Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Education


In 2001, Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed a young, relatively unknown Arne Duncan as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Reportedly, Duncan was Daley’s second choice, after Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey turned down the job. But his commitment to improving the lives of disadvantaged youth and on-the-ground experience starting Ariel Community Academy gave him the smarts and contacts to build a strong team within central office, with former principal Barbara Eason-Watkins serving as lead partner.

Eason-Watkins was Duncan’s first call after taking the job. She had repeatedly turned down offers to move up into district offices, but she couldn’t say no to him. “He was very convincing, and so very passionate,” she recalled.

Compared to the turmoil and leadership churn in CPS since his departure, the Duncan years now appear remarkably stable and focused on educational issues. Perhaps most significantly, Duncan adopted the Consortium on Chicago School Research’s “on-track” indicator, and high schools began using the information to support freshmen through that all-important year.

Duncan also championed expanding school choice and lent new urgency to the work of transforming struggling high schools — initiatives that drew heat from the political left. These efforts had more mixed results. An analysis  by the Consortium on Chicago School Research of reform across three eras—Duncan’s being the third—found that while high school graduation rates made real gains during the Duncan years, African-American students lost academic ground compared to students of other races.

See “Duncan puts new emphasis on ‘business of education,’” Catalyst June 2003 and “Duncan’s track record,” Catalyst December 2008


As U.S. Education Secretary, Duncan has walked the line between staying connected to Chicago’s youth while staying removed from policy squabbles between district and state leaders, like the recent dust-up over whether to delay PARCC testing for a year.

Duncan has encouraged states to innovate around accountability systems, offering waivers from No Child Left Behind’s rules. Illinois is about to launch the new accountability system outlined in its waiver request to the U.S. Department of Education—one that focuses on student progress over time, school climate and student outcomes, including graduation rates.

The state board would be required to set annual targets in reading and math proficiency for each district, school and subgroup—with the overall goal of reducing the percentage of students not proficient by half over six years. The effort also creates new supports for struggling schools.

See “CPS says it wants delay on new test, but was already denied in July” Catalyst October 2014 and “Bills awaiting Rauner’s signature,” Catalyst July 2015


Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that Duncan plans to stay in his current role through President Obama’s entire second term, although his family has already returned to Chicago.

Though Duncan’s reform agenda now faces stiffer opposition from Congress, friends say he’s not a quitter. “I’m absolutely confident he’ll serve out the full term. There’s a lot of important work yet to be done. He’ll do everything possible to make the most of the opportunity,” said long-time associate Peter Cunningham, who handled communications for Duncan both at CPS and in Washington. (Cunningham now leads Education Post, a non-partisan communications organization promoting conversation around standards, accountability and school choice/charter schools.)

“He’s not looking for work right now,” confirms sister Sarah Duncan, who co-directs the Network for College Success at the University of Chicago.

Considering what other education secretaries have done after their terms, Cunningham doesn’t see Duncan returning to district leadership, either. Consulting, elected office and work with think tanks and foundations are more likely. While in CPS, Duncan’s team built relationships with private foundations and federal grant administrators that more than tripled the district’s take of competitive grant funds.

Others who have worked with Duncan suggest more out-of the-box possibilities, from heading up the Obama Presidential Library to tackling the crisis in college athletics.

See “Chicago-style reform sells,” Catalyst May 2006

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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