All you really need to know about Duncan, 48, is he plays basketball with President Obama. He may not admit it, but he's probably a better player than the commander in chief. Duncan was cocaptain of the basketball team at Harvard and played professional basketball in Australia before getting into education in 1992. His and Obama's love of hoops, as well as their shared roots in Chicago, say a lot about the Education secretary's influence within the administration. Friendly, full of energy, and unwilling to take no for an answer, Duncan is one of a handful of Cabinet secretaries to stick around for Obama's second term.
Duncan is hoping to follow through on what White House officials consider the administration's most successful domestic-policy scheme, the Race to the Top competitive grant program. Thirty-four states have embarked on some sort of school-reform effort in hopes of winning a grant to develop better teacher-evaluation systems or turn around "failing schools." Nineteen states and several districts have won grants, which means the administration got more than half of the bidders to engage in school- reform efforts for free. Duncan and Obama are also enormously proud that 46 states have signed on to the Common Core educational standards for K-12 schools; they believe Race to the Top deserves some of the credit. The grant money isn't as plentiful as it was, though. The initial outlay of $4.3 billion for Race to the Top, part of the economic-stimulus package, is well above the current monies available, about $400 million.
Duncan spent his career outside of Washington, as the chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, before joining the administration. Initially, he wanted to work with Congress to reauthorize President George W. Bush's signature No Child Left Behind law. But lawmakers have not been able to reach agreement on how to fix the law, and the lack of legislation has left states grumpily asking the department for waivers from outdated benchmarks. Duncan remains unbending in his view—unpopular with conservatives—that states and school districts need some direction from the federal government. "If it's right for one district or state, it's probably right for 50," he told National Journal in a 2010 interview.