CLEVELAND -- On a recent Wednesday afternoon in the auditorium of Eastern Technical High School, where 1,000 people had come to hear him speak, Arne Duncan was stumped.
"What will the plan be in three years when the Race to the Top funding runs out?" Deontae Gresham, a high school senior, asked the usually well-prepared United States Secretary of Education.
"Will there be a separate program or will it go back to the way it was? Meaning, will a young black male student like me ... with dysfunctional parents be left to make it on his own with no support?" he wondered, through a moderator.
After a brief pause, Duncan responded, "That's a good question."
Gresham was referring to the federal Education Department's signature program, which pit states against one another to compete for millions in grant money -- initially $4.35 billion from the 2009 stimulus initiative. Race to the Top's reforms addressed shortcomings that Duncan, a Democrat, relentlessly hammers at: low standards, low-performing schools, little communal help for failing schools and the weight of seniority in teacher staffing decisions. In Cleveland, RTTT funds produced a mentoring and engagement program that has been largely credited for increasing graduation rates.
But, as Gresham noted, RTTT money is drying up -- in Cleveland and across the country. And as with other programs for which Duncan is known, funding for it won't automatically be replenished. It hasn't been codified in any recurring law in Congress, as it came to Duncan largely through the sponsorship of President Barack Obama.
Duncan, who stands at a lean 6'5", defined himself early in his tenure as a persistent yet compromising free-marketer, part of an education reform movement that stresses the use of data and competition to improve schools -- a departure from traditional Democratic education policy, which unquestionably supported teachers unions. Duncan used RTTT to push states to increase their standards and drive charter school growth. He pushed policies generally unpopular with teachers' unions, such as merit pay and hiring and firing teachers in accordance with their competence. Duncan recently announced that if states adapt his preferred reforms, he will free them from what they consider the burdensome strictures of the No Child Left Behind Act. President Obama will announce what shape these reforms will take on Friday.
"Race to the Top has catalyzed a huge amount of change in this country, and not only in the states that won," Duncan continued at the panel. "When the money goes away, I don't think we're going to reverse that. Politicians now know they have to do the right thing ... Three or four years from now, if we take a step back, that would be devastating."
In other words, Duncan had no clear answer yet for Gresham. But that wasn't for lack of trying.
"If you'd asked me two-and-a-half years ago if we would be at the point of where we're at now, that would have exceeded our highest hopes," Duncan reflected in an interview. "It's amazing."
In the U.S., most significant education policy changes come at the state level, as states have direct control over the school districts within their borders. Because of the incentives set by the federal government for RTTT, states signed onto reform plans -- whether they won money or lost the competition.
Michigan, for example, passed a law that allows the state to take over and run its lowest-performing schools. Illinois passed a law that enables firing teachers for incompetence. New York State raised its charter school cap. Forty-four states signed onto the Common Core state standards. At least twenty-six states passed stricter teacher evaluation laws that take test scores into account.
But while hundreds of reform laws passed statehouses, little evidence of their implementation or efficacy exists. In Illinois, the reform plan, which includes revamped teacher evaluations, is short $500,000. Every winning state postponed its deadlines for implementation of the reforms. New York's RTTT-inspired teacher evaluation law faces litigation -- and cannot be implemented until a new teaching contract is signed.
Duncan must now decide whether to revoke the grants. "If we see folks walking away from goals and stagnating, we have an obligation to step in and if necessary stop funding," he said.
Because Duncan relied on long-time friend and basketball buddy Obama to sponsor his changes, Race to the Top's long-term viability is questionable, as conceded to the young student in Cleveland.
Meanwhile, when the House of Representatives changed hands during the midterm elections, Duncan's ability to give his reforms staying power diminished. The administration waited until March 2010 to release its NCLB blueprint, leaving little time to pass it before Congress's right turn -- and before some ranking members declared defeating Obama in 2012 as their goal.
In part because of the midterm realignment, Duncan, a man with both the stamina of an athlete and the full backing of the president, has so far failed to enshrine his policies -- but the new waiver plan is one attempt to do so.
"He's undertaken reforms based on temporal authority," said Andy Rotherham, a former White House education advisor who now runs Bellwether Education Partners. "In this town, that can change as fast as the weather."
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Hours before Duncan addressed Gresham's question, the streets around East Tech closed for Duncan's arrival, on a bus replete with leather seats and a microwave. The bus, first used by Toby Keith and now blanketed with Education Department signage, carried Duncan through three days of staged panels and town halls in a six-state jaunt billed as his "Education and the Economy Tour."
Duncan is a down-to-earth, lanky, one-time Australian pro basketball player who is generous to his aides. He met warm and enthusiastic crowds across the Rust Belt; the reception in Cleveland was so elaborate that, staffers joked, it was as if the president himself had arrived. The East Tech session ended with a swarm of Clevelanders following Duncan out the door. A science teacher rolled out a gigantic student-created robot. Duncan shook its makeshift hand before departing.
Duncan used the bus trip, which ran from Sept. 7-9, to spread his gospel and passion about education reform in a harsh economic climate; to amplify his oft-stated belief that America's schools are failing as other nations' improve; and to stump for his recent decision to waive components of NCLB in exchange for favored reforms.
"We need to educate our way to a better economy," Duncan said several times a day, during speeches from Pittsburgh to Chicago. "Education is the civil rights issue of our time."
Between the use of his bully pulpit, his competitive programs like RTTT and his recent rebellion against NCLB, Duncan is the most activist education secretary the U.S. has ever seen. He swoops into local school systems in places like Detroit, using his celebrity to provide political cover to those he sees as "raising the bar."
While Duncan's plans are ambitious, he has had to work against the edges of the traditionally limited power of the federal Education Department, which was founded in 1980 and controls under 10 percent of all education funding. States and local school districts control the rest, a fact that complicates the department's role. "My job is to support, to shine a spotlight, to replicate success, to talk about excellence, but also to challenge the status quo," Duncan said.
While it's too soon to tell how Duncan's policies affect classrooms, it's universally agreed that he has raised education's profile and dramatically expanded the power of the Education Department under Obama. "He's the most influential education secretary that there has ever been," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy and a former Hill staffer.
In light of the now hyper-partisan House and the stalled implementation of Race to the Top, Duncan's RTTT-inspired changes may prove as temporary as they are bombastic.
One change that likely will stick, though, is increased expectations for students. Partly because of RTTT, 44 states adapted the untested Common Core standards, a national rubric for teaching reading and math that stresses rigor.
"Historically, many states, including the state I'm from, Illinois, they dummied-down standards," Duncan said in Cleveland. "They lied to children and parents, telling them they were doing well to make politicians look good. It was bad for children, bad for education, bad for standards. But it made politicians look good, so they did it."
Duncan's tenure so far is a referendum on how federal education policy is made, and the goals it serves. On his path to power, Duncan fended off naysayers from the left, who see him as a union buster, and from the right, who dispute any active role the federal government might have in running schools.
The debate over the country's schools comes with a maelstrom of conversation over the federal government's role in just about anything. Some GOP presidential candidates say they want to get rid of the Education Department because they fear the overreach of the federal government. In the words of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), "It's unconstitutional, it's inefficient."
As recently as Sept. 5, GOP primary candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) called for the end of the Education Department. Paul followed suit a week later. Fellow candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry wrote a section railing against "federal intervention in education" in his recent book.
What does Duncan think?
"Do I need to respond to Michele Bachmann?" he asked. He changed the subject.
"In the past, I've been very critical of the Department of Education myself," he said. "We're trying to fundamentally redefine the role here to become this entity of innovation, to respond to what works, to shine a spotlight on best practices. There's a critical legacy role of helping the students who are most at risk, whether that's poor children or children with special needs. These are responsibilities the federal government should never walk away from."
But at the end of the day, Duncan's longevity as a national figure -- and the permanence of the policies he champions -- depends on Obama's.
"I would absolutely love to have the opportunity to have eight years here," Duncan said on the bus trip from Merillville, Ind., to Milwaukee, Wis. "I've never worked against a clock before. I acutely feel the sense of urgency. The most I have is eight years. That's why we work long hours. I see the opportunity now not to transform education in the next couple of years, but to transform education for the next 30."
The question of the potentially fleeting impact of federal education policy is about more than Duncan himself; it is a lesson in the state of education nationwide and the federal government's ability to change it. If Duncan, with his drive and strong connection to the president, can't do it even as the broader forces of education reform promote similar fixes, neither could someone with different prescriptions.
"He's increased the power of the office in a temporal way, but it can be eroded very fast under a different administration or a different secretary," Rotherham said.
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When asked what his future holds, instead of glancing forward, Duncan looks back. "I'm sort of strange," Duncan said. "I've never thought about what the next step of my journey is."
Duncan grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park. His mother ran an after-school tutoring program in the city's south side, where he first encountered low-income students.
He uses these experiences to illustrate his policies. "My friends on the south side of Chicago could drop out of high school, go work in the stockyards, earn a living and support a family," Duncan said in Cleveland. "All that's gone. Your goal can't be just to graduate."
Duncan studied at Harvard, where he co-captained the basketball team. He took a year off to study his mother's tutoring center for his thesis, "The values, aspirations, and opportunities of the urban underclass."
After graduating in 1987, Duncan moved to Australia to play pro basketball. "I almost stayed in Australia," he said. "It sounds corny but I left at the prime of my career, 26, 27. I knew if I stayed longer, I would stay forever."
(Duncan's first basketball coach, however, said Duncan left when he couldn't cut it any longer: "Of the players I've had, he didn't have a lot of gifts," the coach, Brian Goorjian, told Australia's The Age. "He made the most of what he had.")
In 1991, a childhood friend tapped Duncan to run the Ariel Education Initiative, a program that transformed a distressed school in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood. "I owed it to come back and help out," Duncan said.
Duncan's boss introduced him to Craig Robinson, who previously played basketball in Princeton. Over layups, Duncan struck up a friendship with Robinson's sister and brother-in-law: Michelle and Barack Obama. His relationship with the latter would define his career.
After a stint running Chicago Public Schools' magnet schools, Duncan became CEO of the system. He oversaw almost half a million students in 613 schools. He experimented with charter schools and closing down underperforming schools, an unpopular tactic he has carried into his national post. While many dispute his success, by the end of his run, the percentage of elementary students passing state standards increased by 30 points.
Duncan said he wanted to keep the job for 10 years. "Literally, the only job in the world that I would leave for was the opportunity to come here, to have this impact nationally, to work for the president who has such extraordinary respect for education," he said. "We had so much in sync educationally."
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Duncan began his tenure as education secretary buoyed by Obama's personal support and message of hope and change. He followed Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, a Bush appointee known for pushing No Child Left Behind, a law that required regular standardized tests and the disaggregation of student data by minority subgroups. The law is often blamed for a much-maligned curricular narrowing and an overly broad swath of schools deemed as "failing."
During the election, Obama told voters he'd reform NCLB in a way that minimized the need for teachers to focus on test preparation. "The teachers I've met didn't devote their lives to testing, they devoted them to teaching, and teaching our children is what they should be allowed to do," Obama said in a campaign speech.
But the NCLB reauthorization never came. Congress got busy with health care reform and the economy. "Teachers felt that Obama didn't follow through," said Jennings, the Center on Education Policy president.
Instead of getting his new law, Duncan received money from the 2009 stimulus package. A group of influential, reform-minded Democrats presented Obama and Duncan with a memo early on that outlined RTTT, a competition that would leverage change by offering cash to states that agreed to adapt data-driven reforms. Obama signed onto the plan, saying at the time, "I always say this is supposed to be about the kids, not the adults," according to Steven Brill's book "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools." After Obama slipped RTTT into the recovery bill, Duncan had $4 billion at his discretion.
"The real wisdom of what Arne did was to really use federal dollars to create incentives," said Joel Klein, former New York City schools chancellor. "He was navigating some tricky political waters."
Duncan had leverage. He had billions of dollars with few restrictions, and recession-ravaged states were desperate for money. In exchange for that money, he required states to show they would adopt more rigorous standards, build data systems, increase the number of charter schools and fire teachers based on merit, not seniority, as union contracts had long mandated. Another grant program instituted school turnaround plans for 5 percent of states' lowest-performing schools. The states' financial rut trumped the teachers unions' jibes that the RTTT reforms ignored the intractable, real effects of poverty on learning.
As states vied for the money, they eroded the firewall laws that had prevented tying teacher evaluations to test scores, raised caps on charter schools and adapted the Common Core. Duncan had his reforms -- at least by statute.
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But after the buzz of the Race to the Top died down, it's still unclear what lasting changes it will yield. Few winning states have implemented new teacher evaluation systems, making it nearly impossible to show the tangible effects of such reforms. And when the House changed hands in 2010, the window for feasible NCLB reauthorization seemed to have slammed shut.
Though April's near-government shutdown slashed the Education Department budget, Obama pulled for Duncan, setting aside $700 million for Race to the Top -- less than the $1.3 billion he originally requested. And if a recent Senate appropriation hearing is any indication, funding will continue to wane.
Since the release of the administration's NCLB blueprint, Congress has done little to adapt it. While various representatives and senators introduced their own NCLB bills, few reflected the administration's priorities. The perceived gridlock made Duncan impatient, he said, and sparked his August announcement that he would grant waivers to states from certain components of NCLB in exchange for their signing onto his policies.
"It became evident that Washington is dysfunctional and unable to get anything together and that's what compelled us to act and to partner directly with states," Duncan said.
While Duncan's waiver plan would give states more autonomy in education management, that independence comes with the attached strings of Duncan's favored reforms, to be announced soon.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. Education Secretary, said that while he favors the waivers, he doesn't "want the department to do what it has done through many secretaries: take a good idea and write 400 pages of regulations of how to do it."
In addition to changing his legislative strategy, Duncan modified the way he talks to teachers. While never a firebrand, earlier in his tenure Duncan dialed up the importance of firing bad teachers.
This impulse came to a head when he condoned the mass firing of teachers at Rhode Island's Central Falls High School in February. Duncan provoked outrage by saying he "applauded" the school district for "showing courage and doing the right thing for kids."
Duncan chafes against the perception that teachers dislike him. "When I go out, you've been with me for four days in schools," he said. "Do you see angry teachers?"
While it's true that Duncan faced few hecklers on the road, a growing group of teachers -- who may not represent the majority of American educators, but seem louder -- coalesced online and rallied in modest numbers in Washington, D.C. to rail against Duncan's policies in a July "Save Our Schools" march. After endorsing Obama early in the 2012 election, the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union, adapted a resolution declaring the body's disdain for Duncan.
"They don't understand that they've alienated a lot of educators throughout the country with some of their attacks on teachers," said New York University education professor Pedro Noguera, who spoke at the SOS march.
Now, when issues like test-based teacher evaluations arise, Duncan is quick to stress that they're just "one piece of a puzzle," and that "multiple measures" should be used to review teacher performance. In Pittsburgh, Duncan said school districts are "scared" to talk about evaluating and celebrating effective teachers. "That should be happening all over the country," Duncan said. "It's not."
Duncan's heightened praise of teachers came through at a July speech at the conference of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, where he called for doubling teacher pay. The speech garnered much applause, but Duncan provided few specifics on how such a measure could be accomplished.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she cared most about seeing the NBTS speech turned into action. "The test is, to take a speech like this to places like Wisconsin and Tennessee and Ohio, into the foundations and the reformers and create a bully pulpit or use it to create a climate that enables this to happen," she said. "This was great rhetoric, but the issue is more than the rhetoric."
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After leaving Cleveland, Duncan's bus stopped at a Toledo, Ohio, union hall, a small building locals decorated with posters declaring the Toledo Federation of Teacher's love for Duncan. There, the TFT staged a mock presentation of "The Toledo Plan," a much-lauded teacher evaluation rubric that includes peer review. A teacher made her case for another teacher's career advancement before a board comprising teachers, management and union administrators. Former TFT President Francine Lawrence boasted that since this evaluation program's inception 30 years ago, it had resulted in the rejection of 350 new teachers and the removal of 100 veterans.
"I have tremendous respect for the work done in Toledo," Duncan said publicly, a remark carried by local papers. But back on the bus, when asked why the Toledo school system, with an evaluation model he heralded, is not thriving, he conceded, "To see the head of the union say X number of teachers are no longer teaching with us, are not going to meet our standards, that's powerful. It's not the perfect model."
Part of Duncan's ethos is this unwillingness to wait for the emergence of the perfect model, especially for an issue as contested as rating teachers. "No one has the perfect solution, but we can't let five years of dysfunction and nonsense stop us from moving," Duncan said. "I think there's some great movement now. ...We're never going to have the perfect answer."
That lack of a perfect model, and the reliance on existing tests to move ahead with his ambitious plans, lies at the heart of his left-wing critics' disapproval. Duncan's policies, they say, have led to more testing -- and amount to quick interventions. Moreover, they say, they ignore the reality that teachers are only the top in-classroom determinant of student performance, that factors such as poverty do count.
And so the argument goes, crudely speaking: Reformers want to try new things, while traditional educators and unions say trying out untested policies on students would be tantamount to making schoolchildren guinea pigs in an experiment. In response, reformers argue that a new experiment is better than a failed one.
With that philosophy of experimentation in mind, Duncan sprints ahead, enacting policies that, helpful or harmful, temporary or long-lasting, idealistic or political, appear only to chip away at intractable problems. On the one hand, it's admirable to see someone who lives and breathes education trying so hard. On the other hand, though, one wonders whether he'll leave a trail of teachers fired for their students' failed bubble tests in his embrace of the imperfect.