Finally, An EdSec Nominee

After more than six weeks of handicapping, assessment, critique, and other such parlor games, we can finally see the plume of white smoke emitting from the Chicago chimney.  President-elect Barack Obama has selected Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan as his nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education.

With the choice, Obama selected a candidate who was acceptable to both the reformers (particularly the charter community) and the establishment (particularly the teachers unions).  He picked an urban superintendent with longevity, someone who has put in the sort of years that allow us to really look at the Chicago data and see the impact his leadership has had on student achievement over the last six or so years.  And he has likely picked the first and last EdSec who played in the Australian Basketball League.
What does it all mean, other than two of our largest urban districts (Los Angeles and Chicago) are now beginning searches in earnest for new superintendents?  Quite a lot, if you take a moment to think about it.
* Picking a superintendent, Obama has decided the focus of federal education policy for the next four years will be instruction.  And he recognizes that the challenges of urban educators — delivering high-quality instruction to low-income students from low-educated families with a mix of veteran and newbie teachers with and without the chops to lead urban classrooms — is priority number one.
* NCLB is not a dead duck.  Duncan has been an ongoing supporter of the federal law, calling for improvements along the way.  But he has long believed in the frameworks and the premise of the controversial law.  We may be back to the Miller/McKeon NCLB reauthorization language after all.
* Since Obama has selected the candidate who was anointed by the media and education pundits November 5, much thought has likely been put into who his supporting team is going to be.  Duncan is used to being a CEO, leading the organization.  Who is going to be his COO?  Who is going to be his Chief Strategy (or Policy) Officer?  The number Under and Deputy Secretary positions now become all the more important and all the more interesting.
* Charter schools are feeling pretty darned good about themselves this morning.  Duncan has effectively used charters in Chicago, doing so in a manner that supplemented — instead of supplanting — traditional public schools.  How does the Chicago model go to scale nationally?
* Afterschool leaders should also feel pretty good about things.  Chicago has built an impressive Outside-of-School-Time (OST) network, with Chicago Public Schools near the center.  And its done so by shifting from Clinton-era midnight basketball to instructional supports and curricular enhancements.  OST could become a federal issue.
Most importantly, though, Duncan’s selection ensures that the nation’s chief education officer is one who understands the plight today’s school districts are facing, particularly when it comes to funding.  Groups such as AASA (of which Duncan is a member) have already spoken to the need for federal assistance for instructional materials in the coming year.  Duncan knows all too well how district budgets are stretched and how funding is greatly needed to ensure teachers have the books, technology, materials, and PD necessary to effectively lead their classroom.  Duncan is now in a position to give those school districts voice when it comes potential school funding in the upcoming stimulus package and the FY2010 Labor/HHS/Education appropriations bill.
Of course, I just wouldn’t be Eduflack if I didn’t have a few ideas for Secretary Designate Duncan to consider as he plans his goals and objectives for 2009.  Yes, he will be following many of the ideas laid out by Obama during the campaign.  And I hope he will look at the recommendations put forward by many (including me) on what issues and ideas he should focus on.  But I’ll limit my recommendations to a top five list:
* Bring life back to Reading First.  We need a federal reading program committed to bringing research-proven instructional materials to the classroom, getting all kids reading at grade level.  Build on RF’s goals and objectives to launch a new program that is equitable and that gets the materials and PD into the classrooms that need it the most.  Our Title I schools, and their struggling readers, need it.  Let’s learn from the implementation failures and do it right this time.  Don’t punish the kids and teachers for bureaucratic failures.
* Raise the profile of STEM education.  It provides you a real opportunity to link K-12 education improvements to our national economy and our workforce needs.  Let’s make sure the resources are getting into the classrooms to equip kids with the skills and knowledge they need to compete, both on exams and in the real world.
* Call for national education standards.  We have growing support for them, and states are now adopting a common standard to measure high school graduation rates.  We only bring true equity to the public schools when all kids are measured by the same yardstick and all schools have the same expectations, regardless of income or state boards.
* Improve your communications and outreach effort.  ED needs to get proactive, and it needs to get interactive.  Instead of just informing, let’s use communications to drive key stakeholders to action.  Let’s build relationships.  Let’s build ED 2.0.  Let’s use the tools that propelled the campaign to propel school improvement at the federal level.
* Seize the bully pulpit.  You need to spend the next year getting out around the country, talking with educators and parents, demonstrating that you understand their needs and concerns.  We won’t have a lot of new money to play with.  So now is the time to win over the hearts and minds of key stakeholders.  Get their support now, then you can go in for the funding increases in FY2011.  Now is about public engagement and demonstrating you will provide the education leadership we so desperately in search of.
Don’t worry about NCLB. That will happen, and it will be driven by Congressman Miller and Senator Kennedy.  Let them drive that train.  You need to focus on getting resources to our school districts and our states.  You need to focus on boosting student achievement and closing the achievement gap.  You need to focus on improvement.  That’s a lot, but it is all necessary.  Let’s just chalk it out like a basketball game.  We have four quarters here.  We stay competitive early on, find our shots, identify our hot shooters, and play until the buzzer.  Now you get to both coach and run point.

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