Arne Duncan

U.S. Secretary of Education

For his senior thesis, Duncan took a year off to research the aspirations and opportunities of the urban underclass in Chicago.

“It was an excellent study that revealed a sophisticated understanding of the structural and cultural factors embodied in urban inequality and that have profound implications for individual life chances,” says Wilson of the thesis.


In 2001, Duncan became Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools, and went on to close failing schools and advocate for performance pay for teachers.

“He’s a realist, and he knows how to get things done,” Webster says of Duncan. “He’s just a problem-solver, and he’s got this very unique skill set to be able to talk to different people and come up with a common solution.”


After assuming office as the Secretary of Education in 2009, Duncan spearheaded the Race to the Top initiative, incentivizing reform in K-12 schools.

Roby says Duncan is “challenging people to think differently about the model of education in this country.” For example, because more mothers work full-time today, Duncan advocates increasing the number of hours in the school day and the number of months in the school year in order to keep children engaged.

Duncan continues get his competitive juices flowing in pickup games at the White House—though with some new teammates, such as President Obama, with whom he played basketball on Election Day.

“I think by the time he’s done he’ll have really moved the needle,” Webster says. “Similar to basketball, he’s spending time at what he loves, and I bet you he doesn’t consider it work.”

—Staff writer Julie R. Barzilay can be reached at