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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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It was Duncan's independence – specifically, his willingness to take political risks – as CEO of the Chicago Pub­lic Schools, that prompted Dem­o­crats for Education Reform to campaign for him to fill Obama's cabinet post.

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"To get the kind of transformational change that we as a country need takes a huge amount of courage," Duncan says in Boston as an SUV zips him to the airport. "The status quo isn't working for lots and lots of children in this country.... We have to get a lot better with a huge sense of urgency because the stakes are so high.... But the most courage is [shown by] those leaders who are doing the hard work every day in the classrooms and the schools."

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Chicago is where Duncan first discovered the differences he could make in education with some power and the backing of the local administration.

It was his friend Rogers, the investment manager and philanthropist, who ultimately brought him back to the city from Australia, hiring him and his sister to work on a mentoring program he'd started through the Ariel Education Initiative, in which a sixth-grade class at Shakespeare Elementary was promised affordable college if they graduated from high school. Later, Duncan helped Rogers turn Shakespeare into the Ariel Community Academy, a small public school sponsored by Rogers's firm under a Chicago reform initiative.

After seven years working at Ariel, Duncan joined the CPS under CEO Paul Vallas, helping to run its magnet school program and becoming a deputy chief of staff. When Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Duncan CEO of the low-income minority district in 2001, the decision was met with some skepticism, given Duncan's lack of a teaching background and the relatively low posts he had held in the district.

But Duncan went on to have a long tenure by urban superintendent standards, and quickly proved himself a reform-minded CEO, championing a number of the same measures that he now wants to scale up as Education secretary.

He pushed for the closure of Chicago's worst schools – often amid a great deal of controversy – and opened dozens of new schools, many of them charters. He pioneered the turnaround strategy, in many cases partnering with nonprofits that would replace the leadership and most of the teaching staff at some of the city's worst-performing schools. He was willing to try out new incentive programs for schools making improvements, including awarding them with a high degree of autonomy.

"The longer he did the charter school thing, he realized that [autonomy] was what makes charter schools successful, and that all schools should have this," says Elizabeth Purvis, executive director of the Chicago International Charter Schools, the city's largest charter-school operator.

Ms. Purvis credits Duncan for working hard to bring all the players to the table even on the most contentious issues, and for communicating well to his staff and to the many players outside the CPS. "Everybody understood his vision, his mission, and how he was going to get there," she says, noting that people rarely recognize how important that ability is in a superintendent until it's missing.

For Purvis, it meant she could tell potential funders how her charter school network fitted into the framework of the district. In the CPS, the 8,000 students in her schools are a "drop in the bucket," she says, "but [Duncan] always made me and my organization feel valued."