Every time Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his department make a decision that affects local schools, he remembers that he once “lived on the other side of the law.”
That is, he served as superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Public Schools for eight years before coming to Washington to run the Department of Education, and he worked in education for more than a decade before that. He knows what life is like for educators who have to carry out policies developed in Washington.
It is that perspective, more than any other, which sets him apart among Washington’s top administrators. And it’s also allowed him to innovate from experience.
Take the revamping of the “No Child Left Behind” law, for example. When Congress could not get its act together to revise the law to modify the standards and goals which had been widely criticized as unrealistic, President Barack Obama and Duncan did what they could by administrative fiat. States may now seek waivers from the law’s standards, provided they meet other criteria. Many states have welcomed the waivers, though some are being cautious.
Duncan and the president’s actions may have seemed unilateral, but the education secretary said he did not act precipitously.
“I ‘lived on the other side of the law’ for 17 years and knew what had worked and the main things that didn’t work,” Duncan said in his sprawling office on the top floor of the Department of Education Building, overlooking an even more sprawling spread of government buildings out the window.
“Knock on wood, I had good relationships on both sides of the (political) aisle and open and honest communication.
“I hoped they (in Congress) would fix it in a bipartisan way. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite happen. At that point, you are already four years overdue. We gave them lots of warning, lots of heads up we were thinking about this,” he said, using the jargon of the professional basketball player he once was. Standing 6-foot-5, Duncan played in Australia after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1987, where he co-captained the basketball team and was named a first-team Academic All-American.
We have huge debates around this table and a lot of strong opinions. I think that’s how I make the best decisions.”
Now working from Washington, it took Duncan and Obama’s administrative action to kick-start Congress, which shortly after the two made the announcement in September, started passing NCLB modification legislation. The bills have yet to receive final action, so the Education Department is plunging ahead.
“When it didn’t happen, we were left with the choice of doing something or doing nothing,” Duncan said, firmly. “I thought to do nothing would have been the height of tone-deafness. Everywhere I go the question wasn’t ‘why are you doing this?’ The question was ‘what’s taking you so long?’ I called 45 or 46 governors, I called almost every one. Literally every one of them said this is the right thing to do. None said ‘don’t do it.’”
Now that the waivers have been outlined, some states are hesitating, noting that the modifications will cost money and facing opposition from teachers unions.
But most are looking seriously at adopting the waivers which would allow school districts that more stringently test teachers to apply for relief from the Bush-era law’s standards requiring 100 percent of students to reach a “proficient” level in reading and math by 2014. According to the Center on Education Policy, nearly a third of schools missed their intermediate goals in 2009, leading many educators to conclude that the standards were unachievable.
Leading the charge toward change
Before Duncan could sell the waivers in “No Child Left Behind” to the states, he had to sell it internally at the Department of Education, which, after all, had promulgated the law in the first place under President George W. Bush. While the top officers at DOE are political appointees, and would be expected to toe the administration line, professional career employees are a different breed. Many of them have been there not only since the Bush administration, but for administration after administration, trying to implement directives from the top.
“We have huge debates around this table,” Duncan said, indicating the vast conference table in his office that can seat dozens, “and a lot of strong opinions. I think that’s how I make the best decisions.”
The professional employees under Duncan seem to agree. They say the discussions on “No Child,” weren’t necessarily monolithic – with political appointees on one side and career employees on the other. There were just as many discussions among the career people as between the two types of workers. Career employees at the department are used to working within existing statutes and making adjustments when necessary, without congressional action, because authorizations don’t always come on time.
“It was a very open and collaborative kind of discussion where we were also looking at information we had on how well the programs were working – which provisions seemed to be working and which did not,” said Phil Rosenfelt, acting general counsel of the department. Rosenfelt has worked for the Education Department and its predecessor the Department of Health, Education and Welfare since 1971 under many Cabinet secretaries and seen many changes in law.
Duncan said ultimately he spent a lot of time listening to people who had been in the department for as many as 40 years, and he heard no one say the law was perfect. It was time for a change. And there will be more changes coming when Congress eventually does re-write the law, but that’s the way it should be, he said.
Aside from “No Child,” Duncan was tested almost immediately upon entering the department when nearly $100 billion in 2009 Recovery Act funds became available for education, doubling the department’s budget. The department reports that money went out to the school districts and funded about 275,000 education jobs – teachers, principals, librarians and counselors. Among the initiatives was the Race to the Top competition, in which schools competed for improvement grants.
It may sound easy to give money away, but it surely wasn’t, Duncan said. A robust set of criteria had to be developed at lightning speed.
“We had long days. We got it done. People said you aren’t acting like a bureaucracy. You got it done,” Duncan said, returning a compliment to his professional staff “We moved stuff out much more quickly than people are supposed to do and that was the career staff that rolled up their sleeves and got it done.”
Joe Conaty, director of DOE’s academic improvement, recalls that the secretary gave the staff clear instructions on how to distribute the money.
“The secretary, having been an educator on the ground, is sensitive to the real world for schools and how this might play in the school districts,” he said. Again, innovation born of experience.
Learning on the ground
While Duncan may have been an “educator on the ground,” he has never actually been a classroom teacher. After Harvard and playing basketball mostly in Australia, he came home to Chicago where he was raised and where he learned about educating the underclass at the knee of his mother, who ran an after-school program for mostly African-American kids.
In 1992 he directed the Ariel Education Initiative, a program for mentoring kids at one of the city’s worst-performing elementary schools. That school closed in 1996 and Duncan and his partner re-opened it as a charter school. In 1999, Duncan began his tenure with the Chicago Public Schools, first as an assistant and then CEO of the schools beginning in 2001.
His passion for education and teaching is evident when he gets on something of a soap box in discussing recent articles that suggest a college degree may not be worth as much as it once was, particularly in a difficult job market.
“You have to look at it over the long haul,” he said, leaning forward in his chair. “There are a million studies we can give you that show that a college education is by far the best investment you can make. It will double your potential earnings. There are tough economic times today. That’s why we moved forward (to revamp education) loan repayments.
“If you ask me whether I would want to be a high school dropout, a high school graduate or a college graduate, it is unequivocal that the best choice is (college) – not just for any individual, for their families, their communities, their states, and ultimately for the country.”