Clift: Arne Duncan, Stealth Education Reformer

If the right weren't preoccupied by health-care reform, they'd be screaming about the federal takeover of education. Operating mostly under the radar, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made enormous strides toward bringing about the kind of transformation embodied in President Obama's election, transformation that is otherwise eluding Obama and driving down his poll ratings.

Duncan has more federal money to play with than his recent predecessors, and he's using those dollars to challenge the education establishment to shape up. That includes the teachers unions, a key constituency for Democrats with a history of resisting any change that might threaten job security. Duncan is a man in a hurry, an attitude born of his experiences and beginning with the senior thesis he wrote as a Harvard student on the aspirations and values of Chicago's underclass.

There's no time to waste. He's been handed this portfolio and he's going to make the most of it before anybody catches on to what he's doing and mounts the opposition that in the past has always derailed major change to the status quo. Duncan turned heads when he entered the Ritz-Carlton in Washington early this month in part because he's so tall (6-foot-5), and because he is offering the kind of strong, spirited leadership that the education community doesn't often associate with Washington. He was there to make a presentation about improving student achievement to a meeting of the Strategic Management of Human Capital National Task Force (SMHC). Speaking in rapid-fire fashion and using phrases he surely could utter in his sleep, Duncan talked about our "fundamentally broken system" and the "magnitude of opportunities" that fixing it presents. He urged the assembled conferees, school officials, elected officials, and union leaders, to "move outside our comfort zone," exhorting them that for the first time in recent memory, lack of resources could not hold them back, only the lack of political will.

Sitting to Duncan's right was Task Force Chair Tim Pawlenty, runner-up to Sarah Palin in the vice-presidential sweepstakes and a likely presidential candidate in 2012. He's a willing participant as governor of Minnesota in the $10 billion "Race to the Top" competition among the 50 states that Duncan announced earlier this summer. To win the grant money for innovative reform, states must agree to tie data about student achievement back to individual schools, and to teachers, a provision resisted by the teachers unions, and which some states have banned as a matter of law at the behest of the unions. The Race to the Top grant money is proving a powerful incentive. Illinois and Indiana have already taken the necessary steps to comply, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that he would press to lift California's ban.

This is revolutionary considering the fury over national standards when the first President Bush tried to enact them. The right never trusted George H.W. Bush. He was too much of a moderate, and his attempts at education reform never got off the ground even though he called himself the "education president." Conservatives protested the alleged government takeover and Bush was forced to settle for state-by-state standards that were watered down so every state could meet its goal. National standards for years have been the third rail of education. But with few people outside of the education community noticing, Duncan has gotten 46 of the 50 states to voluntarily work together on adopting common standards and common assessments of student achievement (Alaska, Texas, South Carolina, and Missouri are the recalcitrant states). Pawlenty predicted that in the end a number of states might opt out if the standards are too high or too low given their student population. He noted that he has little in common with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a liberal Democrat, but they share an interest in maintaining high standards because students in their states are high performers.

Duncan is close to Obama—he played basketball with the candidate on Election Day—which makes him one of the chosen ones, an insider who has the president's ear and who has been given free rein. He commends the previous administration for spotlighting the achievement gap between whites and minorities, faults them for not funding innovative ways to close the gap. In Chicago, he said 60 percent of the African-American and Latino boys who don't read by the third grade are put into special education, a category that carries a stigma and should be far more selective. Under "No Child Left Behind," there were 50 different loosely constructed goals while the legislation tightly monitored how to reach them, mostly through tests and labeling schools that fell short a failure. Duncan wants to turn NCLB on its head with national standards and a variety of innovative ways to achieve them. He's saying all the right things to bring public education into the 21st century, and he's got the luxury of doing it with hardly anybody paying any attention.