Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Carlo Rotella on Arne Duncan and the Race to the Top

I initially wrote about Arne Duncan last March, when I first heard about the "Race to the Top" grants (here). In October, I noted that David Brooks was giving props to Duncan's early efforts (here).

The Race to the Top grants are due to be awarded this spring, and I've read a number of articles about the program recently. For instance, Kevin Huffman reported that the quality of the states' applications varies wildly (here), though I struggled with understanding the differences in approach between the states that Huffman applauded (Louisiana) and those he dissed (New Jersey).


In last week's New Yorker, Carlo Rotella has a profile of Duncan. It struck me as a balanced examination of perspectives on Duncan's work, one year in.

Rotella places Duncan squarely in the camp of education's "free-market reformers" ("his appointment represented a defeat for the unions"), and he cites as his two major pieces of evidence Duncan's support for (1) charter schools and (2) merit pay for teachers.

It is downright amazing how central charter schools have become to education policy discussions in America. I still have not read an article that clearly frames how charter schools can reach enough students to dramatically affect the education dynamic (affecting students directly --- not just by stimulating the traditional schools through competition), though that article must be out there somewhere.


I learned in Rotella's article that Arne Duncan's mother was a major influence in his life; she started an after-school program that has become enormously successful and which shapes Duncan's argument that schools need to be open longer (14 hours a day -- I love this idea) in order to reach more kids more of the time.

Rotella also focuses a fair amount on the role of basketball in Duncan's life. This is interesting to me because his belief in the power of competition to reform public education is probably rooted in the positive role that competition (on the court) has had in his own life. It's also interesting to think that Duncan is probably closer -- emotionally, on-a-friend-level -- to Obama than any of the other Cabinet officials, since they actually play ball together.

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