Education pick noted for 'hands-on' approach

Arne Duncan stands practically alone among his colleagues: His seven-year stint at the head of Chicago Public Schools dwarfs that of most big-city superintendents, who stick around, on average, for three years, according to a recent survey.

That Duncan, President-elect Barack Obama's choice for Education secretary, has lasted so long at the helm of the nation's third-largest school system may be a sign of his grit, observers say.

Duncan's appointment is "a good sign that Obama is serious about moving forward," said Joe Williams, who directs Democrats for Education Reform, a New York-based political action committee. "The real battle starts now, though, to try to make that happen."

Duncan, 44, has led Chicago schools since 2001. Announcing the appointment Tuesday in Chicago, Obama said, "In the long run, the path to jobs and growth begins in America's classrooms." He touted Duncan as the right choice to create that path: "When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners. For Arne, school reform isn't just a theory in a book — it's the cause of his life."

If he's confirmed, Duncan's first job will be hammering out accords on Obama's top education priorities: college affordability, expanded preschool and, perhaps most significantly, a new version of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Duncan's toughest task may be persuading Congress to reauthorize the 2002 law, which expired this year. It has been largely forsaken by many congressional Democrats for its heavy reliance on standardized testing — and by many Republicans for its federal intrusion on local education decisions. The law requires that virtually all students read and do math proficiently by 2014, focusing on subgroups such as poor and minority students and those learning English.

Testifying last July before Congress, Duncan said he appreciates "the core goals" of NCLB, but he added, "We think the law can be improved in other ways."

In seven years in Chicago, Duncan has created thousands of public preschool slots for low-income children, expanded teacher training, merit pay and charter schools while shuttering underperforming schools — all with improvements in students' basic skills.

Impressive accomplishments, but he has also had the full support of a Democratic administration, from City Hall to the governor's mansion, said Alexander Russo, who writes about Chicago schools in the blog District299.com.

"When you're working for a mayor named Daley, and the governor's mansion and Statehouse are all controlled by Democrats," he said, "you don't have to do that much negotiating with independent or autonomous stakeholders."

Richard Daley, a Democrat, is the longtime mayor of Chicago.

Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington advocacy group, said Duncan may be surprised by the limited authority he finds: Federal funding accounts for less than 10% of most district budgets, making Washington "a minor player" in reform efforts.

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