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Education secretary Arne Duncan: headmaster of US school reform

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"In Washington, people like to take credit.... [Duncan] is the opposite," wanting to shine a light on schools and people who are achieving great results, says Jon Schnur, the CEO and cofounder of the nonprofit New Leaders for New Schools and a onetime adviser to the Obama campaign and to Secretary Duncan.

"A lot of people bring different issues and options to him and talk about the politics of this or that," Mr. Schnur says, "and Arne says, 'I'm not a politician.... The question for me in every policy decision is, 'What's in the best interest of kids?' "

To answer that question, Duncan does a lot of listening – the lean-forward, sleeves-rolled-up, look-you-in-the-eye kind of listening that makes people on every side of a thorny issue feel respected.

During his first year as secretary, he visited educators, students, and parents in 23 states on a "listening and learning tour." On a single day this spring, he delivered a commencement address and then packed in two roundtable discussions – one with award-winning Boston public school teachers and another with a team of educators, administrators, and union officials in nearby Revere, Mass., who had overcome differences to create a new "innovation school" that embraces a host of reforms.

He spent just enough time talking to praise the groups for their efforts and tell them what he was there to learn. Then he sat listening, taking occasional notes in a white binder.

When he visits schools, he leaves a signed basketball. And when there's time, he squeezes in a pickup game with the kids, opening the door to a whole different level of conversation.

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