Duncan serves as the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, a position he was appointed to by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2001, a position one commentator called it the toughest job in the United States. Prior to that, Duncan served as deputy chief of staff for the system's first CEO, Paul Vallas.
"I can't tell you how fortunate I feel to have this opportunity," Duncan says. "Both my parents were life-long educators. My wife's an educator. My sister and brother are both educators. My wife's brother is an educator. In our family there is nothing more important.
"To have a chance to try and dramatically improve the quality of education for kids across the city is -- I can't tell you how meaningful that is."
Daley appointed the first CEO in 1995, signaling a fundamental change in responsibility for the schools. Duncan, who played professional basketball in Australia (after he was cut by the Boston Celtics), joined the district in 1998.
"At the time most people told him he was committing political suicide," Duncan says. "There was no upside. The political courage he had to do the right thing and take that risk was extraordinary. They mayor will tell you every single day that his greatest legacy is to create great education opportunities for children.
"He was out there 10 years ahead of his time. Everyone now thinks it is the greatest idea since sliced bread, but at the time people really questioned his sanity on it. "
There may be some that question Duncan's desire to become the CEO of an enterprise with 613 schools, more than 47,000 employees, nearly 427,000 students and a $4 billion budget, but his aim is clear.
"The only reason I do this job is I want Chicago to become the best big city school district in America," he says. "I'm absolutely convinced we have a real chance to do that in the years ahead by continuing to challenge people's expectations -- students, teachers, parents -- everybody not accept mediocrity and push for the best. It's something we work on every single day."
Smart Business spoke with Duncan to learn why a school system needs a CEO and how he plans to improve one of the largest school districts in the country.
Why does a school district need a CEO?
There was a tremendous change here in Chicago particularly when the mayor took over in 1995. Historically you had a school superintendent and a school board that was basically accountable to no one. What we're trying to do is set the stage that we're running the school system with the same level of efficiency and accountability and emphasis on results that you would any business.
You have to have a leader in charge who can really make decisions, get things done and be held accountable for them. You need clean lines of authority; you need clear accountability. It's a major, major step in a real and symbolic way to say we're very, very serious about what we're doing.
How is running the school system like running a business?
I think there are many more similarities than differences. We absolutely have to be fiscally responsible. We've had 10 years of balanced budgets since the mayor took over. Unfortunately, Illinois ranks 49th out of 50 states in the amount of money going to K-12 education and has a dismal funding record.
Despite that, we've managed to be very fiscally responsible. Last year we actually took $100 million out of the budget.
We're measured by results. We had a great, great year last year, academically, probably our best year in a decade. Seventy percent of schools showed improvement. We have eighth graders beating national norms in both reading and math for the first time ever.
How do you measure the success of the Chicago Public Schools?
The heart of is performance, achievement. We're very, very pleased to see these dramatic (academic) gains. There are many, many indicators of student performance. Basically, all of those are positive indicators - test scores, attendance, the number of students beating national norms is at an all-time high.
A lot of the negative indicators -- truancy, dropout rate -- are at all time lows. That's our bottom line. All of the trends are at their best point ever, which is very, very encouraging. Having said that, I don't think we're anywhere where we can be, will be or should be as we go forward the next couple of years.
We're nowhere near where I think our potential is. That's the most important bottom line.
What is the biggest challenge you face leading the Chicago Public School System?
Funding would be right up there at the top. The other big one, I am constantly trying to raise expectations and raise standards. We've come a long way (since) 1987 (when) former secretary of education Bill Bennett came out and called Chicago the worst school district in America. There's been extraordinary progress, particularly since the mayor took over in 1995.
What did you learn from your predecessor?
Paul did an extraordinary job leading this school system. I had the privilege of working for him for about three years before he left.
The passion he brought to the job, the work ethic and his ability to create along with the mayor and the board to really create a sense of hope for the Chicago Public Schools when it didn't have much before was extraordinary. It gave me a real opportunity to build upon all their hard work.
How do you communicate your vision to the employees, students and parents of the district?
You do it on multiple levels. I do a decent number of speeches. I'm on TV, radio, in the newspapers fairly frequently. I try to spend a lot of time out in the community, going to churches on Sundays, meeting with parents, meeting with students.
I'm in schools almost every single morning. I set up a system where I meet with every principal twice each year. You can communicate a decent amount through the mass media. As important as communicating the vision is, time spent listening, really paying attention to what people are asking for (is also important).
So much of my vision has really been shaped by what I've learned from listening not just to my staff, but students, parents, teachers, principals, community members, religious leaders.
What surprised you most about becoming CEO of the system?
The thing that's been unbelievable to me is the level of support I feel, the entire city's commitment to making the Chicago Public Schools the best big city school district in the country. I get to see an extraordinary cross section of the city every single day.
The level of support and commitment across the board, it's humbling. I had no idea how much support was out there for the system as a whole and for me personally. I can't tell you how gratifying that is; it's one of the reasons I'm so hopeful about what we can do.
How close have you gotten to your goals?
We're continuing to push very, very hard every year. We really think the key level of change is the principal. I think about principals as CEOs. They have to be instructional leaders; they're managing multi-million budgets; they have to recruit and maintain a great staff; they have to work in the community; they have to work with the local media.
The more we can empower our principals, the more we can remove those impediments, the better those schools are going to do. We've come a tremendously long way in terms of instead of the central office being seen as the bureaucratic impediment to change to really having the central office become the center of innovation and a source of support.
HOW TO REACH: Chicago Public Schools (773) 553-1000 or http://www.cps.k12.il.us