Arne Duncan served as secretary of education for seven years under President Barack Obama. He now runs Chicago CRED, a violence prevention initiative of the Emerson Collective. Duncan’s book, “How Schools Work,” was released in August.
You start your book with the clearly provocative sentence, “Education runs on lies.” Given that you’ve been trying to make education a less partisan issue, what was your strategy there, and does it risk further dividing people?
Yeah, tough way to start a book! Well, The strategy was to tell the truth. And that’s my honest opinion. The biggest [lie] is this idea around guns and violence and kids. You never find anyone who says, “We don’t value our kids. We don’t care about them.” But I don’t listen to words. I look at actions. And the truth is, we’ve raised a generation of kids on mass shootings and gun violence. During my seven and a half years running Chicago Public Schools, we had a kid killed every two weeks, on average, due to gun violence, which is a staggering rate of loss. Then Sandy Hook happens. And nothing. Zero. This just doesn’t happen in other countries. You know, England, Canada, Australia have basically solved this. We don’t lack the intellect. We lack the political will. We lack the courage. The Parkland kids have been extraordinary, and I am more hopeful now than I’ve been any time since Sandy Hook. But, for me, that’s the most devastating lie.
Second, we all say we value education. But we don’t act like it. We allow politicians to do platitudes. To visit schools, get the photo ops, pat little kids on the head, and do the cute stuff. I blame us as voters. If we voted based upon who’s going to increase access to pre-K, who has a plan for raising graduation rates and reducing dropout rates, who’s going to make college more affordable, that would change everything overnight. But we don’t do that. We also say we value teachers. But we don’t treat them as the professionals they are. So I’m just trying to challenge what I see as a gap between words and deeds. I’m trying to push people to act.
There are different ways to show you value teachers, right? With all the measurement and assessment, it feels like micromanaging, taking away the art of teaching. We don’t ask that about other professions. Do you worry whether you are getting the full story with the data, or whether you’re creating moral hazard, which we’ve obviously seen here in D.C ?
That’s a complicated one. I do think we should assess kids annually. We need to know: Are they progressing or not? Part of the reason I went into education was from working with a young man who everyone had told him he was doing great. He was going into 12th grade and was probably at a third- or fourth-grade level — like, nine years behind and had no clue. For me, that’s evil. We can’t do that.
I do think there are times we over-test. There’s a middle ground. And then, to be clear, I’m always like, how much are kids improving each year? How much are they growing? Not absolute results. And you always have to be very careful of what you measure; you can create lots of unintended consequences. So, you’ve got to be very, very thoughtful in how you do this. And I think we have to be honest: It’s hard to get it right.
You’ve been in the middle of all kinds of controversies and spoken with thousands of people all across the country. Do you find there’s something people tend to misunderstand about you?
The critique of me — both in Chicago and here — was: too much change, too fast. Some people think I push too hard. Like: Well, you don’t realize how hard poverty is. I’m, like, trust me, all my life, I’ve seen it. I was raised in my mother’s after-school program [on Chicago’s South Side]. I know how hard it is. But I also know what’s possible. I’ve seen kids from desperately tough situations go on to do extraordinary things. Like Kerry Holly, who taught me my entire 10 years in my mother’s program. I interviewed him for the book, and he told me his birth story. I’ve known him all my life, and he had never told me. It blew me away: When he was born, his mother wrapped him in newspaper and threw him in the garbage. And his grandmother pulled him out. Talk about risk factors! Starting your life in a garbage can wrapped in newspaper. I can’t quite think of a higher risk than that. And now he travels the world. He’s got all these patents. Scientist with IBM. But he had my mother and others, every night trying to do from 3 o’clock to 8 o’clock what wasn’t happening during the school day. They gave him that shot. Just think of how many other Kerry Hollys are out there — and we need their talent. And without that, he would have been, you know, just a statistic of the black man who gets locked up or shoots somebody or does whatever. You ever heard a third-grader say their goal is to drop out of high school? It’s never the goal. It’s always a symptom of other chaos in their life. I just think of how many other Kerry Holly s are out there — and we need their talent. Our country needs them.
What is the best advice you’ve gotten?
Just to keep listening. The answers are out there. All the stuff I’ve done has been from just listening to kids and teachers and parents on what they need. And kids will tell you the truth [laughs]. Like, adults may bulls--- you, but kids don’t sugarcoat. It’s so easy to surround yourself with yes-men and people who tell you what they think you want to hear. But you’re doomed if you do that. So you got to have people who will tell you the truth. And really try to just listen non-defensively and be open to being challenged.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Follow KK Ottesen on Twitter: @kkOttesen.