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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.

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"He's the most influential secretary that we've had since the Department [of Education] was created in 1980," says Charles Barone, federal policy director of Democrats for Education Reform in New York and a Democratic congressional staffer when the No Child Left Behind law was crafted during George W. Bush's presidency.

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Indeed, says Chester Finn, who was an assistant secretary of Education under President Reagan and a K-12 expert at the conservative Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif., Duncan has rendered the Republicans "speechless" – and cooperative – because "there's nothing they want to argue with him about."

Ultimately, proponents from all across the political spectrum say, Duncan could help dramatically narrow achievement gaps and even bring the United States back to high standing internationally. Or, as critics such as the irked teachers' unions see it, he'll further devastate an already demoralized teaching profession and subject children to more of the high-stakes testing that's been sucking the soul out of American schools.

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To see where the idealism motivating Duncan comes from, picture what he recalls as the "Berlin wall" of Chicago's 47th street – the dividing line between the gang violence and poverty of the South Side and the middle-class oasis of Hyde Park in the shadow of the University of Chicago.

Then, listen to Chicago educator Ron Raglin's recollection of peeking out his South Side apartment window as a child and spying the Duncan family's blue van crossing that line, mother Sue Duncan at the wheel, violating all urban conventional wisdom: "Here's this white lady and her three small children – that was like, 'Wow!' "

It was so peculiar that Mrs. Duncan was often stopped by police wondering if she was lost. She wasn't: She was on her daily route to the afterschool center that she founded in the Kenwood neighborhood in 1961 after discovering her 9-year-old Bible study students couldn't read. She was so dedicated to her cause that she took her three children with her, through a gang- and drug-addled area, every day from the time they were born.

Mr. Raglin, who went to the center as a child and now works for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), remembers the initial distrust when Sue Duncan began the program, including rumors that she put razor blades in the apples she distributed every day. For him, her center was a lifeline. And, he adds, it was key to the secretary of Education's worldview: "Arne's deep reservoir, his sense of service, of helping the least among us, that's where it comes from."