Cover Story

Meet the teacher

"Meet the teacher" Continued...

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

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.

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