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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"In Washington, people like to take credit.... [Duncan] is the opposite," wanting to shine a light on schools and people who are achieving great results, says Jon Schnur, the CEO and cofounder of the nonprofit New Leaders for New Schools and a onetime adviser to the Obama campaign and to Secretary Duncan.Skip to next paragraph
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"A lot of people bring different issues and options to him and talk about the politics of this or that," Mr. Schnur says, "and Arne says, 'I'm not a politician.... The question for me in every policy decision is, 'What's in the best interest of kids?' "
To answer that question, Duncan does a lot of listening – the lean-forward, sleeves-rolled-up, look-you-in-the-eye kind of listening that makes people on every side of a thorny issue feel respected.
During his first year as secretary, he visited educators, students, and parents in 23 states on a "listening and learning tour." On a single day this spring, he delivered a commencement address and then packed in two roundtable discussions – one with award-winning Boston public school teachers and another with a team of educators, administrators, and union officials in nearby Revere, Mass., who had overcome differences to create a new "innovation school" that embraces a host of reforms.
He spent just enough time talking to praise the groups for their efforts and tell them what he was there to learn. Then he sat listening, taking occasional notes in a white binder.
When he visits schools, he leaves a signed basketball. And when there's time, he squeezes in a pickup game with the kids, opening the door to a whole different level of conversation.
But paired with the listening, Duncan has a bold, decisive streak, a willingness to take a stand that even core constituencies might balk at.
John Rogers, a Chicago investment manager who has played in adult basketball tournaments with Duncan, likens that trait to the time Duncan, with blood gushing from a broken nose as the other team screamed at the referee to stop play, made the winning three-point shot.
"He's the guy you want to have the ball in his hands at the end of the game," says Mr. Rogers, whose friendship with Duncan started in their Lab School days. "He's going to take the big shot and not shy away from it. He's such a nice guy, people can underestimate ... that steel backbone that can be there to fight," he says.
Independent thinking runs in the family. Besides his mother's inner-city efforts, his late father, Starkey Duncan, was a psychology professor at the University of Chicago who tried to bring data-driven methodology to what some saw as a soft science. Owen says his brother combines his father's rational approach with the emotion that drove his mother.
Duncan took a year off from his sociology studies at Harvard to work at his mother's program and research his senior thesis on the aspirations and opportunities of the urban underclass. That year convinced him that rather than follow many of his classmates to Wall Street or to graduate school, he wanted to pursue a career in education.
But first he had to try his hand at basketball. After graduation in 1987, his tryout for the Boston Celtics flopped, so he went to Australia to play pro ball until 1991. He met his wife, Karen, there. They now live in Arlington, Va., where their daughter and son attend a public elementary school ("I'm totally just daddy there," Duncan insists.)