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Duncan and his siblings spent each weekday afternoon helping out at their mother's center on the corner of 46th and Greenwood. After the tutoring, everyone would shoot some hoops. Those were his evenings. During the day, Duncan attended the prestigious University of Chicago Lab School, a rigorous K-12 program that led him to Harvard. There he graduated magna cum laude while maintaining his obsession with basketball, co-captaining the team his senior year. After college and a failed tryout with the Boston Celtics, Duncan flew to Australia to play in that nation's professional basketball league. He stayed for four years, playing ball, working with foster kids and eventually meeting his wife Karen.
He returned to Chicago to run a nonprofit for investment banker and Obama backer John W. Rogers Jr.--his mentor since their years together at the Lab School, where Duncan says he followed Rogers around "like a puppy dog." Duncan proceeded to co-found a small school with his sister. He then ran the magnet program for the Chicago board of education and was the system's deputy chief of staff, before being tapped to serve as its head. His 7½ years as superintendent produced mixed results. While he oversaw modest gains in student achievement, Duncan's tenure was most notable for his willingness to try anything, regardless of ideological association--expanding charter schools, paying students for good grades, experimenting with teacher merit pay and shutting down failing schools and reopening them with new staffs. He's still keen on such controversial turnaround strategies. In late August, he announced another competitive grant program that uses $3.5 billion in nondiscretionary funding in an effort to fix the nation's worst schools.
No More Tinkering
Duncan has spent a lot of time in his new job crisscrossing the country, talking to teachers, teachers' unions, school boards and teachers' colleges about the need to shake things up and change the way they all do business. Finn says Duncan's courage in speaking truth to the educational establishment is his greatest achievement, at least so far.
But it is also clear that the nation's educators are still recovering from the comparatively modest changes that the Bush Administration forced on school districts, particularly the NCLB measure, which so emphasized test scores to the exclusion of other educational goals that many experts now regard it as a failure. NCLB has become, in Duncan's estimation, such a "toxic" brand that his Education Department recently tore down the faux red schoolhouse emblazoned with the law's name that sat outside its main entrance in downtown Washington. Duncan will be instrumental in rewriting NCLB, starting with the name. "We'll probably get a really smart 10-year-old to figure this one out for us," he says. "It's got to be something more aspirational, more inspirational, more about the direction we need to go."