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SLAM DUNK-AN: Senate Unanimously Confirms Arne Duncan as Next U.S. Secretary of Education

“We’ve seen ongoing improvement in education that our children receive in our nation’s schools."

By a voice vote on January 20, the U.S. Senate confirmed Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan as U.S. Secretary of Education. When he nominated Duncan to be Secretary of Education in December, then-President-elect Barack Obama called him the “most hands-on of hands-on practitioners,” adding “For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book—it’s the cause of his life.”

Prior to his Senate confirmation, Duncan (who is also known as a basketball-playing buddy of the new president) appeared before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee on January 13. In his testimony, Duncan underscored the importance of education to America’s future economic security, expressed his intention to examine merit pay for teachers, and emphasized the need to reduce dropout rates and ensure that more students both enroll in and graduate from college.

In his opening statement, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) , who chaired the hearing at the request of Senate HELP Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), outlined several challenges that the Obama administration will face, including the need for a fresh perspective on the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), greater college access, and improved access to early education. He also focused on the importance of a new commitment to education funding, adding that the Title I program had been underfunded by $55 billion over the last seven years while the federal government had failed to advance its commitment to fund the education of children with disabilities. “Reform without new resources is just so much wishful thinking,” Harkin said.

Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), the ranking Republican on the HELP Committee, used his opening statement to link the importance of education to the nation’s economic future. He stressed that too many students were dropping out of high school and leaving college before earning a degree. “We’ve seen ongoing improvement in education that our children receive in our nation’s schools,” Enzi said. “But I would say that even with the progress we’ve made, it’s not been enough. I believe that education is a key factor in securing a sound economic future for our country. Everyone, regardless of their background, needs access to quality education and training throughout their lives.”

Duncan Outlines President Obama’s Education Vision

Saying that it was an “extraordinary time” for the nation and an “extraordinary time to be working on education,” Duncan testified that he approached the position of secretary of education with three deeply held beliefs. First, every child from every background can be successful when adults do their jobs and give the children the opportunities to succeed. Second, when adults fail to properly educate children, they perpetuate poverty and social failure. Third, children have one chance at a quality education. For that last reason, he said, “we must work with an extraordinary sense of urgency. Simply put, we cannot wait because they cannot wait.”

Explaining that President Obama views education as “both a moral obligation and an economic imperative,” Duncan outlined some of the education initiatives that Obama plans to pursue. He mentioned the need to improve the access to and the quality of early childhood education, to raise standards and increase teacher quality, and to ensure greater access to higher education and strengthen institutions such as community colleges, which he said were “critically important” to giving people a second chance at retooling their skills and getting back into the workforce.

Duncan noted two themes that were very important to him and that he felt should permeate the work that needed to be done. The first was to do dramatically better and continue to innovate, which, as he explained it, means building upon what works and challenging the status quo. The second was to recognize and reward excellence.

“We have to elevate the teaching profession,” he said. “We have to build upon this next generation of leaders in our schools and our state boards. And we have to find ways to scale up what works. There are great, great pockets of excellence as we look across every state in this country. We have to find ways that scale up what works and shine a spotlight on those educators who are doing an extraordinary job and going above and beyond the call of duty…”

Duncan Focused on Attracting and Rewarding Great Teachers

In response to a question from Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), himself a U.S. Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush from March 1991 to January 1993, Duncan further explained how he proposed to reward outstanding teaching.

“In the education business, talent matters tremendously,” Duncan said. “We can have the best curriculum, the best technology, we can have a great facility, but if we don’t have great teachers in every classroom, the rest of it just isn’t as important. So whatever we can do to support great teaching, recognize it, reward it, grow it, that’s the best thing that we can do.”

Duncan called the Teacher Incentive Fund, which supports efforts to develop and implement performance-based teacher and principal compensation systems in high-need schools, one of the best things that former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings did. He said that program, which he implemented in Chicago in partnership with the teachers’ union and a teacher advisory council, had been a great help to him because it had allowed him to recognize and reward excellence in some of the toughest communities. He said that he not only supported the program, but that he wanted to expand it as secretary.

“The more we can reward excellence, the more we can incent excellence, the more we can get our best teachers to work in those hard-to-staff schools and communities, the better our students are going to do,” Duncan said. “I plan on spending a lot of time thinking about how we can continue to innovate, continue to incent the talent to come into teaching, and keep that great talent once it’s there.”

Duncan expressed optimism that the nation could do a better job in attracting talent to the teaching profession, saying that there was a “groundswell” of young people who were committed, passionate, and wanted to make a difference. He added that the tough economic conditions could actually help recruit great talent, implying that recent graduates accustomed to landing jobs in the private sector could see those openings evaporate as corporations cut jobs. Duncan also stressed the importance of great mentoring and induction programs, particularly during the early years of a teacher’s career. For older teachers, he proposed clear career ladders so teachers could “see a way to grow and continue to improve their skills.” He also discussed the importance of training principals to support and manage their team of teachers.

Tackling the High School Dropout Crisis

During the hearing, several senators focused on ways to reduce the number of students who drop out of high school. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) said that low high school graduation rates were “fueling” prison construction, prison costs, welfare payments, and dependence on food stamps. “Today’s twenty-first century economy requires a minimum of a high school diploma—not to be able to fill out an application, but to be invited for an interview,” he said. “So we’re fooling ourselves if we believe that as a country, we can sit here with a 70 percent graduation rate from high school on time and [believe] that [the other] 30 percent of our kids are going to have the tools to compete.”

Duncan agreed that the low high school graduation rates were “very sobering statistics” that “present huge challenges.” He noted that while other countries had done a good job of raising their high school graduation rates, the rates in the United States had stagnated, which had allowed other countries to catch up with and surpass the United States “Whether you’re looking from an economic standpoint [or] from a human standpoint, we have to do something dramatically better,” he said.

“In the face of rising global competition, we know that education is the critical, some would say the only road to economic security,” Duncan said. “Quality education is also the civil rights issue of our generation. It’s the only path out of poverty and the only road to a more equal, just and fair society. In fact, I believe the fight for quality education is about so much more than education. It’s a fight for social justice.”

As evidence that the country can solve the dropout crisis, Duncan pointed to high-performing high schools in some of America’s toughest communities that are graduating 95 percent of their students and sending them to college. He said he would push hard to scale up these programs and schools, continue to innovate, and continue to focus on the problem as secretary of education.

“I would argue that while third grade test scores are important and that’s how many of us were measured, if my third grade test scores are fantastic and my dropout rates are too high, I’m not helping my students be successful and I’m not changing their lives,” he said. “And so, in as many ways that I can, both from the bully pulpit, as well as strategically, I want to shine a spotlight on this and see if we can reverse those trends significantly. … if we’re serious about reducing the dropout rate, we can’t wait until eleventh or twelfth grade—those kids are gone, they’re on the streets.”

Video of Arne Duncan’s confirmation hearing is available at


No Child Left Behind

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