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What Pundits and Policymakers Are Saying About Duncan

News and commentary from around the Web show mixed reaction of both support and disappointment with President-elect Barack Obama’s pick for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

Policy blogs and other online media show mixed reviews of Duncan’s record and his nomination to the nation’s top education post.

Numerous blogs characterize Duncan as a centrist not married to any one ideology, while others characterize his plan of shutting down schools as being “radical.” Still, other blogs call him a corporate educator, short on practical experience.

On his blog, Flypaper, Mike Petrilli of the nonprofit education think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, calls Duncan a “consensus candidate bridging the gap between two camps within the Democratic Party (the reformers and the establishment). But he’s not so much a compromise as a canvas upon which people of various persuasions can paint their hopes and dreams (much like his boss).

“To the reformers, he’s a crusader for charter schools and merit pay. To the unions he’s a conciliator and peacemaker,” Petrilli continues. “To (No Child Left Behind) supporters he’s an accountability hawk. To NCLB detractors he’s a ‘flexibility’ proponent. Which of these things is he really? Time will tell.”

Education Sector, an independent research organization, concurs. Their blog, eduwonk, says Duncan is “someone who would be a logical and effective pick for an Obama secretary of education and someone who can put together a real accountability-plus agenda that holds the line on accountability while building a coalition around other supports for children.”

Perhaps one of the more intriguing developments in the blogosphere is that Duncan is getting rave reviews from some conservative bloggers and think tanks — though not all — such as the Heritage Foundation, while more liberal bloggers and groups are less enthusiastic. Many liberals appear to have wanted Obama to choose Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond instead.

Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University in California, currently serves as Obama’s transition chief on education policy.

The Huffington Post, one of the most popular blogs on the Web, writes that reform advocates seeking to make schools and teachers accountable for student performance will be happy with the pick.

“Duncan’s nomination will please reform advocates who wanted a big-city schools chief who has sought to hold schools and teachers accountable for student performance; they had backed Duncan or New York’s Joel Klein,” states the site. “These advocates have squared off against teachers’ unions in a contentious debate among Democrats over whom Obama should choose. Unions, an influential segment of the party base, wanted a strong advocate for their members such as Obama adviser Linda Darling-Hammond … ”

Many of those commenting on The Huffington Post story seem to disapprove of Duncan and his programs, or didn’t know much about either. Some held out hope that Darling-Hammond would be named a White House adviser, and speculated that she would be “the brains” on education policy while Duncan would serve as its public face.

“She ain’t going away,” writes someone who calls himself vjoseph, but doesn’t give any other details in his profile. “I think Arne is going to be the face of the department but Hammond will be the brain.”

Others, like New York Times columnist David Brooks, wrote earlier this month that it is more likely Darling-Hammond would be named deputy secretary. Something, Brooks laments, that could be a set-back for reformists. “In some sense, the final option would be the biggest setback for reform,” Brooks wrote. “Education is one of those areas where implementation and the details are more important than grand pronouncements. If the deputies and assistants in the secretary’s office are not true reformers, nothing will get done.”

The editorial board at The Chicago Sun-Times — people who should know Duncan well — writes that Chicago will remember Duncan for his radical strategy of shutting dozens of failing schools and replacing them with new ones, but also credited Duncan with being a listener who knows how to make adjustments.

Duncan stumbled, the newspaper states, while launching a controversial program called Renaissance 2010. The project closes failing schools and then reopens them with new administrators, staff and teachers.

“As he closed failing schools, students were dispersed temporarily to other schools for a year or more, stigmatizing many of those kids and leading to a spike in violence at some receiving high schools,” the newspapers recalls. “Parents, advocates and kids rightly complained and, ultimately, Duncan took heed.

“Now the transformation occurs over the summer. Kids return to the same school building in the fall but the rest is new — most of the teachers and other adults, the curriculum and support programs,” it continues. “We respect Duncan for sticking to his guns: He is passionate about fixing chronically failing schools, and he wouldn’t retreat.  … Time will tell whether Renaissance 2010 is a success, though early results look promising. Those qualities — vision and compromise — will serve Duncan well as education secretary.”

While many praise Duncan for improving Chicago’s schools, Education Week’s Eduwonkette blog notes achievement gaps between Black, Hispanic and White students in Chicago have not shrunk in the last five to six years under Duncan. In many cases these gaps are growing, the Web site reports.

Education Week’s David Hoff also remarks that Obama will have a fan of the No Child Left Behind Act running the U.S. Department of Education by choosing Duncan. Hoff does not say why this could be good or bad.

The Nation’s Alfie Kohn is sharply critical of the pick. He says Duncan is obsessed with testing and will “bring to Washington an agenda based on Renaissance 2010, which Chicago education activist Michael Klonsky describes as a blend of ‘more standardized testing, closing neighborhood schools, militarization and the privatization of school management.’”

Kohn points out Duncan was called a “budding hero in the education business” by Bush’s former education secretary Rod Paige. Kohn adds that Duncan’s title as CEO of Chicago public schools is “all-too-apt.”

Liberal writer Greg Palast is also critical of Duncan, likening him to a lawyer-turned-schools chief “playing at education” who supports teaching-to-the-test pedagogy.

But the conservative Heritage Foundation writes that the new education secretary-designate is “one of a handful of innovative, reform-minded big city schools chiefs” and says “conservatives should be heartened that Mr. Duncan recognizes the need for local leadership and innovation.”

The American Conservative Daily was less supportive of Duncan. They criticized his support for opening up a gay-friendly high school in Chicago, saying “one wonders if Duncan will bring this proposal with him to Washington, D.C., and attempt to force school systems all across the country to start up their own gay, lesbian and transgender schools?”

The Christian conservative CBN News also chimed in on the topic, writing that Republicans and social conservatives will oppose Duncan.

CBN News disagreed with earlier assessments that Duncan is a centrist.

“While the idea of a gay high school may be troubling for some, the problem for Obama is that a pick like this doesn’t portray him in such a centrist way,” writes David Brody, a commentator for CBN. “It gives the impression that he’s nominating wild liberals to his cabinet.”

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