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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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If there was a major weakness, says Purvis, it was that he often under-estimated how much entrenched bureaucracy stood in the way of change. "He would just say to his team, 'Get it done,' and sometimes it was impossible to get it done," she says, recalling that it took five years for Duncan's team to get the federal funding her charter schools were entitled to.

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Not all of Duncan's initiatives worked, and the jury is still out on how well many of the turnaround and new charter schools are performing. One study out of the Consortium of Chicago School Research showed that kids from schools he closed simply ended up in schools that were just as bad or worse. A study last year by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago concluded that some of the reported test-score gains among elementary students were due to changes in the tests. And the performance of high-schoolers refused to budge: Only 27 percent of 11th-graders met or exceeded standards on Illinois's achievement exam in 2008 – the same as in 2001.

But most agree that by some measures, education did improve under Duncan's tenure, including the sharp rise in elementary school students meeting or exceeding state math standards: from 35 percent to 71 percent between 2001 and 2008. High school graduation rose from 47 percent to 54 percent in the same period.

"I don't think [Duncan's tenure] is quite the miracle it looks like on paper, but a lot of good stuff happened," says Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University who has studied the city's charter schools. "Some of the charter schools seem to be doing a good job and some are performing poorly, but they seem to be closing the ones that stink."

Duncan is particularly proud of the fact that between 2004 and 2008 the number of students taking Advanced Place­ment college-level tests more than doubled, and the percentage of CPS students enrolling in college went from 44 percent to 53 percent. He also began recruiting teachers from top education schools, and the city went from having two teacher applicants for every job to 10.

But Duncan's reform agenda – specifically the idea of tying teacher evaluations to students' standardized tests – has irked a core Democratic constituency: unions. A recent Los Angeles Times series that used student test scores to estimate the effectiveness of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District outraged unions so much that they called for a boycott of the newspaper. Little wonder that when Duncan talks about change, some teachers feel they've got targets on their backs.

That played out vividly in February when the principal and all the teachers at Rhode Island's Central Falls High School were told they'd be fired at year's end. With its graduation rate hovering around 50 percent, the high school in Rhode Island's poorest city had been pegged as one of the worst in the state.

After failing to reach agreement with the union on changes such as extending the workday to provide more academic support, the superintendent and state education commissioner agreed on the more drastic "turnaround" plan, one of four options pushed by the US Department of Education through Race to the Top and other grant competitions.