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Chicago's Arne Duncan: Education's one-man team of rivals?

I spent all of last week in Hyde Park, Chicago, currently the epicenter of American political activity because of its most prominent resident, President-elect Barack Obama. Technically, I was on vacation, but I couldn’t help asking folks I met what they think about Arne Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, one of Obama’s basketball buddies and a man who is increasingly looking like the president-elect’s choice for education secretary.

Unlike other candidates mentioned for education secretary, who wear their ideologies strongly on their sleeves, Duncan has (like Obama) walked a finer line, signing onto both of the dueling petitions on where Obama should take his policy. So it seems more important, in his case, to figure out what exactly he has done.

The results of my completely non-rigorous reporting were not too encouraging. One parent at the private school attended by Obama’s daughters — which Duncan himself attended and where his wife now teaches — said the scuttlebutt was that Duncan lacks the political savvy to cut it on the national stage. And when I popped into a neighborhood clothing store, I spoke with several public school mothers who were adamant that there hasn’t been widespread improvement under Duncan’s leadership. (Catalyst-Chicago, which provides independent reporting about the city’s schools, says some of Duncan’s major initiatives haven’t had the impact he’d hoped.)

I also learned a little more about Duncan at an event at Teachers College last month. He described working collaboratively with teachers unions, which the most aggressive reformers paint as an obstacle to success. Duncan said he wants schools to be “the heart of their community,” echoing national teachers union president Randi Weingarten’s recent push for full-service “community schools.”

Like an earlier Ed Sec frontrunner, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Duncan has his opponents. Among the nearly 4,000 people who have signed on to a petition opposing him and Klein because they are not career educators are a number of Chicago teachers.

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