Dick Durbin, a Democratic senator from Illinois, remembers the urgent phone call he made to Arne Duncan last year. Duncan, whose nomination as secretary of education was recently confirmed, was the head of Chicago Public Schools at that time, and Durbin was calling about his visit to a high school in that city. "I can't believe that anybody is learning anything there," he said. Duncan called back and explained that an experiment at the school had failed and that the principal recently had been replaced. Durbin, who told this story at Duncan's confirmation hearing, described the 44-year-old Chicago native as a "straightforward, thoughtful, honest, and decisive" leader. "He doesn't sugarcoat the challenges he encounters along the way," Durbin says.
As the nation's top education chief, Duncan now faces challenges that will make his old job seem easy: a high school dropout rate that is one of the highest in the industrialized world; a third of fourth graders who can't do basic math; a growing number of Americans who can't pay for college. Duncan has yet to offer a detailed plan of how he will bring "real and meaningful change" to America's schools, but people who know him say he is well suited for his new role even if his record in Chicago was mixed and his expertise in higher education issues is limited. "When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners," President Barack Obama said when he introduced Duncan—a longtime friend and basketball buddy—as his nominee for the cabinet position. "For Arne, school reform isn't just a theory in a book—it's the cause of his life."
As a child, Duncan attended the University of Chicago Lab Schools, an elite private academy. (The Obamas sent their daughters to the same school.) But Duncan also spent time with low-income kids from the city's South Side, where his mother ran a tutoring program. Duncan and his sister were volunteers. "It was exhilarating," Duncan has said of the experience. "But I have to be honest: It was very, very tough." In 1970, when Duncan was 6, the Blackstone Rangers gang firebombed the church that housed his mother's program. Despite such violence, the Duncans kept on tutoring kids.
Inspired by his mother's example, Duncan started a tutoring and mentoring program with his sister in 1992 and later opened a small public school. Duncan, a graduate of Harvard, also had a brief career as a professional basketball player with the Eastside Spectres in Australia. At his hearing, Duncan—who is now married and has two children of his own, ages 4 and 7—said: "What I saw . . . literally from the time I was born, was despite challenges at home, despite challenges in [the] community . . . our young people can be very, very successful."
Duncan's record as head of the nation's third-largest school system is mixed. Known for using academic performance data to innovate, he closed down poor-performing schools and reopened them with new staff. He also gave cash to students for good grades and bonuses to school employees for agreeing to participate in a merit pay program. John Easton, executive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, says he was impressed by Duncan's use of data to address weaknesses in the schools. "Arne gobbled up this kind of stuff," Easton says. "He understands that data is useful."
In many school districts, Duncan's reforms would have been difficult to implement because of uproar from parents and teachers. In Chicago, Duncan overcame these hurdles by cultivating good relationships with union leaders and outside groups. Marilyn Stewart, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, says the school closings were disruptive for students and didn't effectively address the problem of bad teachers. But Stewart nevertheless describes her relationship with Duncan as cordial: "When we disagreed on things, he returned my phone calls," she says. The union didn't fight Duncan's professional compensation program, which now is expanding to 40 schools.
While test scores and graduation rates improved under Duncan, those gains were never enough for Chicago to compete with New York City, Boston, and other urban districts that have been recognized for their dramatic improvement. "Duncan's reign was really marked much more by opening the door for innovative ideas than it was for a strong, coherent policy solution," says Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Chicago district officials point out that the city's schools made notable progress during Duncan's seven-year tenure. Since 2001, when Duncan assumed control of the schools, the graduation rate has risen 8 percentage points to 55 percent, and the collegebound rate improved from 2004 to 2008—from 44 percent to 50 percent. Proficiency rates for elementary students are also up, from 38 percent to 65 percent. There is some disagreement, however, over whether state tests became easier after a redesign. Also, the city's elementary students still lag behind their state counterparts. The test-score gap between students with special needs and regular students also widened.
- Born: Nov. 6, 1964
- Education: B.A., sociology, graduated magna cum laude, Harvard University, 1987
- Family: Wife, Karen, and two children, Claire, 7, and Ryan, 4
- Career Highlights: Played pro basketball in Australia, 1987-1991; director of the Ariel Education Initiative in Chicago, 1992-1998; chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, 2001-2009