Top 5 Figures in Education for 2010

Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education

1. Arne Duncan

In 2001, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley appointed Arne Duncan as CEO of Chicago's public schools. Under Duncan, test scores in Chicago improved and charter schools flourished. Perhaps attracted by his similar interest in the charter alternative, President Barack Obama appointed Duncan Education Secretary in January of 2009.

Since then, Duncan has played a major role in promoting the president's education agenda, including efforts to increase college access and completion rates, turn around failing public schools and expand charter schools. Duncan is most well-known for the Race to the Top program, which launched in 2009 and began distributing financial awards to states meeting the strict guidelines this year.

President Barack Obama

2. President Barack Obama

As the current head of state, President Barack Obama's largest education achievements are in advocacy. His passionate speeches and White House summits bring national attention to issues such as failing public schools, the importance of community colleges and the need to increase college access and educational attainment.

His website notes that 'preparing our children to compete in the global economy is one of the most urgent challenges we face' and sets out three main goals for education:

  • Improving public schools and the K-12 system
  • Increasing access to higher education, from vocational training in community colleges to advanced degree programs
  • Investing in early childhood education to prepare young children for kindergarten and, therefore, a lifetime of learning

Dr. Jill Biden, Second Lady

3. Jill Biden

Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, describes community colleges as 'one of America's best-kept secrets,' and has made it her goal to draw more attention - and funding - to these institutions.

In 2010, Dr. Biden chaired the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges, in which education leaders and policymakers (as well as the public) brainstormed ways to promote and support the two primary roles of community colleges: Workforce training and increasing access to postsecondary education.

Dr. Biden has taught at community colleges for 17 years, and in 2007 she completed a doctoral dissertation on methods for maximizing student retention in community colleges.

Professor Diane Ravitch

4. Diane Ravitch

While the individuals above have made a difference in education from 'inside the beltway,' Diane Ravitch has spent the last couple of years positioning herself as an outside force to be reckoned with.

Ravitch wasn't always a Washington outsider - she served as assistant secretary of education under President George W. Bush. But in a book published earlier this year, Ravitch radically reversed her position on many key education issues. The Death and Life of the Great American School System argues that the evidence shows that charter schools and the voucher system do not serve students better than regular public schools, and that the testing-obsessed 'accountability' system has gotten so out of control that it's squeezing out real education.

Ravitch has gone highly public with her opinions, keeping a regular blog on Education Week with Deborah Meier (another education policy analyst who typically takes the opposing viewpoint) and earning a number of awards, including the 2010 Charles W. Eliot Award from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges,'s 2010 Upton Sinclair Award and a spot on Atlantic magazine's Brave Thinkers of 2010.

Michelle Rhee

5. Michelle Rhee

Michelle Rhee may be one of the few figures in education who's more controversial than Diane Ravitch. In 2007, she became chancellor of public schools in Washington D.C., where she earned a reputation as a tough and aggressive reformer.

Rhee angered many teachers' unions by attempting to end teacher tenure and install a merit pay system. But she also added programs for gifted and talented children, increased early childhood education and special education and maximized resources by closing under-enrolled schools.

In 2010 Rhee successfully implemented many of her teacher accountability plans, offering significant bonuses and pay raises for 'strong student achievement' in return for weaker seniority protections and a one year moratorium on teacher tenure.

Her position ended this fall when incumbent D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was defeated in the Democratic primaries. Since then Rhee has announced the formation of a new organization, Students First, with which she will continue to advance her education reform agenda.

Read more about Michelle Rhee and Students First on the blog.

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