Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a bona fide celebrity--at least as far as Cabinet members go. He made Rolling Stone's "100 People Who Are Changing America" list, and he's Katie Couric's date to the White House Correspondents' Dinner this Saturday. He recently introduced Neko Case at D.C.'s popular 9:30 Club, and he's appeared on almost every major TV network promoting education reform. People can't seem to get enough of the former pro-basketball player and CEO of Chicago Public Schools. With his affable nature, no-nonsense talk, and willingness to toss around big ideas, Duncan is managing to make education, a perpetually un-hip issue, seem cool.
I thought I might have found a somewhat unwelcoming audience when I learned that Duncan was addressing a National Education Association (NEA) conference. After all, members of the NEA, the country's largest teachers' union, booed Barack Obama back in July when he touted merit pay. (Generally, teachers' unions have been wary of several hard-line reforms the administration has pushed.) So when I trekked to The Westin in Alexandria, Virginia, on Thursday, I expected to hear some tough questions and criticisms.
My expectations weren't met.
When Duncan entered the ballroom where the conference was being held, attendees greeted him with a standing ovation. He began his remarks with a placating comment: "I think we have stronger, more enlightened union leadership than we've had in a while." The audience then listened attentively, barely making a sound when he declared that we're "lying" to children when we tell them they can succeed, even if their schools or test scores aren't measuring up. And they remained quiet when he suggested building public boarding schools to house kids with bad home lives and when, several times, he mentioned the need to include the business community in school reform. Many union traditionalists, and other Democrats, are skeptical of such a move.
When it came time for questions, the crowd lobbed softballs. Duncan was asked to define "innovation" in schools ("Take best practices and take them to scale") and elaborate on how to help poor children achieve the American dream ("Move islands of excellence to systems of excellence"). His audience seemed satisfied. One woman went so far as to tell Duncan that he'd done a great job in Chicago, where she'd been a teacher. "I think your mom is pretty great, too!" she exclaimed. (Duncan's mother founded the Sue Duncan Children's Center, which provides academic support to kids on Chicago's South Side.)
As he exited, Duncan received a second standing ovation. An NEA press representative standing next to me shook her head in disbelief. "Everyone loves him, huh?" I asked her. "Yes, he's a rock star," she said. "An education rock star."