schools in the area. In 1998, he became Deputy Chief of Staff for the Chicago Public School system, and since 2001, he has served as CEO of the school system, which is the third largest school district in the country.
Duncan is known for being a reformer of educational policy, saying that giving kids a solid quality educational foundation is the answer to fighting poverty, promoting opportunities for young people, and strengthening our economy. His philosophy of educational reform focuses on improving schools that perform poorly, closing schools that are failing, and improving the quality of teachers. “It is the civil rights issue of our generation and it is the one sure path to a more equal, fair and just society,” Duncan says. “While there are no simple answers, I know from experience that when you focus on basics like reading and math, when you embrace innovative new approaches to learning, and when you create a professional climate that attracts great teachers, you can make a difference for children.”
Duncan’s responsibilities as Secretary of Education began with reforming the No Child Left Behind act, finding and hiring quality teachers, and being sure that college students graduate with the skills they need to compete in the ever-widening global economy of the 21st century. In Chicago, he has been criticized for having a heavy-handed system for supporting accountability―closing schools, replacing entire school faculties, and forcing dismissed staff members to reapply for their former positions.
According to Obama, Duncan’s methods may be unorthodox, but they are exactly the methods the Department of Education needs to adopt. “We cannot continue on like this,” Obama said. “It is morally unacceptable for our children – and economically untenable for America. We need a new vision for a 21st century education system – one where we aren’t just supporting existing schools, but spurring innovation; where we’re not just investing more money, but demanding more reform; where parents take responsibility for their children’s success; where we’re recruiting, retaining, and rewarding an army of new teachers; where we hold our schools, teachers and government accountable for results; and where we expect all our children not only to graduate high school, but to graduate college and get a good paying job.”