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Education secretary Arne Duncan: headmaster of US school reform

As students head back to school, educators nationwide are implementing controversial school reform wrought by Arne Duncan. Pushing competitive market approaches and armed with unprecedented funding and support from the president, he is possibly the most powerful education secretary ever.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2010

Education secretary Arne Duncan and his wife, Karen Luann Duncan, read books to children outside the Department of Education building in Washington, D.C., in June.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Chicago and Boston

Growing up in Chicago, Arne Duncan learned early that education was a stark dividing line – sometimes literally between life and death. At the South Side after-school center that his mom founded, he knew kids who'd made it all the way to fourth grade unable to read. And on the asphalt playgrounds of that rough area, he shot hoops with boys who later died in gang warfare. Mr. Duncan thought he'd glimpsed the worst kind of circumstance that can swallow up young people.

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But then, on the desolate plains of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, the secretary of Education met Lame Deer High School freshman Teton Magpie. And that, as Duncan recounts with a surge of emotion, was a vivid glimpse at an even lower rung of despair in the American education system.

Sitting in a circle with students and teachers and, in the native American tradition, passing a feather to the person who had the floor, Duncan listened to the usual litany of requests for computers and fancy equipment. But an air of defeatism pervaded the place: In the past six years, only eight students have gone on to four-year colleges. Duncan was incredulous.

And then Teton spoke. More than anything, he said, he just needed challenging classes and mentors so he could be the first in his family to go to college.

Duncan says he was hit by how mentally crushing it is to grow up surrounded by poverty – 70 percent of the reservation's adults are unemployed – and a sense that even school, the one place that might afford the opportunity to climb out of it, was letting kids down.

"Sometimes we need someone to come in and give us a little hope, because hope dies," Teton says now, recalling that day in 2009 when he met Duncan and how the secretary has kept in touch to encourage him.

Multiply moments like those with Teton, and add Duncan's own unusual background that took him from the inner city to Harvard to pro basketball, and you begin to understand the force of his determination to be a changemaker.

As the 2010-11 school year opens, educators nationwide are implementing controversial reforms wrought by Duncan. Students at some of the nation's worst schools will be coming back to a whole new way of doing business. And many schools will be focused even more systematically on accountability, showing that their students are gaining ground academically – with more teachers finding that their jobs depend on it.

Momentum for reform has been building for years and seems to be achieving critical mass with Duncan's market-based approaches.

Perhaps most empowering for Duncan is the unprecedented money he has been able to dangle as incentive. One of his first jobs as Education secretary was to distribute $100 billion of economic stimulus money. President Obama wanted him to invest part of that in promising reforms, which gave rise to Race to the Top, a competition in which a select few states will win a share of $4.3 billion.

The money represents less than 1 percent of annual federal, state, and local education spending, but the leverage for an Education secretary is unprecedented. Dozens of states have fallen into line with reform criteria – such as lifting caps on charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to student achievement – to improve their chances of winning.

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