Since arriving in Washington, Duncan has been on the road one or two days a week, visiting schools and colleges and meeting with students, principals and teachers.
"The solutions are never going to come from Washington," Duncan said. "So when I go out, I'm not just listening to the problems; I'm really challenging folks to come up and tell us the answers."
This fall, Duncan, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rev. Al Sharpton will embark on a five-city tour to raise awareness of the achievement gap between white and minority students.
"The gap is absolutely, morally unacceptable," Duncan said. Planning is in the early stages and no dates or places have been decided, he said.
Making an end run around the Bush administration's controversial No Child Left Behind law, Duncan has argued many states and districts aren't using data to reward good teachers and some states have watered down their proficiency standards so students and parents believe they are doing much better than they are.
Despite the problems, Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, insists the states are ready for education reform.
This week he met with half the nation's governors to discuss their plans for education reform.
"I'm optimistic because these states are fundamentally not doing business as usual," he said. "What I saw and heard and felt from the governors over the past two days makes me very very hopeful about where we're going."
Duncan cited failing elementary schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, that have added a "fifth quarter" -- keeping the school open for students a month longer.
He convinced 46 of the nation's 50 governors earlier this month to sign onto a commitment to work toward common academic standards in English and language arts.
It's only a voluntary commitment, and some argue that Duncan has yet to take a real stand against about 35 states that have legislation limiting the number of charter schools, or no charter school law at all.
"As much as I like the president and secretary Duncan, it remains to be seen whether or not they're going to stand firm when the unions and some of these states push back like some of them are already doing," said Kevin Chavous, who sat on Obama's education advisory committee during the election and is a board member of DC Children First, which advocates for school vouchers.
"We really need to see if the president and the secretary are going to stand firm against these recalcitrant states who just want to stick with the status quo," he said.
But Duncan said he believes he can leverage the stimulus money into creating education reforms.
"We have unprecedented discretionary resources," Duncan said, "if we can listen well enough to invest in what works and take to scale what works and invest in best practices."
Duncan's consensus-building approach has won respect from teachers' union and others from all sides of the education reform debate.
"He's a totally straight-forward, unassuming, no-pretense kind of guy," Vander Ark said, "for good and bad, he's not a politician. ... Whether people agree with him or disagree, you can't argue with his sincerity and his integrity."
"We disagree on a number of areas but they are continuing to engage us in deep conversations," said John Stocks, deputy executive director for the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union.