Obama’s Education Secretary: Reform Underperforming Schools, Offer Bonuses For Great Teaching

Today, President-elect Barack Obama introduced Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan as the next Secretary of Education. Across the board, Duncan is being described as someone “known for taking tough steps to improve schools while maintaining respectful relations with teachers and their unions.”

As the Washington Post put it, Duncan will have to “try and bridge the deep divides among education advocates, teachers unions and civil rights groups”:

Duncan’s résumé appeals to those identify themselves as reformers and tend to support tough accountability, charter schools, performance-pay plans and other steps that shake up the status quo. But his calls for increased funding and willingness to partner with teachers also wins the approval of unions and school officials who think the federal government imposes too many sanctions without offering enough support.

Duncan’s signature program in Chicago is Renaissance 2010, the goal of which was “to increase the number of high quality educational options in communities across Chicago.” The plan is an ambitious one for turning around Chicago’s education system by closing low-performing schools and replacing them with “smaller, entrepreneurial schools.” Under his watch, “high school graduation rates improved…(up to 55 percent from 47 percent), as did college-going rates (up to 50 percent from 44 percent).”


Like Obama, Duncan is a supporter of the accountability standards laid out in the often controversial No Child Left Behind program. And as the Chicago Tribune notes, he “isn’t afraid to rankle the teachers union.”

However, he also “helped craft a five-year teacher contract that promised significant raises each year in exchange for long-term stability.” Furthermore, he worked with the unions “to introduce a pay for performance program that offers bonuses for great teachers” through a federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant.

A report by the Center for American Progress shows that “consistent assignment to high-quality teachers can substantially lower the barriers to realizing academic success imposed by poverty.” While the true efficacy of teacher incentive programs is still unknown, “The only way we will learn more is by experimenting with incentives — financial and otherwise — and then carefully evaluating the results.” Duncan’s record shows that he is willing to try new approaches in order to reform the education system.


Ezra Klein remembers visiting a Renaissance 2010 school:

Two years ago, I went out to the city of Austin to profile one of the most promising new schools, Austin Polytech, an advanced manufacturing high school that was a joint creation of city bureaucrats, local employers, community activist groups, and yes, even teacher’s unions. The school was very impressive then, and in the years since, its fame has grown.