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Will Obama's Choice Change Education in America?

Arne Duncan

As Arne Duncan, a former member of the Ed School's visiting committee, helps school districts across the country Race to the Top and tries to give every child a chance to succeed, this idealist, competitor, and basketball pal to the president has the opportunity to do what no previous secretary of education has been able to accomplish.


Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, spent the balance of his childhood traveling back and forth each weekday from his Chicago neighborhood to the afterschool center run by his mother, Sue. It was a short trip -- the Duncan home was on 56th Street in Hyde Park, the center on 46th in the Kenwood neighborhood. But as in many American cities where privilege and poverty butt up against each other, it was in essence a passage from one world into another. Hyde Park, home to the University of Chicago (and, until recently, to Barack Obama and his family) was a famously integrated, upscale community. Kenwood was, in the language of the time -- the 1970s -- a ghetto.

The Sue Duncan Center was attended by kids from elementary to high school age, nearly all of them African Americans struggling with the grind of urban poverty -- crime, drugs, gangs, absent parents. Arne and his younger brother and sister attended the well-regarded University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in the morning, then spent their afternoons as, in effect, junior members of their mother's staff. As young kids they earned small change for sharpening pencils and cleaning up. As they got older, they took on more responsibilities: tutoring, supervising, coaching sports and games.

The gulf between their own comfortable circumstances -- their father was a professor of psychology at the university -- and those of their contemporaries on the South Side bothered the Duncan kids. It became a kind of puzzle, a mental nut they all tried to crack as they grew older. Why did such glaring inequities exist in Chicago, in America? Who or what was to blame? Unsurprisingly, they focused on what they knew -- education. Inner-city Chicago schools were notoriously bad during the 1960s and '70s; Duncan's brother, Owen, says that, at the time, the afterschool center didn't help kids with homework because their teachers didn't give them any.

"I grew up having a huge amount of anger, frankly, at the local public schools -- that what we were trying to do from 3 to 8 p.m. at night wasn't in most cases happening during the school day," Arne Duncan says in an interview. "So you had kids who may not have been born with all the advantages, but they were smart, they were committed, they wanted to learn -- and they weren't being challenged. No one was expecting them to do anything."

Let's be upfront about it: Arne Duncan is a bona fide idealist. He talks not just about putting kids first, raising test scores, and the relationship of education to economic opportunity -- the standard rhetoric of his predecessors -- but also about education as a tool for social justice, not a phrase heard very often in Washington policy circles or even among his fellow technocrats in the Obama administration. He believes that government has an obligation to right the wrongs of poverty -- or, at least, to do everything possible to mitigate the damage it does to individuals. "In so many places we're not giving every child a chance, we're not giving children the chance they need to be successful," he says. "And where we don't, I really believe we're part of the problem. We perpetuate poverty. We perpetuate social failure."

Chicago investment banker and philanthropist John W. Rogers Jr. met Duncan playing on South Side basketball courts as a teenager and later gave him his first job running an educational mentoring program. "I think he sees this as the fulfillment of his mom's legacy and his own," Rogers says. "It's the opportunity to take his mom's values and his values and share them with the entire country."

Problem is, the Department of Education has in its nearly 30 years of existence been something of a graveyard for idealism. The job of secretary is hostage to the basic structure of the U.S. education system, with its tradition of local control and the sway that powerful interest groups hold over national education policy. The department is the smallest federal bureaucracy, with 4,200 employees. Its principal task: to distribute federal funds to states and local school districts amounting to about 8 percent of the total spent nationally on education. Even the signature federal reform, the No Child Left Behind Act passed during the Bush administration, has failed to live up to its billing and is overdue for a revamping.

Given these limitations, the secretary of education has at best only modest influence over what goes on in classrooms -- and, if the politics turn sour, flirts with irrelevancy. Duncan knows this as well as anyone. Prior to being handpicked by President Obama, his friend and sometime pickup basketball partner and adversary, Duncan was CEO of the Chicago Public School system, the nation's third largest with 400,000 mostly minority, low-income students. With Mayor Richard Daley's backing, he had real power to effect reforms, including shuttering poorly performing schools, expanding charter schools, and using data in creative ways. Ed School Academic Dean Robert Schwartz, C.A.S.'68, a friend of Duncan's, recalls sitting with him on a flight last fall, several weeks after the presidential election. "The obvious speculation at that point was that Arne would be on anybody's shortlist of potential secretaries, and he wanted to talk about it. I said, 'Arne, has the secretary of education or the education department been a significant factor in your life as CEO of the Chicago schools the past seven years?' He looked at me, and the answer was obvious. It was not a relevant factor."

And yet, this time things might turn out differently. Duncan has an opportunity that none of the previous nine education secretaries could even dream about. Obama's decisive victory and a severe recession have opened a way for the federal government to make a significant impact on schooling nationwide. The Obama economic stimulus package contains a huge windfall for education, approximately $115 billion -- more than double the department's annual budget, a requested $46.7 billion for the coming fiscal year. Most of those funds are going to avert catastrophic school budget shortfalls caused by the recession. But the stimulus also includes an unprecedented $5 billion in discretionary funds. The largest share belongs to the Race to the Top program, in which states will compete for grants by showing they're innovating. Duncan's hope is to leverage that cash to create a brushfire of reform at the local level: funding and ultimately "scaling up" successful reforms and seeding them elsewhere. But his window of opportunity is quite narrow -- the money will run out in two years.

"We're in a place where we have to push very hard for reform at every level -- early childhood, K-12, higher ed," Duncan says. "It presents challenges, but what's so fun about this is the opportunity to break through. We have unprecedented discretion and resources. So we have a chance to move things in ways they've never been moved before. It doesn't guarantee success. But it absolutely puts you in the game."



If that's going to happen -- and the odds of a decisive breakthro
ugh are still pretty long -- it may not be Duncan the idealist who accomplishes it but Duncan the competitor. As a scrawny kid of 12 or 13, he gravitated toward the South Side's predominant game, basketball. He began traveling alone through some of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods, showing up at gyms and talking his way into pickup games. "If you wanted to be a good basketball player you had to go where the good basketball players were," he says. "That was inner city, South and West Side. I guess it was pretty unique. I was the only white kid anywhere I played."

Losers would be kicked off the court, but the winners would keep playing. So anyone who wanted to play had to learn how to win. The games, and the occasional dangers of the inner-city gym culture, forced Duncan to develop some street smarts. Like Obama, he's an outsider who has never quite wholly belonged to any of the worlds he moved through, nor to any particular interest group or camp, yet who could be comfortable anywhere: basketball courts, the streets, political meetings, and policy salons.

"It was hugely helpful. Hugely," Duncan says of the later impact of this phase of his life. "I knew all the streets, I knew all the people. And you really learn how to read people's character. There were people who, all I knew were their nicknames, and you trust your life to them, literally. I had people protect me. And there were other people that didn't have your best interests at heart. You had to negotiate those things."

Duncan never nursed many doubts about what he wanted to do, sticking to the parallel tracks of basketball and public education. A sociology major at Harvard, he took what would have been his senior year off, returning to work at the Sue Duncan Center and to research his thesis, titled The Values, Aspirations and Opportunities of the Urban Underclass. It looked at the gap between what people in Kenwood wanted from life and what was actually available to them. He says he was also trying to come to terms with the violent deaths of many of the South Side friends he'd made over the years on the basketball courts. One pattern was obvious. Everyone who had been killed had dropped out of high school; friends who had stuck it out and graduated survived (they are a diverse group, including actor Michael Clarke Duncan and R&B singer R. Kelly). "It was this real, absolute dividing line," Duncan says. "There's this idea that we talk about how important education is -- but in these really, really tough communities, it was literally between life and death."

The year off had also been a test to see if he wanted to pursue urban education as a career, and he decided the answer was yes. But basketball still beckoned. Duncan had been cut from the Harvard varsity squad his freshman year, a major blow at the time, but by the time he returned for his senior year in 1986 he was made cocaptain and led the team in scoring and steals. A scout had told Duncan he was good, but would never make it in the NBA, and he set his sights a bit lower. He played for the Rhode Island Gulls of the summer U.S. Basketball League, then decamped to Australia, where he played for a series of teams, both professional and semi-pro: the Eastside Melbourne Spectres, the Launceston Ocelots, and the Devonport Warriors. He spent four years there, playing, coaching, devoting free time to working in a national foster care program -- and, for good measure, met Karen Donnelly, whom he'd later marry and with whom he'd have two children.

arne_duncan_press.jpgDuncan returned to Chicago and in 1992 took a job offered to him by a childhood friend from the basketball courts -- John W. Rogers, the founder and CEO of the nation's largest minority mutual fund firm, Ariel Capital Management. Duncan ran the Ariel Education Initiative, a program that mentored children at one of the city's worst-performing elementary schools, then followed them year to year (and later helped pay their college tuition bills). After the school was closed, Duncan reopened it as a successful charter school with a finance-oriented curriculum, the Ariel Community Academy.

Only 27 at the time he started with Ariel, Duncan's rise was quick. He joined the Chicago Public School system in 1998, as a deputy chief of staff to CEO Paul Vallas, where one of his jobs was supervising the creation of magnet programs in troubled schools. Three years later, Mayor Daley pushed Vallas out and installed Duncan in his place. The Chicago Tribune headlined its story "Obscure Deputy Was Daley's Second Choice," noting that Duncan had never held a post high enough to merit his own secretary.

Duncan pivoted from his predecessor's bottom-line approach. "During Vallas' time, there was a strong push on ending social promotion, using standardized tests. They were less focused on how to intervene in schools, in classes and with individual kids," says Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute. "Duncan and his team brought to Chicago a set of ideas about how to improve teaching, learning, and leadership -- not focused exclusively on accountability and governance." He drew in part on expertise from Harvard's Public Education Leadership Program, run by the graduate schools of education and business, dispatching teams of staffers each summer.

As CEO, Duncan pursued a mix of programs -- some system- wide, some fine-grained. The centerpiece is Renaissance 2010, an ambitious effort to shut down 60 troubled schools and create 100 new state-of-the-art schools across the city. As part of that plan, Duncan pushed to expand the city's roster of charter schools -- it now stands at 67 -- and embraced the turnaround concept, in which a school is temporarily shut down, staff members fired, transferred, or asked to reapply, and a new staff built from the ground up.

One of the biggest problems plaguing school reform is the absence of good data tracking the performance of students, teachers and schools over time. So Duncan took particular the University of Chicago's Consortium on Public School Research. One long-term study found that only 3 percent of African American and Latino male students who graduated from Chicago schools ever got bachelor's degrees. Duncan's team tried to identify exactly where students got off track. Consortium research showed that while elementary school students with low test scores and other problems stood a good chance of improving later on, troubled high school freshmen almost never did so. Duncan focused resources on mentoring and intervention at that level.

Another initiative was modeled on his own experience: partnering with local organizations to turn schools into de facto community centers open through the afternoon and into the evening. "I think our schools should be open 12-13-14 hours a day," Duncan said recently on The Charlie Rose Show. "Not just lengthening the school day, but a wide variety of afterschool activities: drama, art, sports, chess, debate, academic enrichment. Programs for parents: GED, ESL, family literacy nights, potluck dinners. At home we attached health care clinics to about two dozen of our schools. Where schools truly become the centers of the community, great things happen."

Duncan's efforts on school overhauls -- as well as his more unconventional ideas, such as a program that paid students for good grades -- stirred up resistance from affected communities and teacher organizations. He was persistent, but also unfailingly good-natured and collegial, unusual attributes in a job that usually requires sharp elbows. "Arne is a nonpolarizing figure," says Vallas, now superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District. "Despite his strong support for charters, accountability,
and closing failing schools, he doesn't have the type of personality that grates on people. He has a really easygoing, relaxed manner to him and can be really disarming. And it's real, not contrived."

In Chicago, however, Duncan could afford to be gracious. He was backed with the wide-ranging power over schools granted the mayor. In Washington, his power is considerably more diffuse. If national education policy demands a bold, paradigm-busting leadership, some critics suggest that Duncan may be too cautious. After seven years, Duncan's Chicago record was innovative but hardly revolutionary. "The record suggests that even when playing with a pretty strong hand, he was a cautious, incremental operator, who left with everyone saying nice things about him but had not used the political capital he had to pick any of the really tough fights," says Frederick Hess, Ed.M.'90, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "That might have been the right call in Chicago; that might have been who he is."


Of course, Duncan wasn't hired to blow up an old system, but to build on the work of his predecessor. And his current job is, if anything, more of an incremental game than the previous one. The agenda spans proposed changes in preK to college, pounding the bully pulpit to promote charter schools, merit pay, and national standards, and what's likely to be a contentious fight over the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Besides his $5 billion pot of discretionary money, Duncan has several things working in his favor. Over the past decade sharp partisan divisions over education policy have softened, in part because of the progress made by reformist big city superintendents including Duncan himself. That doesn't mean a big breakthrough is imminent; the landscape is simply more fractured than before. "There is some bipartisan agreement, center-left, center-right. But both Democrats and Republicans are divided on education," says Cynthia Brown, vice president for education policy at the liberal Center for American Progress.

The national political foment has been accompanied by a flood of experimentation and new policy thinking, and Duncan wants the department tapped into it. Among other things, he's brought in Monica Higgins, an associate professor at the Ed School, to organize a series of 90-minute roundtables every three to four weeks in which outside policy experts and practitioners meet with Duncan and his top deputies for an open discussion on a particular topic -- teacher performance, turnaround in schools. Duncan has also seeded key positions in the department with Ed School graduates. Martha Kanter, Ed.M.'74, the undersecretary of education, had been chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District and is an expert in two-year colleges, a focus of Obama's goal to increase college attendance and graduation rates. Gabriella Gomez, Ed.M.'01, meanwhile, is running Duncan's congressional relations. Robert Shireman, Ed.M.'89, founder of the Institute for College Access and Success, has been appointed to oversee college tuition and finance issues. Schwartz continues to advise Duncan informally.

Right now, anything seems possible. That's not going to last. "Everybody goes through this period, enjoying the honeymoon phase. But then when it gets down to reality of who gets money, who gets approved, who are the real innovators and drivers, there it gets much harder," says Duncan's predecessor, Margaret Spellings. One obstacle is the caps that many states maintain on the numbers of charter schools -- a policy Obama and Duncan are pushing them to relax. "Imagine a governor of a state that has fairly severe caps on charter expansion and a need to get in an application under Race to the Top. It will take an act of the legislature in New York, for example, to change caps," says Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former head of the Department's Institute of Education Sciences. Congress will also be skeptical -- as it was recently when Senate and House committees grilled Duncan on his plans for Title I funding.

As in Chicago, Duncan's plans ultimately depend on his relationship with his boss. "He gets this," Duncan says. "Before I came to Washington we talked a lot about what we want to do here. And he, like me, feels this huge sense of urgency, this real sense of impatience, and this real sense of possibility. He helps create the space and the latitude to make the changes we need to make."

Duncan and Obama met in the early 1990s (through basketball, Duncan already knew Michelle Obama's brother Craig Robinson, now the men's basketball coach at Oregon State). They crossed paths occasionally after Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996 representing Duncan's home base, Hyde Park and Kenwood on the South Side, and frequently when Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate and Duncan ran the school system. They also began playing basketball regularly -- they played on election day in Chicago, and occasionally manage it in Washington. "It's really, really lucky when you're not trying to build a relationship now," Duncan says, "when you've got this history of working together, when you tend to see the world very similarly and have a similar set of values."

Education, of course, must compete with other items on Obama's ambitious agenda, as well as with erupting crises that will inevitably distract the White House. If the president pushes education reform consistently and wagers political capital on it, Duncan has a chance at success. Duncan's membership in the close-knit group of Chicago transplants in the Obama administration -- including top advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, and social secretary Desiree Rogers (John W. Rogers' ex-wife) -- will help him keep his issues in the mix.

-- John McQuaid is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer based in Washington, D.C. This is his first piece for Ed. To access his stories and blog, go to

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