Sarah Carr is editor of the Teacher Project at Columbia Journalism School and author of “Hope Against Hope,” which tells the story of New Orleans schools.
When Arne Duncan arrived in Washington nearly a decade ago, his boss instructed him not to sweat the politics of the place. “Just do what you think is right for kids and let me worry about the politics,” Duncan recounts being told.
The story of how Duncan used that latitude from President Barack Obama makes up much of the meat of his memoir, “How Schools Work.” As secretary of education, he played an unusually active role in shaping state and local education policies, largely through a competitive grant program known as Race to the Top. With $4.35 billion in discretionary money, Duncan and his staff enticed states to make sweeping changes to their education policies: adopting the Common Core curriculum standards, raising the cap on charter schools and doing away with laws that prevented teachers from being judged partially on their students’ test scores.
“It was like a wave breaking across the country, capturing the imaginations of nearly every governor and key leaders at the state level,” Duncan writes.
To the extent that Duncan’s book is controversial it is largely because his tenure as secretary of education was controversial — dividing members of his own party, for instance, over whether and to what extent teachers should be evaluated on test scores.
The book offers a readable recounting of the personal and professional back story that led to Duncan’s priorities as education secretary. It is not, however, likely to change many hearts or minds, let alone transform political foes into friends. Duncan cedes no political ground, writing that his main failure with Race to the Top was communication, not concept. “If I had to do it all over again, I would push even harder than we did; there’s never a ‘right’ time for fundamental change,” he says.
“How Schools Work” opens in Chicago, where Duncan got his first experiences working in education at an after-school program run by his mother, Sue Duncan, on the city’s South Side. There, he tutored a hardworking, friendly 17-year-old named Calvin Williams who, despite his consistent honor roll grades and college aspirations, could barely read and write.
The moment marked Duncan’s first exposure to what he describes as the education system’s many “lies”: in this case, the advancement and hypocritical praise of students who haven’t learned the basics of reading and math. (Duncan says he long ago lost touch with his tutee — I would have appreciated hearing Williams’s own reflections on his story.)
From the Sue Duncan Children’s Center, Duncan takes us on a chronological tour of his professional life, zipping through years spent playing basketball in Australia and leading a small-scale school improvement initiative for a Chicago foundation. He recounts more extensively his time working for and then running Chicago Public Schools, before heading to Washington for the nation’s top education job. (When the family moved to the D.C. area, Duncan’s wife tried to enroll their son in a Montessori preschool and was denied a spot because of the child’s “lack of Montessori experience”; it’s a telling detail that speaks not only to the family’s low-key profile but the elitist, byzantine quality of so many school admissions processes.)
Some of the book’s shortest detours are among the most interesting. For instance, there’s Duncan’s visit to Columbus Elementary in New Mexico, many of whose students live in a nearby Mexican village with their parents. Since the children were born at a U.S. hospital, they cross the border every weekday to attend school in Columbus. Duncan decided, on the spur of the moment, to ride the school bus back to Mexico one afternoon, chatting companionably with fifth-grade girls en route to a border crossing populated by uniformed guards wearing bulletproof vests. In their Mexican village, parents with restricted access to the United States often stay in touch with their children’s teachers via Skype and watch school performances that way, too.
I would have appreciated more such scenes: taking us inside schools and families confronting ordinary and extraordinary challenges in thoughtful, creative ways. I also wanted more context on the role of education secretary and whether Duncan conceived of the position differently from his predecessors or sought to transform it in a lasting way; perhaps that’s fodder for another book.
Duncan’s concern for children’s welfare comes through in his writing, and he takes pains to note that the goal of the reforms he pushed for was “never just to improve test scores; it was to get kids ready for college.” That, too, should be fodder for another book. We have too little information about the longer-term effects of K-12 school reforms, at the local or national level, including their track record when it comes to getting kids not only to, but through, college. That’s something I wish more reformers called for — explicitly and loudly. There’s a persistent disconnect in “How Schools Work” between Duncan’s insistence on the importance of data-based reforms in education and his reliance on anecdote to illustrate many of his points.
Parts of the book feel dated because of the new, and vastly different, presidential administration. But sadly, one of the final chapters describing Duncan’s current work combating gun violence remains as timely as ever. (He is now a managing partner at the Emerson Collective, which funds his anti-gun-violence work in Chicago. The collective is also a funder of the Teacher Project, the education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School that I coordinate.)
The Sandy Hook massacre occurred while Duncan served as secretary, showing him just how intractable the problem would be. “Before Newtown, I believed it would take the deaths of young white kids to force people to act” on gun control, he writes. “I’m not proud of this belief, but it’s what I thought. I knew from experience that our society doesn’t value black and brown lives the same way it valued white lives.”
Five and a half years — and more than 30 mass shootings — later, he facilitated the early meetings between middle-class teens from Parkland, Fla., and predominantly black, low-income teens from Chicago, all of whom had lost close friends or family members to gun violence. “They have restored the hope that was stripped from me by Newtown,” Duncan writes. “Whether they succeed tomorrow or ten years from now, I believe that they can force this country to stop lying to itself.”
Regardless of whether they revile or embrace his education policies, I’m guessing most readers of his book will hope that on this point, at least, Duncan proves prescient.
By Arne Duncan
Simon & Schuster. 243 pp. $26.99