Arne Duncan, the CEO of Chicago’s public schools, is 6 feet 5. The conference chair he’s occupying in his fifth-floor office at Board of Education headquarters seems challenged to contain him. Attired in his usual, casual-dress uniform—a tie and shirtsleeves, with the ends rolled up at the cuffs—he has gotten heated on a point about having closed a school that’s done poorly.
A memory returns to him from the summer when he and his sister, Sarah, were drumming up families to attend Ariel Community Academy, a small school the two were establishing. “I was going door to door in the Robert Taylor Homes when I met with this one mother,” Duncan says. “The school didn’t even exist then—I was talking to the woman about a dream. She had grown up in the area. She was illiterate and had been all her life, which had been one of despair. She looked me in the eye and said, ‘Promise me you will do better for my daughter than public school did for me.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am. I will.'”
Duncan, who is 38, has a palpable sense of social obligation. “I feel this huge sense of urgency,” he says some days later, riding up the shoulder of the Kennedy Expressway in his city vehicle. “I don’t want to wait.”
He no longer has to. After two years of being relatively laid-back, the courteous Duncan (“You doin’ OK?” is a frequent opening line) is forcefully raising his profile and reshaping central office with unexpected new hires who are poised to execute the far-reaching vision that he and Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins have brought forth.
That vision is directing more and more attention to instruction, after-school programs and small and charter schools. Indeed, Duncan is a big proponent of choice within the public schools. “You’ve got a right to attend your local school, but you should have a multitude of high-quality options within your neighborhood,” he says. “It’s getting away from the one-size-fits-all mentality.”
Every superintendent has fashioned his own team. Duncan’s predecessor Paul Vallas and former School Board President Gery Chico filled their ranks with many City Hall co-workers. When Duncan took the helm in the summer of 2001, he recruited bright and talented newcomers who—like himself—lacked the administrative and political expertise in bringing large bureaucracies to heel.
Lately Duncan has moved to tighten his administrative structure, particularly on the non-education side. With the departure of several top administrators associated with Vallas, he has hired a new phalanx of educators, businessmen and lawyers to do his bidding. Newly piped aboard are David Vitale, a former banker with a skill at cutting costs, and Jill Wine-Banks, a lawyer who became famous during the Watergate investigation that led to the resignation of President Nixon.
Duncan also has a fresh battle cry—a call to run the district like a commercial enterprise, at least at central office. “We’re in the business of education,” he says. “We have to make sure that every tax dollar makes it to the kids so they can learn.” That sentiment squares nicely with that of the patron most crucial to his survival, Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Duncan’s tendencies in work and in life grow, organically, from an idiosyncratic upbringing framed by his father Starkey, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, and his mother, Sue. “It was an unbelievably unique childhood, and it shaped me,” Duncan acknowledges. “It’s the reason I’m doing this job. Much of this is about building upon my mother’s legacy.”
In 1961, Sue Duncan, a young wife with a master’s degree in English, launched an after-school tutoring center in a church in North Kenwood. When she gave birth to Arne and then his siblings Sarah and Owen, she folded them into her routine. “We were at the center almost every day from the time we were born,” recalls Arne. “We were taught along with all the other kids, and when we got older it fell to us to teach the younger ones.”
Sue Duncan’s center offered reading and math help, plus art and gym. She was a stickler for words and precision, and she demanded courtesy. She would tell children to look the people they were meeting in the eye, say their names and shake their hands. “Sue was the last person you wanted to be immature around,” says Kwame Raoul, a friend of Arne’s from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which both attended.
The Duncans’ home in Hyde Park was itself a crucible for togetherness and learning. The children were on a first-name basis with Sue, though not Starkey, who decided he didn’t like that habit. The family gathered for dinner every night—invariably late, since Sue had to close the center first. The household lacked a television. Starkey Duncan would call his offspring into the living room after supper and read aloud to them. “We read the classics—’Huck Finn’ and ‘Moby Dick’—and Dad went through Tolkien three times,” says Arne.
“Our activities included the whole family,” says Starkey Duncan, who was divorced from Sue after the children were grown. “We got involved in the kids’ sports, and when one of them would have a game, we’d all show up. That may have been a curse, but we’d do it.”
Arne’s sport, like that of his siblings, was basketball. “He was a little boy when he started,” says Sue. “As I sorted laundry in the living room, I’d put out the basket for him to shoot at.” As he approached adolescence, even though he was still small in stature, he took to the streets for the competition. “I’d go out to play on the South Side and the West Side, where I was the only white kid,” he says. “There were so many great role models. I learned to judge character.”
He also learned the value of teamwork: “I wanted to win. It took being unselfish and working hard and determining who the other players were.” At Lab high school, friends remember him on the court less for his athleticism than for his composure. “He was calm under pressure,” says classmate Alan King, now a Chicago labor lawyer. “He was the guy you wanted with the ball in his hands with a foul at the end of the game, because he was going to walk to the free-throw line and make the clutch shot.”
It was basketball that brought Arne together with John Rogers, an older Lab student who became, and remains, his mentor. “John was the star on the high school team, and I was in 5th or 6th grade,” says Duncan. “I would follow him around like a puppy dog. But he made time for me, and we would talk.”
Rogers turned Duncan toward basketball summer camp, and when it came time for Duncan to consider college, he urged Princeton on his acolyte. Instead, Duncan chose Harvard, where Sue’s forbears had gone.
Duncan took off his junior year to return to Chicago and write his thesis about youngsters he’d met at Sue’s center. He regularly consulted with William Julius Wilson, an esteemed University of Chicago sociology professor who now teaches at Harvard, and he came under Wilson’s sway. “He impressed me as a sensitive and highly intelligent young man who was concerned about the plight of disadvantaged youth and was dedicated to improving their chances in life,” remarks Wilson.
Duncan returned to Harvard, where he co-captained the basketball team, graduated magna cum laude in 1987 and tried for a professional hoops career. Cut from the Boston Celtics after training camp, he played guard on a team in Melbourne, Australia, and then in Tasmania, where he met his future wife, Karen, then a college student.
After four years abroad, he returned to Chicago to launch the Ariel Education Initiative, a philanthropic outgrowth of Ariel Capital Management, John Rogers’ high-flying investment business. First Duncan, along with his sister Sarah, took on mentoring a 6th-grade class at Shakespeare Elementary in North Kenwood. Then they secured approval from the School Board to create Ariel Community Academy, a small school based in the Shakespeare building.
In 1998, Duncan segued to CPS, partly on Rogers’ recommendation. “I had spent a lot of time in the classrooms at Ariel,” Duncan says. “Here were kids with high academic potential who weren’t being asked to do homework. It broke my heart. Throughout my [experience with] my mother’s program and at Ariel, the public schools had always been the enemy. I wanted to change that.”
At the board, Duncan oversaw the service learning program, the requirement that high-school students do community service, and magnet schools and programs, pioneering the idea that neighborhood schools create a cluster of magnet offerings among them. After a year he became deputy chief of staff to Vallas. “Arne was excellent, a young man with a combination of smarts, talent and a work ethic,” says Vallas, now schools CEO in Philadelphia.
Others saw Duncan’s role as more complicated. “He was the mayor’s spy,” says one longtime board observer. “He came in under Rogers’ sponsorship, and Daley loved him. But he was loyal to Vallas, and because of that, Arne got more and more assignments. He was the go-to guy.”
In the spring of 2001, after Daley forced the voluble Vallas out over his independence, the mayor went shopping for a replacement. Some say his first choice was Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey—”We had conversations,” she confirms—but others think Daley always had an eye on Duncan. In May 2001, Daley named cable company executive Michael Scott, the outgoing Chicago Park District president, as chairman of the Board of Education. A month later, Daley announced Duncan would be the $180,000-a-year CEO.
Duncan, an unlikely choice for CEO, wasted no time lining up another unlikely candidate to fill the district’s No. 2 position. Right away, he phoned Barbara Eason-Watkins, then principal of McCosh Elementary in Woodlawn, and said he wanted to speak with her. “I didn’t want a typical Chicago bureaucrat,” says Duncan. “I wanted someone who had displayed an extraordinary commitment to kids and had done it in the inner city.”
Appointed in 1988, Eason-Watkins had transformed the largely poor and underperforming school, yet had always resisted offers of higher positions. Duncan visited her in her Beverly home as she was packing to leave on vacation to Vancouver. He pressed her to take the post of chief education officer, passing over several cabinet-level aspirants. “Arne said, ‘Your name was brought up by everyone,'” Eason-Watkins remembers. “He was very convincing, and so very passionate. When I got back from my trip we talked again, and I said yes.”
Melissa Roderick, co-director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research and a social work professor at the University of Chicago, also received the Duncan treatment when he drafted her to oversee the crafting of a systemwide education plan. “When he asked me to help him, it was the worst time for me,” says Roderick “I was finishing a major research project, and I was the mother of a 3-year-old. ‘I can’t do this for you,’ I told him. But he said, ‘I need you to do this work.’ You know, you really believe him when he talks, and he listens to you. By the end of it, you’re toast.”
Duncan recruited two lawyers to fill top jobs. Peggy Davis, a labor lawyer at Winston & Strawn and former general counsel to the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, signed on as chief of staff, and Jeanne Nowaczewski, public education director at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, joined up as small schools director. As another lieutenant, Duncan picked Mary Ellen Caron, founding principal of the Catholic Francis Xavier Warde School on the Near North Side.
A couple weeks before being named CEO, Duncan went out to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) to have a two-hour chat with professor Timothy Shanahan about his specialty, reading. “He didn’t know a whole lot, but he’d obviously talked to a lot of people,” says Shanahan. “He said, ‘If I get to stick around at the board, maybe we’ll do some things.'”
Shanahan ended up as director of the Chicago Reading Initiative, charged with satisfying Daley’s press for more focus on reading.
Shanahan’s initiative dispatched 114—today, 232—reading specialists to low-performing schools.
Results have been mixed. Last year students at three quarters of all schools made reading gains on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, but this year, those scores at 70 percent of all schools dropped. A similar attack to improve math and science, involving some 80 specialists and trimmed-down options for materials, is being led by Martin Gartzman, another UIC faculty member roped into a central office position.
Last summer, Roderick and a small unit came up with a 57-page education plan that stressed instruction over punitive measures like student retention and the reconstitution of failing schools. It would be coordinated by “area instructional officers” or AIOs. This reorganization of district-level services from six region offices into the hands of 24 AIOs, aided by management support directors and area reading coaches, was the idea of Eason-Watkins.
Davis’ early charge, a project called the Human Capital Initiative, meant to recruit, train and keep teachers, has taken longer than expected to get off the ground. So far its main elements have been efforts to get principals to hire teachers in the winter—heading off moves by other school systems to cage the hottest prospects—and staging summer orientation for new teachers and workshops and advice from mentors during the academic year.
Coming on line are lead mentors in every school, says Al Bertani, chief officer of professional development.
Some, however, are disappointed with Peggy Davis—”She’s not politically savvy,” says one school activist—and with the pace of the human capital project. “It hasn’t moved as fast as some would have hoped,” remarks John Ayers of Leadership for Quality Education, a business-backed school reform group. (Bertani says he’s satified with progress to date.)
“They have a good education plan, but so far there’s little throughput on a bureaucracy that can’t do squat,” Ayers observes. “Arne and Barbara make the right decisions 90 percent of the time, but out in the field there are all these rules and regs to deal with.”
Shanahan suggests that Duncan’s fondness for delegating, while a healthy characteristic, may run him into trouble. “He gives a little too much rope to the inmates,” he says. “If he errs, it’s on the side of not knowing what’s going on.”
“Arne has organizational issues,” says one board veteran. “He talks about running things as a team, but when some big issue comes up, often the right people don’t come together.” Mentioned is a lack of connection among reading and math specialists and those coordinating a new move toward a curriculum based on state learning standards.
Passions and politics
Beyond reading, Duncan has other educational passions. Building on a base from the Vallas years, he has greatly increased after-school programming, which is now a fixture at 468 elementary schools.
Among them are 20 so-called community schools (half underwritten by foundations) that are open until 7 p.m. and include sports and parent classes.
He views small schools as an education elixir. “I fundamentally think that our schools—and especially inner-city high schools—are too big,” says Duncan.
“Students desperately need to know that there are adults in their lives who care about them—and want them to succeed.” Spurred by grants of nearly $20 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the board is in the process of sculpting 32 new small high schools by 2007, mainly within existing buildings.
“Arne is a small-school person, completely,” says Jeanne Nowaczewski. “He knows all the research about the wisdom of this, and he knows it in his heart.” Duncan fairly glows, for example, when speaking about the transformation of South Shore High into four small schools—themed around technology, fine and performing arts, entrepreneurship and the military. “All the small schools will be open in the fall,” says Duncan.
“There’s no additional incremental cost, and within two years, we will have transformed opportunity in that neighborhood.”
Fred Hess, director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University, sounds a cautionary note over Duncan’s small-schools ardor. “Small schools can’t work alone,” says Hess, himself a proponent of such downscaling. “Just putting a kid in closer contact with a teacher isn’t going to improve the kid’s education if that teacher lacks skills in pedagogy or feels that poor children can’t learn.”
Last May, Duncan stepped on a political minefield when he closed three, perpetually low-performing elementary schools, promising to reopen two of them—Dodge and Williams—a year later with new programs and staff.
Deborah Lynch, the new scrappy president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), learned of the move when Duncan called her an hour before the press conference. “I was furious, ” says Lynch, who felt her members should have been given a chance to turn the schools around and that clueless parents shouldn’t learn such bad news on television. She brought 250 protesters to the next School Board meeting and sought a court injunction to block the closings. Both actions failed. “All this derailed the relationship between me and Arne,” says Lynch.
To this day Duncan defends the closings: “It was absolutely the right thing to do. I’m not going to tolerate failure.”
Relations with Lynch improved as, beginning last fall, the two pragmatists united to get the state legislature to reinstate partially the bargaining rights lost when Daley took over the school system in 1995, including those on staffing, layoffs and class size. Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the restored rights into law in April. Under a partnership agreement also knit into law, Duncan agreed to hold off closing 10 low-performing schools and let the union help turn them around.
As contract talks get under way between the board and the union, Lynch says, “We’ve moved past our problems.” Duncan puts an even brighter face on matters: “We’re working very, very well together. Debbie and I and Barbara [Eason-Watkins] have a great rapport.”
Duncan’s link to David Vitale came, not unexpectedly, through John Rogers. In 1985, Vitale and Rogers had been in the first class of Leadership Greater Chicago, a fellowship program of The Chicago Community Trust that encourages civic involvement among young professionals. Duncan was himself in the program’s class of 1995. Vitale, who once chaired the Leadership Greater Chicago board, also sits on the Ariel Capital Management board.
Having abruptly left his job as CEO of the Chicago Board of Trade, Vitale was unencumbered when, in early December, Duncan phoned him and then paid him a visit at this office downtown. “I wanted somebody to manage the non-education side of things here, and I’d been looking for a long time,” recollects Duncan. “I hadn’t found the right person. I was told David might be available, and here was someone who brought so much background and knowledge to the table. I thought I’d be laughed right out of his office.”
He wasn’t. After some consideration, Vitale decided to come work for Duncan as senior policy adviser. The well-off Vitale started in February, paid one dollar a year at his own request.
Meanwhile, over the winter and into spring, a string of top board officials from the Vallas era either quit, got fired or were reassigned. Tim Martin, the board’s chief operating officer, exited to become secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation in the Blagojevich administration. General Counsel Marilyn Johnson departed to be chief of staff at the Illinois State Tollway Authority. Chief Fiscal Officer Kenneth Gotsch marched off to the Los Angeles Unified School District to fill a similar slot. Accountability chief Phil Hanson went on loan to the Illinois State Board of Education and Sue Gamm, chief of specialized services, was bumped over to become Duncan’s special counsel. She was replaced by her deputy, Renee Grant-Mitchell.
Elaine Williams, the board’s technology officer, was fired. “Elaine worked really hard,” Duncan comments sparingly. “But to get to the next level, I felt we should make a change.”
Martin says he left out of fatigue and to get back to his roots—he’d once been the state’s chief highway engineer. “After six years at the board I was tired of serving 500,000 meals every day, and getting 40,000 [students] to school on buses,” he says. “The job takes its toll.” Says Marilyn Johnson, “To be general counsel at the Board of Education for seven years is a lifetime. For me it was time for a change.”
Gamm, a lawyer, says that as Duncan’s focus turned toward instruction, it made sense, even to her, to plug in someone as head of specialized services with an educational background. “Renee [Grant-Mitchell] has a Ph.D. from Harvard,” Gamm points out. Phil Hanson says he wanted “to do something new.” Ken Gotsch didn’t return phone calls.
None of the leave-takers cites dissatisfaction with Duncan or the emergence of Vitale as cause for departure, and the CEO praises his former subordinates. But one source close to Duncan says the dearly departed had lost his favor, except for Martin, who was expressly asked to stay. “These were people who didn’t drive change,” says the source. Without being specific, Michael Scott says the drain in leadership stemmed from “incapability, ineffectiveness, it being time for a change and stagnation.”
“I don’t think anybody was expressly asked to go,” says a veteran of board politics, “but some things are subtle. I’d put Marilyn, Phil and Sue Gamm in that same boat.”
On May 6, Duncan appointed his replacements for many of those slots: Ruth Moscovitch, a former general counsel for the City Colleges, as general counsel; Robert Runcie, president of a technology firm, as chief information officer; Marie Joelle Isidore, former legislative liaison for the Park District, as chief of intergovernmental affairs; and Lucinda Katz, the longtime director of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, as chief officer of early childhood education.
Carlos Azcoitia, a deputy chief education officer, is exiting to become principal of Spry Elementary, a job he held in the early 1990s. Azcoitia stressed that he is leaving to transform Spry into a kindergarten-through-high-school facility, though Duncan, informed sources say, is planning a shakeup in the Office of School and Community Relations, which Azcoitia had supervised.
Greg Darnieder, executive director of the Steans Family Foundation, has been hired as director of post-secondary programs. Darnieder is charged with beefing up career and college counseling and establishing college-bound programs such as one just put in place at the University of Chicago. (See related story.)
Vitale was elevated to chief administrative officer, overseeing the departments of finance, budget, operations, human resources, technology and security. He’s already busy weighing prospects for the Martin and Gotsch vacancies. “There’s been a vast flow of resumes,” he says. He is also trying to tailor the management structure in operations and business-related departments. “Now it’s too diffuse, without much clarity,” says Vitale, who has narrowed the number of officials reporting directly to Duncan from some 14 to “six or eight at the maximum.”
Duncan is himself attuned to running a lean ship. He trimmed the central-office staff by 380 positions last year. He eliminated the learning technology department, assigning its functions to information technology, but otherwise the cuts were “across the board,” he says. Recently he ordered department heads to cut 15 per cent out of their budgets, for a savings of $30 million. But he rejects the suggestion that Vitale is an in-house hatchet man: “This is about how you do your work smarter, and function like a Fortune 100 company.”
Vitale acknowledges his reputation as a job surgeon. “I’ve cut jobs in recent years,” he says. “I have high expectations of what people can do, and I believe in discipline. We have to make sure that people are doing the right things.” He denies he is expressly on hand to trim positions. “When I look around this organization, I see enough work to do, and the people to do it.” Yet he also sees money to be saved, though “not in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
He scoffs at the suggestion that his presence lends cold-bloodedness to Duncan’s inner circle: “Do we want to educate more kids better, or don’t we? If discipline and focus get that job done, that’s the way it should be. If somebody wants to call that cold-blooded, that’s what we should do. We’re not about making everybody happy.”
Another high profile newcomer, seasoned lawyer and business executive Jill Wine-Banks, came on board in March as chief officer of education-to-careers. She oversees such vocational education classes as auto shop, health care, carpentry and nursing at 58 high schools. Careful to note that she’s only now getting grounded in her job, Wine-Banks does say she’s looking to expand apprenticeships to engender more support from corporations and to add mentors.
To bring the high schools’ career offerings more in line with actual jobs in the marketplace, her office has just cut or consolidated some classes. “Barbering was eliminated, but cosmetology was not,” Wine-Banks says. “Travel and tourism has been changed to hospitality. How many jobs for travel agents are there going to be in the future? Hospitality now takes in culinary science and hotel management.”
When commercial photography was dropped, officials at Curie High raised an outcry. “We’re not very pleased,” says Principal Jerryelyn Jones, who notes her photography teacher has developed strong ties with Columbia College and Gallery 37, the city-sponsored arts training program. Curie appealed the decision, and won. “They’re going to let us keep the course this year,” says Jones. “Next year it’ll be phased into computer-assisted design.”
Meeting and greeting
The CEO, who toils long hours, rushes through the belly of his days in well-timed appearances and in meetings orchestrated in crisp succession, with an aide usually along to pick up any tidbit he might miss.
Yet he manages to glide gracefully among various worlds that impact on city education. On May 1, he attended a breakfast meeting of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club at the stuffy Chicago Club—he sat hunched politely listening to familiar presentations on small and charter schools—and then he headed to Byrne Elementary in Garfield Ridge to announce a plan to relieve school crowding.
He answered reporters’ questions at a press conference, then toured classrooms. In a 1st-grade room he conducted an arithmetic lesson. “What’s 12 minus five?” Duncan asked. “Seven,” said a boy. “Good, good,” said Duncan. “What’s six plus five minus two?” When a girl with a spangled scrunchy binding her pony tail came back with “nine,” Duncan flashed his trademark, enormous curved smile.
Kindergarten teacher Helen Sebastian eyed Duncan from afar. “I don’t know what he stands for, but he looks like a real handsome fellow, ” said the 77-year-old Sebastian, who’s been at Byrne for 29 years and is retiring this month.
Next, Duncan set off to issue greetings at a space-day conference at DePaul University, and to join a panel discussion in front of African-American caseworkers for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, meeting in Arlington Heights.
He returned phone calls en route. He’s proud that either he or a staff member returns every call placed to him on any given day, “whether it’s the governor or some mother who’s upset with what’s happening at her school,” Duncan says. Lunch consisted of a bottle of water and a power bar.
In general, Duncan functions by delegating responsibilities where he can. “He knows what we’re working on,” says Eason-Watkins. “So it’s not a situation where I have to check with him before something’s done.”
Inside meetings, which Duncan likes to arrange around projects, associates describe him as wanting to hear diverse points of view and as listening with a keen ear. “In a room, he never wants to be the star,” says Tim Shanahan, now back teaching at UIC. “If there’s a victory to be had, it’s your victory, not his. He’s generous in giving the credit to others.”
He’s also quick to process unfamiliar information. “He’s always saying, ‘I got that. I got that,'” says Jeanne Nowaczewski. “In the early days, I would write speeches that he would give to groups, until I figured out that he already knew everything that I was writing about. Finally I thought, ‘Why am I torturing myself?’ “
For physical release Duncan lifts weights and plays basketball in a Sunday-afternoon league at Fernwood Park in west Roseland, on weekday nights and once or twice a month with John Rogers. He also frequently plays ball with students during school visits. In February, a three-on-three team that included Duncan lost a two-point squeaker to a team from Milwaukee in the finals of an amateur tournament sponsored by the National Basketball Assocation.
Duncan resides in Hyde Park, where he treasures time with his wife, the former athletic director at the Lab Schools, and their daughter Claire, who’s one and a half.
Getting the job done
Duncan’s standing reportedly remains high with the mayor. After his reelection, Daley told Ald. Patrick O’Connor, chairman of the City Council Education Committee, “We need to make sure that Arne’s going to be there.” O’Connor adds that Duncan is “on solid footing” with Daley.
Daley, who could not be reached for comment, evidently likes Duncan, in part, for his willingness to feather his senior staff with business types. “If you are going to teach, a Ph.D. in teaching is important,” Daley is quoted as telling a small group at the Northern Trust Bank in February. “But it’s not important to heating, roofs and buses.”
Duncan says the mayor, with whom he meets monthly and speaks to even more frequently, is encouraging. “He’s said from day one, ‘Get the job done,'” says Duncan. “There’s been no micromanaging.” Yet Daley is easily unsettled. “The mayor’s a guy who will pick up the paper in the morning and see what [New York Chancellor] Joel Klein is doing and say, ‘Why aren’t we doing that?” says one longtime board higher-up.
Otherwise, everyone from U.S. Education Secretary Roderick Paige, who calls a reporter unbidden to declare Duncan “a budding hero in the education business,” to seasoned local school reformers throw laurels at the CEO.
Vallas was trouble for reform groups—he distrusted them and locked them in the deep freeze—but a thaw has occurred. “I know trouble,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United to Reform Education (PURE). “I’ve looked trouble in the face, but it doesn’t look anything like Arne Duncan. He even calls occasionally to give me a heads up on something. I get up in the morning and pinch myself.”
Much to Woestehoff’s liking, Carlos Azcoitia, with Duncan’s blessing, created a local school council roundtable to iron out snafus with the law and school and community relations departments. The CEO quickly embraced the idea of identification badges for LSC members to give them recognition in school hallways, says Woestehoff, though she criticizes James Deanes, officer for school and community relations, for dragging his feet in getting them issued. “I was given the assignment, and I made it happen,” responds Deanes, surprised at the criticism.
Likewise, Donald Moore of Designs for Change appreciates a new respect being given to LSCs. He also calls the district’s use of reading specialists a “sound” approach, and touts Eason-Watkins as “one of the most capable educators in the system in 30 years.”
Early on, the Rev. James Meeks, pastor of Salem Baptist Church in Roseland, found Duncan unqualified. “He couldn’t be a principal in the system, so how could he run it?” says Meeks, now a state senator. “But he has surrounded himself with quality educators, a good thing. You know, George Bush fought a successful military campaign, and he was never a general in the field.”
Board president Scott says that when he and Duncan troop to Springfield to lobby for sustained state aid, the CEO is greeted warmly, though he acknowledges that that can be deceiving. “Springfield is like an old guy,” says Scott, a skilled government operative. “The old guy’s got his ways, and he does what he wants. In Springfield, they may say they’re for you, but you never know.”
Duncan and Scott faced a potential hole of $250 million in state aid early in the spring, including the loss of the state’s $65 million contribution to the teachers’ pension fund. Yet in early May the pair was crowing about snaring $73 million additional in assistance, including the pension-fund money.
Duncan’s principal soft spot appears not to be his relative youth—the only signs of age are a patch of gray at the nape of his neck and flecks on his forelock—but his lack of charisma. “Paul had a magnetism,” says one former aide to Vallas. “He knew how to work a crowd, and when you talked to him, whoever you were, you thought you were somebody special. Arne doesn’t have that.”
As compelling as Duncan can be in small settings, in public and on television he speaks so quickly that his content, often dotted with clichés, is frequently lost on listeners. “He always seems like a kid who has to give a speech, and knows he better get through it,” offers Shanahan.
Yet Shanahan also remembers Duncan as being rousing, as when he addressed reading specialists early in the spring of 2000 and called them “green berets of the Chicago Public Schools.” Adds Shanahan, “He wowed the specialists, and they gave him a standing ovation, and love. Yeah, he does use platitudes, but the fact is that he means them. He comes across as an honest person who cares deeply.”
Duncan leaves a lighter impression on the public. “He seems like a sharp young guy,” says Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown, “But he doesn’t work the media the way Vallas did.” Ayers makes the point that the times call for “the tortoise over the hare,” more the plodder than the showboat.
The times also pose challenges. Duncan’s administration will continue with budget constraints, a drying up of capital-improvement funds, implications of the No Child Left Behind law and Federal District Court Judge Charles Kocoras’ misgivings about the 1980 consent decree mandating desegregation.
“Michael Scott and I are committed to the philosophy of the consent decree,” says Duncan. If the judge throws it out, he says, the board will rely on factors besides race, namely geography and income level, to retain some level of integration.
Duncan finds the deaths of schoolchildren the hardest aspect of his job. He was at the park with his sister Sarah on a Sunday in April when he got the call that 12-year-old Rene Guillen, a 7th-grader at Hamline, had been shot and killed while working on a community cleanup. “Arne was almost in tears,” says Sarah. When Duncan stopped by the boy’s house the next day, “it was tough for me personally,” he says, “but I had a responsibility.”
Fred Hess sees Duncan as following in Vallas’ tradition, coming up with a vision (“for Paul it was student achievement”) and leaning on non-educators to help actualize it. “Arne is continuing down that road,” says Hess, “but it’s hard when you have people prone to fighting turf battles.”
Duncan says he’s confident about shaping the system to his will. “If I didn’t think I could do that, I wouldn’t be here,” he says.
“We’re articulating a narrow set of priorities, orienting people to them and assembling a management team that buys into Barbara’s and my vision. We’re changing the fundamental structure of the organization to get things into the hands of the schools, where they can focus on instruction.
“And imagine being able to do this in my hometown,” he adds softly, “where I know the streets and the people.”