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Education secretary Arne Duncan: headmaster of US school reform

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But paired with the listening, Duncan has a bold, decisive streak, a willingness to take a stand that even core constituencies might balk at.

John Rogers, a Chicago investment manager who has played in adult basketball tournaments with Duncan, likens that trait to the time Duncan, with blood gushing from a broken nose as the other team screamed at the referee to stop play, made the winning three-point shot.

"He's the guy you want to have the ball in his hands at the end of the game," says Mr. Rogers, whose friendship with Duncan started in their Lab School days. "He's going to take the big shot and not shy away from it. He's such a nice guy, people can underestimate ... that steel backbone that can be there to fight," he says.

Independent thinking runs in the family. Besides his mother's inner-city efforts, his late father, Starkey Duncan, was a psychology professor at the University of Chicago who tried to bring data-driven methodology to what some saw as a soft science. Owen says his brother combines his father's rational approach with the emotion that drove his mother.

Duncan took a year off from his sociology studies at Harvard to work at his mother's program and research his senior thesis on the aspirations and opportunities of the urban underclass. That year convinced him that rather than follow many of his classmates to Wall Street or to graduate school, he wanted to pursue a career in education.

But first he had to try his hand at basketball. After graduation in 1987, his tryout for the Boston Celtics flopped, so he went to Australia to play pro ball until 1991. He met his wife, Karen, there. They now live in Arlington, Va., where their daughter and son attend a public elementary school ("I'm totally just daddy there," Duncan insists.)

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