Obama announced this week that Arne Duncan would be his choice for Secretary of Education, and I think this is a great decision. A lot of people in DC were hoping / fearing that Michelle Rhee would be picked. On paper, the two seem very similar. However, I think Duncan is a much better choice than Rhee, at least at this point.
Duncan and Rhee are both reformers. They have both closed schools, both supported out-of-the-box programs that have a history of success, and both have fired numerous teachers and other staff that were not performing adequately. They both support pay-for-performance among teachers, and they are both data driven leaders. So why is Duncan a better choice?
First, Duncan has been schools' chief in Chicago for seven years, and has shown that he actually can do the job. Rhee is less seasoned, and while I think many of her proposals are on the right track, we don't have the kind of success here that Chicago has enjoyed in recent years. If Rhee left after only 1.5 years on the job -- and after causing all of the shake-ups she's caused -- I would be PISSED.
Second, Duncan is well-liked by both sides of the education debate. Randy Weingarten (whom I cannot stand) thinks he was a good choice, as do more reform-minded groups. You don't have to be well-liked to be effective, but it helps.
Third, and most importantly, Duncan is not as polarizing a figure as Rhee. I've mentioned before that I think Rhee is pretty great, but I also think she goes about things in a totally wrong manner. She talks too much about bad teachers. She criticizes and uses fear to motivate. Any classroom teacher can tell you that celebrating the good is a lot more effective that shaming the bad. Why doesn't Rhee do this? Her proposals and ideas are right on the money; we should close under-enrolled schools, pay teachers for performance, and hold everyone accountable for good work. But the way she presents herself -- and the way she makes enemies with people -- is not constructive, and it's not good leadership.
Rhee might be a good education secretary someday, but she's too immature to have the task now.
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