Quick, name three of the last seven secretaries of education (not including Margaret Spellings).

Outside the world of education, most people probably can’t—which says something about the level of attention the general public typically pays to the job, despite poll after poll that says we rank education as one of our top priorities.

That could change under Arne Duncan, selected by President-elect Barack Obama for secretary of education. The media—national and local—mobbed Duncan and peppered him with questions after the announcement, mostly querying him about his family and his friendship with Obama. Undoubtedly much of the spotlight now shining on Duncan stems from his appointment by a president who recently scored a historic victory. It will be Duncan’s job to keep that spotlight focused on education for the long term.

One task Duncan should take up right away: change the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which, despite its faults, shouldn’t be scrapped. Many educators complain that the law puts too much emphasis on standardized test scores, and there’s truth to that—raw test scores are an incomplete measure of how well schools are performing. Duncan ought to push for changes to let schools and districts be judged on year-to-year improvement, especially among kids with the lowest performance. (The Dept. of Education has already launched a pilot program on this.) Such a change would give schools a carrot to chase rather than a stick to avoid, particularly if the incentive is to work more with children who are struggling the most in school.

Duncan should also move quickly to replicate his roll-up-your-sleeves approach on a national scale. It’s clear that Duncan is committed to education and doesn’t hesitate to get into the trenches. Here in Chicago, to highlight the need for better attendance, he’s gone out to some of the city’s tough neighborhoods to knock on doors and get missing kids into school. Sure, it’s a photo op for TV, but it’s a photo op with a good purpose. And Duncan ought to make similar forays elsewhere. Why not walk the streets of Seattle or Houston or Miami after school and round up idle students as a way to bolster support for a longer school day, for community schools that stay open till the evening, or for more partnerships with organizations that provide tutoring or music and art classes?

Comprehensive after-school programs are something that schools, parents, civic officials, religious leaders and community activists of all stripes, in cities and towns across the country, can rally around. Most of all, these are the kinds of initiatives that can make a real difference in keeping kids off the streets, out of trouble and engaged in education.

In his speech announcing Duncan’s selected, Obama noted that he’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Duncan has supported charter schools and merit pay for teachers, two strategies usually championed on the right. Yet Duncan has repeatedly called for more state funding for schools, his administration recently launched a controversial pilot program to pay students for earning good grades, and the Chicago Teachers Union gave the thumbs-up to his selection. Focusing on what works for kids ought to come first, no matter which end of the political spectrum the idea comes from. This should remain the linchpin of Duncan’s decision-making.

Duncan’s track record here in Chicago includes hits and misses. State test scores are up, but scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress remain low, even by urban district standards. The city gets an abundance of candidates for teaching positions every year, and Duncan is quick to point out that many of them are from the country’s top colleges and universities. Yet teacher turnover—especially among some of the city’s new charter schools—is still a problem. Duncan’s decision to close of failing schools, and his call to curb the power of local school councils, antagonized some of the city’s most vocal activists. His administration hasn’t always listened to community input before implementing policy: Only after widespread outcry did the district backpedal on school closings, and this year marked the first time the district formed community advisory councils to vet proposals for new schools before approving them. His signature Renaissance 2010 initiative has brought an infusion of new teaching blood and better schools to some neighborhoods, but other communities have yet to see the benefit.

Duncan’s job will be tough. For the sake of kids, let’s wish him luck.

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