RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
President-elect Barack Obama has picked for his secretary of education the head of Chicago's public schools. Arne Duncan has been Mr. Obama's friend and adviser since the early 1990s, as well as a fellow basketball player. And Duncan's tenure at the nation's third-largest school district has given him a reputation as a hands-on reformer, as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Arne Duncan helped shape Mr. Obama's education agenda during the campaign. As Chicago's top school bureaucrat, Duncan has put a great deal of faith in outsiders to help rescue public education in Chicago, once considered the worst in the nation. In an interview with NPR this fall, Duncan argued that the needs of schoolchildren in cities like Chicago are simply too big, too urgent.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVE NPR INTERVIEW)
ARNE DUNCAN: We've had children who have lived in cars, who have been homeless. We have students that we worry so much about them not eating over the weekends that we send food with them home on Friday afternoon to make it through the weekend until we can feed them breakfast Monday. And to me the answer is not to throw up our hands and make excuses. My answer is that we have to change the nature of what it means to be a school.
SANCHEZ: Innovation, Duncan argues. That's what urban education sorely needs.
DUNCAN: And to get there, you need to bring educational entrepreneurs, visionaries to the table to help shape that new vision.
SANCHEZ: With the full backing of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Duncan hired entrepreneurs to train principals, create an alternative pipeline for preparing new teachers, and to take over some of Chicago's worst schools. Duncan's partnership with entrepreneurs fits rather neatly with Barack Obama's vision of public school reform and Obama's desire to rattle the status quo. That's not popular among teachers unions, nor did it sit well with some of Obama's closest education advisers who espoused more measured, cautious reforms during the campaign.
Duncan, on the other hand, is no miracle worker. His overall record in Chicago is mixed. Dropout rates, college attendance rates, and students' reading and math scores are still low. But Joe Williams, head of Democrats for School Reform, a partisan education group, says Duncan has shown that in tackling these problems, he's both reform-minded and pragmatic.
JOE WILLIAMS: Teachers unions can work with him. Some of the harder-charging reformers can work with him. There is an opportunity in someone like Arne Duncan to try to coalesce some of the energy that's been building in cities around the country and say what are we going to do as a nation to make sure that every child has an opportunity?
SANCHEZ: Others say Duncan is a good pick for secretary of education because of two qualities he possesses.
ANDREW ROTHERHAM: One is confidence. The second is non-ideological.
SANCHEZ: Andrew Rotherham is co-founder of the Education Sector, a research group. He was also an adviser to the Obama campaign. He says the nation's next education secretary must understand the problems of urban schools.
ROTHERHAM: You can learn the ways of Washington. What you can't learn is that experience of someone who has actually led change and led reform in a large school district. You need someone who has walked the walk, who has been willing to set expectations, be accountable, and so forth, and somebody who can talk about the work in a very direct way because they've done it.
SANCHEZ: Duncan's nomination must now go to the U.S. Senate for confirmation. What remains to be seen is whether education is going to be a priority in Mr. Obama's first 100 days. The three big issues: reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, funding for charter schools, and dealing with a student-loan crisis. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.