Daniel Schorr, the remarkably ageless 90-something news analyst for National Public Radio put it best last week when asked what he thought Barack Obama was looking for in his Cabinet appointments.
The president elect wasn’t looking for liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans (although his appointments are almost all Democrats), Schorr said. He was looking for pragmatists, doers, people with expertise who know how to get jobs done and put ideas into practice.
It is, therefore, fitting that today Obama found just such a pragmatist in Arne Duncan to lead the U.S. Department of Education. The head of the Chicago Public Schools — and Obama basketball buddy — is receiving praise from all quarters.
“He’s gotten the job done in Chicago” Allan R. Odden, a University of Wisconsin education professor, told the New York Times. “There’s more to be done, but he’s done a great job of reaching out and recruiting and improving the talent of both teachers and principals.
Last week, I talked about the intense debate in education circles over whom Obama should appoint – an “establishment” candidate such as Stanford University professor and teacher union favorite Linda Darling-Hammond, or a “reformer” like controversial New York Schools chief, Joel I. Klein.
Wisely, the president-elect sidestepped both those options.
“Obama found the sweet spot with Arne Duncan,” Susan Traiman, of the Business Roundtable, told the Times. “Both camps will be O.K. with the pick.”
One telling example is Duncan’s response to two opposing manifestos circulating around education circles earlier this year. The Education Equality Project’s mission statement seeks greater accountability in schools and calls for reformers to “stand up to those political forces and interests who seek to preserve a failed system.
By contrast, the group that produced “A Broader Bolder Approach to Education,” seeks, in addition to school improvement, more money for things like children’s health care and afterschool programs. There are some areas of agreement between the two sides, but the first call to arms basically blames educational problems on the schools themselves, the second on a neglectful society.
Which one would you sign, if given the chance? Duncan, the Times noted, signed both.
Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor