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Arne Duncan: New education head said to put kids first

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 16, 2008 - Choosing Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Arne Duncan to run the U.S. Department of Education sends a strong signal that under an Obama administration, kids will be at least as important as politics.

Duncan, who has run the Chicago Public Schools for the past seven years, is a towering figure with a humble persona who has never taken sides in the old money-versus-accountability argument between educators and politicians. Rather, he understands that both are needed if we are to reach our national goal of leaving no child behind.

Under Duncan's leadership, Chicago Public Schools has implemented an exhaustive number of new programs, closed underperforming schools and opened 75 new ones, expanded the number of charter schools and other alternatively governed schools and raised student test scores. Despite his stated goal to make Chicago Public Schools the premier urban school system in the United States, only 65 percent of all CPS students meet or exceed state standards, only 55 percent of students graduate high school and fewer than one-third of those go on to a four-year college.

While the numbers still aren't great, they have improved every year since he took over in 2001, when just 40 percent of CPS students were meeting state standards on achievement tests. On a national test comparing Chicago to other cities and to the nation, CPS scores are up 11 points since 2002 versus a 3 percent rise for scores nationally, the district reported.

The 6-foot-5-inch former professional basketball player -- and current basketball pick-up partner of President-elect Barack Obama -- hasn't done it alone.

He's had help from the Illinois Legislature, which has given him a relatively free hand in closing schools without consulting parents or the locally elected boards of individual schools.

He's had the data generated by the independent Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. Researchers there have delved deeply into the Chicago Public Schools and produced studies that have given him the numbers he needs to know what's working and what isn't. When, for example, a study showed that only six of 100 high school freshmen would ultimately graduate from college, he used that embarrassing statistic to help determine how to organize high school reforms.

And, perhaps most importantly in the city of Chicago, he's had the backing of Mayor Richard M. Daley, who ousted Duncan's predecessor, Paul Vallas, when it became clear that Vallas was taking too much credit for the schools' success in the late 1990s. Much to the mayor's chagrin, Vallas, who now is head of the school system in New Orleans, harbored political aspirations of his own, which culminated in a race against the now-indicted Gov. Rod Blagojevich in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Duncan, however, has never shown the slightest political tendencies. Rather, he has kept a laser-like focus on the more than 408,000 children who attend Chicago's 655 public schools. In a system that is 85 percent low-income and 92 percent minority, Duncan has said repeatedly that he sees quality education as a civil rights issue.

Tracy Dell'Angela, a former education reporter for the Chicago Tribune who now works for the Consortium on School Research, has watched Duncan mature over the past seven years from a school administrator who grasped at anything and everything that might help improve schools to a sophisticated leader who understands the data and uses it to craft effective programs. The Consortium is "almost always delivering news that doesn't make the district look good," she said. "His reaction is not 'How do I spin this?' but 'How do I fix this?'"

John Simmons, author of "Breaking Through: Transforming Urban School Districts" and president of Strategic Learning Initiatives , a nonprofit that works in the Chicago Public Schools, praised Duncan as "an excellent choice for the job. He has practical ideas he's been able to implement in the system and they've gotten good results."

Linda Lenz, founder and publisher of Catalyst-Chicago , a investigative reporting publication that covers school reform, called Duncan a "no-drama guy."

"No one dislikes him," she said. "What's amazing for someone who is universally liked is he has been able to take some controversial stands. He does it in a way that doesn't rub people's noses in it."

During his tenure at CPS, he has closed underperforming schools and opened others, often run by independent charter companies that operate without union-represented teachers. However, he also allowed the Chicago Teachers Union to open its own "Fresh Start" schools that would act as professional development incubators for new approaches to teaching and running schools.

Some of his programs, including a now-tabled plan to open a school that would serve only gay students and a program that rewards students with cash for good grades, have proven controversial. But he has never backed down, always meeting criticism with a calm demeanor and offering sound reasons for his decisions.

Duncan, who grew up working in his mother's inner-city after-school program and later founded a charter school funded by Ariel Capital Management, the investment firm run by another long-time Obama pal and b-baller, John Ariel, has never worked as a teacher. But he's still a guy who sees his life's work as educating kids.

At Tuesday's press conference introducing Duncan as his choice for education secretary, Obama joked that his Cabinet would be the best basketball-playing Cabinet in American history. Dell'Angela, who has seen Duncan play basketball, said "his passing game is more impressive than his shooting game."

If he displays similar skills as education secretary, it would mean he is a team player who knows how to get the job done without hogging all the credit -- exactly the thing public school kids and high-profile politicians need.

Cindy Richards is a veteran Chicago journalist who has covered Chicago Public Schools on and off for the last 20 years.