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Obama's Education Pick Gets Science

16 December 2008 5:33 pm

The science education community is adding its voice to the chorus of praise accompanying President-elect Barack Obama's selection of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. As CEO of Chicago Public Schools for the past 7 years, Duncan has pushed to narrow the achievement gap in math and science between poor, minority students and the rest of the student population as part of a broader program of reform. Along the way, he's made quite an impression on scientists working to improve the quality of what are called STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—fields.

"He's a good guy, and he's been a breath of fresh air," says physics Nobelist Leon Lederman, a leader in STEM education in Illinois and around the country. "Of course, I wouldn't be so excited about his chances of being a good education secretary if the big boss wasn't also interested in improving STEM education." 

Two years ago, Duncan wowed a commission, co-chaired by Lederman, that was asked by the oversight body of the National Science Foundation to examine STEM. Duncan described a host of changes, from streamlining the math curriculum to sending teachers back to school for additional training. That's no easy task for what was once one of the country's worst-performing school districts, although he admits that the district still has a long way to go.

Duncan has also brought in outside science groups to lend a hand. Next month, one such group, the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA), will open its first field office at a school on the city's South Side. Staff at the academy, a residential high school for top students from around the state, will give students hands-on, inquiry-based instruction at the same time their teachers are learning how to incorporate such techniques into their daily lessons. "We can run a program after school, on the weekends, over the summer, or whatever," says Glenn "Max" McGee, president of IMSA.

McGee, a former Illinois school superintendent, says that closing the achievement gap in math and science is a priority for Duncan that he is likely to take with him to Washington, D.C. "He's a visionary who gets things done. He hires good people, and sets out clear goals. He also has an uncanny ability to keep from getting distracted."

Although he's not a scientist, Duncan isn't above using the appeal of science to sell education reform. Two years ago, in one of his many appearances before Congress, Duncan told a House education panel that it should follow the path taken by biomedical research advocates in pushing for additional funding for the National Institutes of Health. "So today I am going to challenge Congress to show the same confidence it showed for medical research," Duncan said at the conclusion of his testimony. "My challenge is this: Double the funding for No Child Left Behind within 5 years."

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