A friend in high places
October 6, 2015
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by Citizen Stewart

Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama have been playing basketball together for more than a decade.

Duncan says of the president, “[w]hen we play, he’s not out there to make a few baskets or break a sweat; he’s out there to win.”

That must be a trait they share, one that has made them such a great team when it comes to improving public education for millions of promising, but marginalized, students who have suffered too long in bad schools.

Speaking with Charlie Rose in 2009, Duncan articulated a clear directive from the President:

We’ve been maintaining the status quo, and he’s pushing all of us to get dramatically better. He’s pushing districts. He’s pushing unions. He’s pushing states. He’s pushing parents. He’s challenging the Department of Education. He’s saying to all of us that we have to get dramatically better. I sort of believe systems perpetuate what they’re designed to perpetuate, and our systems have been perpetuating the status quo that isn’t good enough for children and it’s not good enough for the country. And we have to think very differently to get dramatically better.

Sometimes it’s good to have a clear, confident message from the top. It’s called leadership and we desperately needed it.

I was a school board member then, and our district, like many others, was dealing with a structural hole in funding, reeling from poor economic conditions, and bedeviled by institutional legacies that kept us knee-deep in poor performance. On the ground it was business as usual. Failure was more than an option, it was the norm. Then came a president who was willing to invest in “change,” and Duncan, his education secretary, the grand conductor of a new tune.

Yes, President George Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings were hard charging on reform, but by 2008 the landmark passage of No Child Left Behind was aging. States were still playing games with accountability, standards, and teacher quality. It was time to go big and go for broke. That’s when the ballers came, Obama and Duncan, and they had game.

While many had misgivings, public education has improved during the Duncan era.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act pumped an unprecedented $110 billion into saving teaching jobs in the aftermath of a terrible Bush economy. This was manna for those of us who were facing bleak budget numbers and fearing the worst.

Race To The Top, a first of its kind national competition between states, quickly forced education stakeholders in most states to adopt policies that improved the use of student data, established more robust teacher evaluation systems, and set the conditions for better schools. In my state, Minnesota, it was an urgent reason for interest groups who often disagree to collaborate – including community members, unions, elected officials, and business leaders.

Working together wasn’t easy, in fact there was quite a bit of backroom bickering and influence peddling, but in the end RTTP made adults put kids first, and that produced real solutions. In fact, Minnesota didn’t get the RTTP the first time around. We finished in 20th place out of 41 applicants. Reviewers said our vision for getting the best teachers into classrooms where they were most needed was not coherent. We were bruised. We did better in a subsequent round, winning $45 million for early childhood education.

Because of Duncan’s team we have sustained a heightened national focus on early learning, college preparation, and fair discipline policies. High school graduation rates reached 80%, an all time high. Dropout rates for Latino and black students were cut in half.

When states feared the rigidity of NCLB hampered their ability to perform, he was flexible. He allowed them the freedom to create new accountability systems.

We have also seen a historic boost in school funding, with a stubborn focus on reducing racial and economic disparities.

Yes, all of the eight previous education secretaries have had success in one way or another, but none has done more to remind Americans that “education is the civil rights issue of our time.”

There is another role Duncan played. He collected all of the scandalous abuse that teachers’ unions and right wing zealots wanted to heap on president Obama, but couldn’t because the first black president is immensely popular with people of color. The depths of irresponsible criticism of Duncan have gone so terribly below the belt they warrant no more mention here.

We should be clear, though, that through it all we have had a friend in Duncan. He’s been steady, consistent, level-headed, and he has focused intently on the needs of America’s faces at the bottom of the well – even through the toughest criticism.

Sure, there will always be that guy who shows up late to the game wearing the most expensive gym shoes, taking selfies on the sidelines as he spills his beer, and heckling the real player who has his head in the game.

Idle noisemakers have never done much for us.

We’ve always done better with a guy who knows how to take one for the team. Duncan has been that guy – a calm, gentle beast who ably deafens his ears to the noise, keeps his eye on the hoop, and takes the shot when it can matter most; when it can change the score and win the game.

As Duncan leaves Washington for private life we should internalize his radically simple, game winning philosophy. In a 2011 Bloomberg interview Duncan summed up his approach this way:

“At the end of the day, I’m about outcomes”

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