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Meet the teacher

New Secretary of Education Arne Duncan left a legacy of innovation, choice and accountability in Chicago.

Meet the teacher

(Associated Press/Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHICAGO-Inside the posh teacher's lounge of the Ariel Community Academy on Chicago's South Side, the dysfunction of a troubled urban school system seems far removed. Here the aesthetic screams excellence and order, what with stylish furniture, recessed lighting, and stainless steel appliances.

But a news report flickering across a large flat-screen TV invades that serenity with a brutal reality: "For the 28th time this school year, classmates are remembering a Chicago Public Schools student who was killed by violence."

A teacher and a facilities manager watch the broadcast in quiet disbelief, both exhaling sighs of sadness. If only the peace-filled culture at Ariel could extend influence beyond its 440 students to the more than 400,000 K-12 students who populate the city's 655 public schools. If only those in power could export broadly the sanity and discipline of this little institution.

For one man, that has always been the dream. Arne Duncan helped found Ariel and build it into one of the top-ranking elementary schools in Chicago. When he assumed the role of Chicago Public Schools CEO in 2001, he sought to advance the same values that made Ariel great-community involvement, a merit-based culture, and fearless innovation.

Now Duncan, 44, stands in position to spread his vision nationwide. As President Barack Obama's newly appointed Secretary of Education, he holds sway over federal programs and standards that have long yielded similar dysfunction to that in his home town. What lies ahead for America's education system? The answer lies behind in the city and story that made Arne Duncan.

In an upstairs classroom at Jackie Robinson Elementary--just a five minute walk from Ariel-the volume on a recent Monday afternoon is surprisingly low given the room's occupants. Dozens of elementary-aged youth cram into a space cluttered with books, art, and various other educational tools. The school day is over, but learning and discipline aren't in this small tutoring program.

Sitting in the middle of it all is Duncan's mother, Sue Duncan. Her arms wrapped tightly around a young girl in need of comfort, the 74-year-old grandmother alternates between barking instructions to kids throughout the room and singing sweet lullabies to the one in her lap. Students coming in the door scramble to tuck in shirts and stand up straight. "Hi Sue," they all say. "Nose in your homework," she answers.

Such is life at the nonprofit Sue Duncan Children's Center, an after-school program for troubled urban youth that Duncan founded in 1961. She raised her three children here alongside many others with far less interested or involved parents. After 48 years, she still knows every child's back story, and her eyes well with tears as she tells them.

This is the context from which Duncan's education philosophy flows. It was here that he came to believe every child could succeed and here that he learned the unique challenges inner-city educators face. His mother was not always welcome in Chicago's predominately African-American neighborhoods. Racial tensions surged during the 1960s and '70s, bringing death threats and even a firebombing of the church where the children's center once operated.

Nevertheless, Duncan and his siblings remained heavily involved at the center. He worked there every day after school growing up and took a year off between his junior and senior years at Harvard to come home and help run the program full-time.

Duncan recalled the hardships and lessons of those years during his Senate confirmation hearing: "Our lives were threatened. My mother's life was threatened. I remember leaving work one night and a guy coming by and saying if we came back the next day we'd be killed. And so we had an interesting conversation that night at home at dinner. Our dinnertime conversations may be a little bit different than other families. And we tried to figure out what to do and really decided that you can't run."

The Duncans stood their ground and helped develop and launch an impressive alumni list that includes Oscar-nominated actor Michael Clarke Duncan and top IBM engineer Kerrie Holley, who was named one of the 50 most important blacks in research science in 2004.

Such successes convinced Duncan of the value of private initiative to solve social ills. After graduation from college and a short run as a professional basketball player overseas, he returned to Chicago and directed the Ariel Education Initiative, adopting an entire class of urban youth, shepherding them through graduation, and then supplying their college tuition. Drawing from the methodology of his mother, Duncan took a highly hands-on approach, dropping in at the home of any struggling kids to walk them through tough seasons of life.

Years later, that regard for private citizen initiative remains evident. In early March, Duncan stood up to Democrats in Washington, D.C., who wanted to end that city's school voucher program: "I don't think it makes sense to take kids out of a school where they're happy and safe and satisfied and learning."

On a broader scale, Duncan does not consider vouchers the ultimate answer for the nation's education woes because, he says, they could only ever help a small number of students rather than provide options for entire communities. What's more, Duncan's openness to the existing voucher program in the country's capital provides little recourse for upcoming generations of Washington students. A careful reading of his statement indicates only a willingness to allow the current batch of vouchers to remain unmolested, a position that would eventually grandfather the program out of existence.

Duncan's national vision isn't likely to win parents committed to private or home schooling- "I'm a big believer in choice and competition, but I think we can do that within the public school framework," he said recently during a radio interview with NPR. While his assignment is focused on public schools and public funds, including the $115 billion from Obama's stimulus bill that is earmarked for education investment, those parents feel his policies' effects.

Still, Duncan's defenders cite his openness to partner with successful nonprofits as indicative of the pragmatist strain that defined his public sector work in Chicago.

Duncan's brother Owen, 39, credits their psychology professor father Starkey Duncan for instilling that "whatever works" paradigm: "Ideology or excessive ambition or attachment to certain methods, it all blinds you. It clouds your vision. Arne is driven to help. And if that's your motivation, then the right way to go about it is to be a pragmatist. You do what works to help. It's not about a political party or any of those things people get hung up on."

Indeed, the Ariel Education Initiative and subsequent Ariel Community Academy fit into neither a right- nor left-wing ideology. The school operates as a public-private hybrid, employing union teachers even as the private business of Ariel Investments helps shape its curriculum and fund its programs.

Each incoming class of first-graders at Ariel receives $20,000 to invest over the next eight years as part of an effort to teach financial literacy. Upon graduation, half the profits go into improving the school, the other half to the students, usually in the form of matched contributions in a 529 college savings plan.

Such innovation has earned Ariel plenty of press and speculation as to whether the model is replicable. But much of what makes the school truly great operates in less publicized quarters. It is there, in the day-to-day grind of educating youngsters, that Duncan most left his mark.

A stream of fifth-graders files into Ariel's financial literacy class on a recent Monday morning, each pausing to say hello and shake the hand of teacher Connie Moran. The students, all clad in the school's uniform of blue collared shirts, take seats under the imposing image of massive bull and bear heads painted on the north wall. They stare forward quietly at the classroom's electronic touch screen of a blackboard. (This is not your grandpa's fifth grade.)

Moran opens the class with a role-playing exercise she dubs "pass the buck." The students take on new identities-a working mom, a banker, a car salesman-and learn how the economy is connected as a dollar passes from hand to hand.

"But what if our mom loses her job?" Moran says. "Anybody's parent here lost a job?" Seven hands go up. The students see how the buck stops moving. Moran tells them to use the classroom's handheld texting devices to send in their best guess of a single word to describe what they've just witnessed: "recession."

The single word to describe Moran's teaching techniques: talent. Her innovative approaches and exercises flow not from a prescribed curriculum or pedagogy but from her background as a financial analyst and the Ariel environment in which her creativity is given free rein. That combination resulted recently in a Teacher of the Year award from the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, an annual honor given to just 40 educators nationwide.

Duncan's belief in teacher talent as the primary determinant in the effectiveness of education is stamped all over Chicago. And his commitment to oust underperformers can hardly be overstated. The city's Magnet network allows students to apply to more successful schools outside their geographic boundary. Dozens of charter schools likewise promote parental choice. In turn, the failing institutions left behind run short of students and face the threat of closure without dramatic change.

Duncan did not shy away from shuttering dozens of bad schools, never mind the resultant uproar from the teachers union and community. He even went so far as to help fund a radical idea from a private group to give Chicago's worst schools extreme makeovers.

The Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a nonprofit founded by venture capitalist Martin Klondyke in 2001, initially set out simply to prepare teachers for success in urban settings through a residency training program. But the limited effectiveness of sending too few good teachers into entrenched cultures of failure triggered a more dramatic proposal. What if the worst schools in Chicago could be gutted of every last vestige of their former selves? What if every teacher, staff member, and administrator could be fired and replaced in the course of one summer vacation? What if the same students who left in the summer could return in the fall to new paint, new teachers, new culture?

Duncan embraced the idea.

"Arne always had the philosophy of differentiated approach to the governance of his schools," said AUSL director Don Feinstein, who doubts whether the program could have gotten off the ground had a less supportive and innovative CEO been in power. "He was willing to break up the monopoly that the district is the only one that could work to improve the schools. He created the space for us."

AUSL's space has grown considerably in recent years. The group now occupies several converted classrooms at the Chicago Academy in the northwest quadrant of the city and oversees an annual budget of more than $70 million. It operates six training academies, churning out new teachers to fill the ranks of a growing number of so-called "turnaround schools." The group will convert three more failing schools this year, pushing the total number to eight since 2006.

Sue Stone, a mentor teacher at one of AUSL's training academies, spent nine years teaching in Chicago's inner-city schools. She remembers her first classroom, a shower stall off the gym: "I would be there crying, saying, 'I can't believe I moved here and this is my job.'" That school has since closed-a casualty of Duncan's be-good-or-be-gone approach.

For Stone and other AUSL mentors, the program represents a real chance for lasting change. Up-and-coming talent is drawn to the residency for what resident Aubrey Hall calls "the challenge" of working with urban youth: "I didn't want to teach in the suburbs where there are so many great teachers and kids that are on track. I'm not needed there."

The need in inner-city Chicago is immense. Despite the innovation and advancement Duncan achieved, the beast that is Chicago Public Schools remains a stark contrast to the tamed environment of Ariel's teacher's lounge or the Sue Duncan Children's Center. Critics point to the now 29 violent school-related deaths in the district this year. They decry the city's 50 percent graduation rate and its dismal standardized test scores. And all such problems persist despite soaring annual costs of more than $10,000 per student.

Therein stands a point of tension in Duncan's education philosophy. For all his experience and belief in bottom-up solutions, holding rank atop the education pyramid of the Windy City and now the nation applies pressure for top-down strategies. Indeed, the education powers that be in Washington will test Duncan's resolve against a union-approved, one-size-fits-all paradigm. Even Obama, a close friend to Duncan, may not share the same level of commitment to innovation, choice, and accountability.

"It's great that Secretary Duncan has spoken favorably about things like charter schools and performance pay, but it remains to be seen whether the administration is going to match promising rhetoric with real policy reforms," said education analyst Dan Lips of the Heritage Foundation. "If history is any guide, more funding is not going to solve the problems in our schools."

Lips looks at Duncan's track record in Chicago as mixed, pointing out that the ongoing difficulties were not enough to trigger honest consideration of additional choices like vouchers or tax credits for private schooling: "He deserves some credit for supporting some promising reforms there, but time will tell where they're really headed."

Duncan readily admits that his seven years in Chicago were no cure-all, just steps in a new direction. Conservatives like George Will and former education chief Lamar Alexander are among those who say it's the right direction. Liberals in Washington's education establishment may prove harder sells.

But perhaps the most realistic perspective comes from Duncan's mother: "It's an impossible task," she says of solving the nation's education ills. She would know.

Mark Bergin

Mark Bergin

Mark is a former WORLD reporter.