Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner may be the Obama cabinet member facing the biggest crisis — the economic one — but Education Secretary Arne Duncan may be the one holding the biggest opportunity.
It is this: He inherits the best chance in a generation to really shake up an American education system that is uneven and underperforming. And he knows it.
“I see this as an extraordinary opportunity,” Mr. Duncan said in an interview. “We have a couple of things going in our direction that create what I call the perfect storm for reform.”
If the economy ever heals, and if Afghanistan doesn’t blow up, this quest to change the way Americans educate their kids may emerge as one of the biggest dramas of the Obama term. Here are the elements Mr. Duncan describes:
There’s virtually a national consensus — one that includes business leaders panting for a better-prepared work force — that America’s ossified education system needs a big shake-up. Moreover, a bipartisan trail toward real change was blazed by the Bush administration (which gets too little credit for doing so).
Mr. Duncan himself is an outside-Washington character with a track record of challenging the status quo in Chicago. He also works for a president who is his friend and who at least appears willing to break some china in this area. And it may be that only a Democratic president has the credibility to gore the ox of some traditional Democratic constituencies — teachers’ unions and big-city education bureaucracies — that have stood in the way in the past.
But none of those factors is Mr. Duncan’s real ace in the hole. “What’s different,” he says, “is, guess what? We have a little money to play with.”
Actually, Mr. Duncan has a lot of money to play with, and his voice virtually trembles with excitement when he talks about it. The economic-stimulus bill contains roughly $100 billion for education. “It is unprecedented resources,” he says. “It virtually doubles our budget.”
Put it all together and it’s just possible that the stars may align for real “education reform,” a shopworn phrase that invites as much cynicism as excitement.
But getting from words to real improvements will involve more than just spending money, as Mr. Duncan well knows. Above all, it will involve coaxing, cajoling and sometimes confronting state governments, which really have far more to do with how education is done on the front lines than does the federal government.
That’s where the emerging experiment gets intriguing. President Barack Obama gave a speech last week laying out his administration’s plans, and it was sweeping and ambitious. He called for merit pay for good teachers, and he urged states and cities to lift the caps many have placed on the number of charter schools they would allow. He explicitly endorsed a tough standardized-testing system used in Massachusetts that is popular with conservatives, and he called for setting up statewide data banks that track how students are doing and, by extension, how well their teachers are performing.
By traditional Democratic standards, those are fairly radical thoughts. Look closely and you can see one common denominator: Almost none are things the federal government can snap its fingers and do. Almost all require state governments.
Here’s where the money comes into play. Some may doubt the Obama administration’s belief in market forces in other areas, but Mr. Duncan clearly believes those forces can work to his benefit in pushing change in education. He is taking $5 billion of that stimulus money and establishing a Race to the Top Fund that will go to states that show they have both a record and a plan to push the kinds of changes the Obama administration seeks.
But only a “limited number” of states will get funding, Mr. Duncan says, and they will have to compete to win grants. “We’re going to work hard with states, but they’re going to have to work with us on reform,” he says. “The federal government has never had $5 billion to fund excellence….This isn’t rhetoric. This is billions of dollars that are at stake.”
While lots of attention focuses on the controversial ideas of charter schools and merit pay, Mr. Duncan thinks creating those data banks that show how individual students are doing as they move through school is crucially important.
Data translate into transparency. Transparency allows administrators to track students, and student performance can be linked back to teacher performance, and teacher performance can be linked back to the education colleges that produce the teachers in the first place.
“We’re going to tell the truth about all of it, the good, the bad and the ugly,” he pledges. Students, above all, need to know how they stack up: “We’ve got to stop lying to kids.”
Mr. Obama’s speech contained other elements, including spending a big chunk of that $100 billion to help students pay for college, to improve early-childhood education, as well as an impassioned plea to high schoolers not to drop out. But Arne Duncan’s effort to lead the states into change — well, that’s where the money will meet the road.