Federal Explainer

Arne Duncan, Ninth U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements

By Education Week Library — August 18, 2017 | Updated: November 17, 2020 3 min read
President-elect Barack Obama looks on as his Education Secretary-designate Arne Duncan speaks during a news conference in Chicago in this Dec. 16, 2008 file photo.

Biographical Information: Duncan was born Nov. 6, 1964, in Chicago, and attended the University of Chicago Lab Schools. After graduating from Harvard University, Duncan spent four years playing professional basketball in Australia before beginning his career in education. Duncan was part of the founding team of the Ariel Community Academy in Chicago before serving as CEO of the Chicago public school system from 2001 to 2008. Duncan served as the education secretary for most of President Barack Obama’s two terms. As one of the longest-serving education secretaries, he oversaw a number of controversial initiatives, including the Race to the Top grant program and the encouragement of common academic standards among the states, associated with the Common Core State Standards. Duncan now serves as a managing partner at the Emerson Collective’s office in Chicago and as a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Served Under: President Barack Obama

Dates of Tenure: 2009-2016

Fun Fact: Duncan was the co-captain of the Harvard men’s basketball team and played professional basketball in Australia from 1987 to 1991.

Achievements in Office:

  • Duncan oversaw massive education spending under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, including the Race to the Top competitive-grant program that funded education redesign initiatives by the states.
  • Under Duncan’s guidance, the Education Department offered conditional waivers from the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act if states agreed to initiatives such as common standards and teacher evaluation based on student test scores.
  • Poured more than $7 billion into the School Improvement Grant program, which was aimed at fixing the nation’s lowest-performing schools. The program yielded mixed results when it came to student outcomes.

Archives of Note:

Obama: Duncan ‘Doesn’t Blink’ on Tough Decisions (Includes photo gallery)
Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan, President-elect Obama’s pick for U.S. secretary of education, says ‘there are no simple answers,’ but reform efforts can make a difference. (Dec. 16, 2008)

To Duncan, Incentives a Priority
The new U.S. secretary of education would get a discretionary pot of $15 billion to dole out for state and local incentives under the economic-stimulus proposals (Jan. 30, 2009)

Duncan Unveils Details on Race to the Top Aid
Education Secretary Duncan wants to use $350 million to help states draft common assessments, and has sharpened the time line for grants. (June 15, 2009)

Duncan Apologizes for Katrina Remarks
The U.S. secretary of education said it was “dumb” for him to characterize the hurricane as the “best thing” that has happened to New Orleans’ education system. (Feb. 2, 2010)

Duncan Vows Tougher Civil Rights Action
But a previous head of the Education Department’s civil rights office disputes that the Bush administration’s record was lackluster. (Mar. 15, 2010)

Q&A: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Talks Waivers, Competitive Grants
In a wide-ranging interview during his recent back-to-school bus tour, the education secretary discussed a variety of topics and highlighted some of his top priorities. (Sept. 17, 2014)

One-on-One With Arne Duncan
As his annual back-to-school bus tour rolled along, the secretary of education talked waivers, common core, and other issues with Education Week’s Alyson Klein. (Sept. 22, 2015)

Arne Duncan Joins Brookings Institution as a Fellow
Duncan’s analysis and opinion pieces will appear on the Brown Center Chalkboard, the institution’s policy blog. (Apr. 22, 2016)

Commentaries by Arne Duncan:

Start Over
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan writes, “If we don’t take aggressive action to fix the problems of low-performing schools, we are putting the children in them on track for failure.” (Jun 12, 2009)

An Open Letter From Arne Duncan to America’s Teachers
With the start of Teacher Appreciation Week, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan addresses the nation’s educators. (May 2, 2011)

Arne Duncan: Betsy DeVos Turns a Blind Eye to Injustice
The former U.S. secretary of education discusses the department’s current approach to guns in schools, transgender students, zero-tolerance discipline, and more. (September 4, 2018)

Reopening Schools Is a Local Decision, Not the President’s
The Trump administration has completely failed to protect Americans and lead during the COVID-19 crisis, writes former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. (July 9, 2020)

Let’s Get Back to School, But Differently
To combat the pandemic’s impact, districts need smaller classes for the youngest kids, writes former U.S. Ed. Secretary Arne Duncan. (November 16, 2020)

Additional Resources
Department of Education A brief biography from the Department of Education archives
Time Magazine: a Profile An in-depth look at Duncan in 2008
New York Times Articles about and profiles of Arne Duncan from The New York Times

How to Cite This Article
Education Week Library. (2017, August 18). Arne Duncan, Ninth U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/arne-duncan-ninth-u-s-education-secretary-biography-and-acheivements/2017/08

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