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Education secretary pick a pragmatic reformer, liked by teachers unions


Phil Ciciora, News Editor

James Anderson
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
James Anderson says President-elect Obama's pick for secretary of education signals education will not be a second-tier issue.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The naming of Arne Duncan, chief executive of the Chicago public school system, to run the U.S. Department of Education signals that education will not be second-tier issue in a Barack Obama presidency, says James D. Anderson, the Gutsgell Professor of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Even before he ran for the presidency, and even before he was elected to the Senate, president-elect Obama was concerned about education,” Anderson said, noting that the then-Illinois state senator was the keynote speaker at the “Promises to Keep? Brown v. Board and Equal Educational Opportunity” conference held on the Urbana campus in the spring of 2004.

Obama talked at length about education, including how to close the achievement gap in schools, and how to solve some of the structural and cultural problems of our education system, Anderson recalled.

“I think he’s always had those concerns, and it’s always been a part of his agenda, and I’m not surprised he would appoint someone who would bring those issues front and center,” Anderson said.

Under Duncan, Chicago schools have made some reforms, but only “at the edges,” Anderson said.

“He’s opened some new schools, he’s shut down schools that were failing, and he has tried to reform the funding system so that low-income and minority students aren’t marginalized because of the regressive property-tax support for education that we have,” he said. “Overall, Duncan recognizes that there needs to be some fundamental change in our educational system.”

Despite Duncan’s willingness to push for reform, Anderson said, the Chicago public school system has remained a place where failure is the norm rather than the exception.

“They have 90 public high schools, and 80 of them don’t make annual yearly progress on a consistent basis,” he said. “The ones that do are the elite schools. Beyond those 10 or so magnet schools, that system is in really bad shape.

The average ACT scores across the system are in teens – they’re lucky if they get up to 17. The poverty rate is 87 percent, which is intractable. So there are things about that school system that even he has not been able to do anything about, including funding and failure rates.”

Anderson noted that though Duncan managed to increase the high school graduation rates slightly, only 8 percent of Chicago public school freshmen earned a bachelor’s degree, “which is atrocious.”

“We’re talking about a system that is the third largest in the country and has one in every five students in the state of Illinois,” Anderson said. “When Chicago public schools fail, it not only fails for the city, it fails for the whole state.”

So why did Obama choose Duncan over the rumored front-runner, Linda Darling-Hammond, who was the Obama transition team’s education adviser and also is a professor at Stanford University?

“If you look at this team, which I call a ‘Team of Pragmatists,’ ” he said, “they look for people like Duncan, who has been in charge of systems, as opposed to someone who has been in the academy. I think that a lot of people in higher education would have preferred Linda-Darling Hammond, but she was viewed as too much of a scholar, like Larry Summers” (an Obama economic adviser and former president of Harvard University).

Anderson said Duncan has an uncanny ability to straddle both sides of the warring factions in education: reformers and teachers unions.

“He has always worked with the teachers unions,” he said, “and they tend to like him. I would say he’s a reformer who has a foot in both camps. He’s liked by the reform community but he’s also well-respected and liked by the teachers unions. If you were going to pick someone they could also work with and have a lot of respect for, and yet does not come from that community, Arne Duncan would be one of the better choices.”

Regarding the much-maligned No Child Left Behind law, Anderson said that amending the law would likely be the Obama administration’s first educational priority.

“Both Obama and Duncan see it as having some positive aspects,” he said. “They like the fact that it monitors achievement, but this notion of punishing schools and the law itself being an unfunded mandate is something that will be changed right away.”

Anderson, an educational historian at Illinois, is a member of the National Academy of Education, considered the highest honor in the field of educational scholarship, and the author of “The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935” (1988), which received the Outstanding Book Award that year from the American Educational Research Association.

Editor’s note:            To contact James D. Anderson, call 217-333-7404; e-mail