Education Secretary-designate Arne Duncan has focused on boosting classroom technology and presided over the launch of a high school that replaces textbooks with web-based course curriculum during his seven years as Chicago Public Schools CEO.
On Dec. 16, President-elect Barack Obama chose Duncan, 44, who pushed for consistent improvement of struggling schools, closing those that fail and drawing occasional criticism from teacher unions. Obama highlighted Duncan’s turnaround skills by choosing as the location for the selection announcement Chicago’s Dodge Renaissance Academy, a school Duncan closed and then reopened.
Chicago is the third-largest school district in the country, behind New York City and Los Angeles.
The two had visited the school together three years ago, although they share more than an interest in education: Duncan has played pickup basketball with Obama since the 1990s. In fact, Duncan co-captained the basketball team for Harvard, which is the alma mater of both men, and Duncan played basketball professionally in Australia before his career in education.
Duncan joined city officials – including Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley – in 2004 to launch a program called Renaissance 2010, which aims to open 100 new schools by 2010. In the program’s first four years, 55 schools have opened, including a public school known as the Virtual Opportunities Inside a School Environment (VOISE). The school opened in the fall and touts the latest in education technology. In October, the Chicago Board of Education approved the construction of two more technology-focused high schools.
VOISE students are given wireless-enabled laptops in the classroom and students without home access to a computer are provided with one. The school started with 150 freshmen, and Chicago education officials plan to increase enrollment by 150 each year until there are 600 VOISE students.
Attendance and graduation rate have proven higher at Renaissance 2010 schools compared to other Chicago public schools. The attendance rate at schools opened since 2004 is 95 percent – 1 percent higher than the overall district average. Renaissance 2010 high schools have a 90 percent graduation rate, compared to a 73 percent rate overall. Students are also less likely to transfer out of the new, technology-focused Chicago schools, according to district statistics.
Duncan and Chicago school board members have discussed the launch of several non-traditional elementary, middle and high schools, including career preparation, single-sex, and boarding schools.
Bringing specialized schools to Chicago, Duncan said, would cater to students’ varied abilities and interests.
"We know that not every child learns the same way,’ Duncan said in April. "Some children learn better in a classroom surrounded by all boys or all girls. Some learn better when they can take classroom material and immediately apply it to real-world situations. Other children need a residential school that allows them to better focus on academics. We want to provide all of these education options and more.”
Chicago’s abnormal government structure allows each public school to determine how its technology budget will be spent during the academic year. The district’s Office of Technology Services has a program that helps school officials purchase cost-effective computer equipment.
The program allows schools to lease Dell and Apple computers and printers from CDW-G, among other equipment. The district’s technology office also recommends which software schools should buy for their computer labs.
Obama’s choice has been anticipated, and argued about, by education groups anxious to see what Obama will do to improve the nation’s schools.
Obama managed throughout his campaign to avoid taking sides in the contentious debate over the direction of education and the fate of No Child Left Behind.
Duncan’s selection may be a consensus choice. Reform advocates wanted a big-city school superintendent who, like Duncan, has sought accountability for schools and teachers. And teachers’ unions wanted an advocate for their members. Union leaders have said they believe Duncan is willing to work with them.
"Arne Duncan actually reaches out and tries to do things in a collaborative way," Randi Weingarten, head of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, told the Associated Press earlier this month.
In the immediate wake of Duncan’s selection, the plurality of opinion was decidedly positive. The only major figure expressing early resistance to the appointment was Chicago’s Mayor Daley.
Though Daley is decidedly a Duncan fan, just before the appointment was announced, the mayor said he wished Obama would pick somebody else—because he didn’t want Duncan to leave Chicago. "We’re doing so well,” lamented the mayor.