Alia Wong is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers education and families. She previously wrote for Honolulu Civil Beat.
The former secretary of education talks about the “lies” he thinks undergirds the American public school system, and the unintended consequences that can come with attempts to reform it.
Arne Duncan, the former education secretary under President Barack Obama, has always been more candid than others who’ve served in that role. He’s often used his platform to talk about what he sees as the persistent socioeconomic and racial disparities in access to quality schools. His new book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, further cements that reputation. How Schools Work’s first chapter is titled “Lies, Lies Everywhere.” The first sentence: “Education runs on lies.”
If one were to create a word cloud of the book, lies would probably pop out as one of the most frequently used words. Duncan writes that even the countless fantastic schools across the country “haven’t managed to defeat the lies that undermine our system so much as they’ve been able to circumvent them.” These lies, according to Duncan, include a culture of setting low expectations for high schoolers who later discover they’re not prepared for the real world, and poorly designed accountability systems that allow teachers to fudge their students’ test-score results.
Duncan started his education career in Chicago as a tutor, mentor, and researcher at his mother’s after-school program for low-income, black youth on the city’s South Side, and eventually became the head of the city’s massive public-school system. He occupied that role for nearly eight years until 2009, when then-President Obama—whom he’d met through mutual friends years prior—tapped him as the country’s education secretary, bringing him to Washington, D.C., where he’d spend another seven years as one of the president’s longest-serving cabinet members.
In 2015, Duncan, holding back tears, announced that he was resigning, marking the end of his leadership at the U.S. Education Department, a tenure marked by demanding reform initiatives—such as efforts to tie teacher pay to test scores, which took an immense toll on educators’ morale and garnered a lot of criticism. Hungry to spend more time with his family, Duncan returned to where it all started—Chicago’s South Side—and he’ll likely finish his education career there: Today, he’s at the helm of an anti-violence initiative called Chicago CRED that provides job training and positions for Chicago’s unemployed, out-of-school black men. (The initiative was created in 2016 by the Emerson Collective, which now owns a majority stake in The Atlantic and at which Duncan is a managing partner.)
I recently spoke to Duncan about the entrenched obstacles he’s long felt are keeping kids in the United States from succeeding in school—and about what he’s learned from his experiences trying to combat them. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
In what ways do you think Chicago was a good training ground for your later role as the U.S. secretary of education?
There were three different experiences in Chicago that shaped me. First, there was my mother’s after-school program, [the Sue Duncan Children’s Center], where my brother, sister, and I pretty much grew up. My mom’s whole philosophy was that 10-year-olds taught 5-year-olds, and that 15-year-olds taught 10-year-olds, and so on, so from a very young age we were both teaching and being taught. The neighborhood in which we worked happened to be all African American, it happened to be largely poor, and unfortunately it suffered from a significant amount of gang violence. But I grew up with friends who had this amazing, amazing potential … I took a year off from college to work with my mother full-time to figure out if [working as an educator] was just a part of who I was or if it was actually who I was. During that year I decided that I wanted to find a way to follow in my mom’s footsteps.
The second piece was running the I Have a Dream program [which provides long-term academic support to students who attend underfunded schools or live in housing projects] for six years with my sister and others to build upon my mother’s work. We worked with a group of students from when they were in the sixth grade through their high-school graduation. I learned so many lessons there about what’s possible when kids have high expectations and tremendous support.
Finally, it was leading the school district, which for me was a chance to apply so many of the lessons I had learned throughout my life and also preparation for me to go to D.C. At the citywide level, I started to think about scale, and how you can have big-picture impact. What I didn’t know going into D.C., by the way, was rural America.
Back in Chicago, it seems like the largely negative responses you got to your decision to close some public schools really struck a chord with you. Can you talk more about that? How, if at all, did that experience inform your approach to the role of U.S. education secretary?
To be clear, we closed a very small handful—about half of 1 percent—of CPS’s 600 or so schools in my first year. And there were a lot more openings than closings happening; every year we closed, say, three, we’d open eight or 10.
We should always be trying to fix and improve schools, and in the vast majority you can. But when you look at the results at those schools we closed, they had kids that were just falling further and further behind every single year they were there, and it was never the kids’ fault. Kids have one chance to get an education. I was happy to make some tough calls, happy to take a little bit of heat, when I knew in my heart that what we were doing for kids wasn’t good enough and we could do better.
Giving parents a chance to see what’s possible at schools that were sometimes less than a mile away from where their kids are going to school, with a very different set of expectations, that was hugely important. When they saw what was possible, they became the biggest supporters.
It’s the parents who aren’t present whose kids you have to worry about even more because those parents just have too much going on in their own lives to be engaged in their children’s education. Those kids are the ones I actually worry about the most.
It’s in some ways counterintuitive—you often hear from teachers and others that vocal or difficult parents are a major obstacle to effecting positive change.
I never felt that—ever. Parents were the biggest allies and, I would argue, the most important allies. If you’re educating not just children, but also parents and siblings and other family members, then great things are going to happen for kids.
You talk a lot about the importance of telling stories through data while acknowledging the limitations of that approach. A lot of education advocates maintain that the embrace of data, while beneficial, has had the unintended consequence of dehumanizing education-reform efforts. How do you reconcile those two perspectives?
I try to tell stories in the book rather than just reciting a huge amount of data—I think the stories are very compelling, and that people can draw their own conclusions from them. But if you look at every level—access to early-childhood education, math and reading scores, college-graduation rates—relative to the world, [Americans] are top-ten in nothing, and that’s not good enough. This is a national-security issue and an economic issue: We need to have the best-educated workforce in the world if we want to keep jobs here. If we want to have a vibrant participatory civic democracy, we have to have the best education system in the world. If we want to break cycles of poverty and give kids a trajectory to the middle class, the only way to do that is through a high-quality education.
But Chicago Public Schools’ “Freshman On-Track” initiative—that’s a good example of how data can do the opposite of dehumanizing. When I was at CPS, we got info [from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research] about the importance of focusing on freshman success in reducing dropout rates and increasing graduation rates. We found out that if you’re trying to reduce dropout rates and you wait until students are in their junior or senior year, you’ve already lost them—they’re gone. Those freshman-on-track numbers—the percentage of students who make it to their sophomore year on time and in good standing—have gone from the 50s back then when we started [in 2007] to close to 90 percent today.
This data-collection effort was not a focus on some aggregate number—it said that schools had to track every single student relentlessly, and if a student missed a day of school, the school wasn’t to wait until the end of the week or the month or the semester; they were to follow up with that kid and ask, “Why weren’t you here? What can we do to help? Are there things going on at school, at home, in your community?” That’s really recognizing the humanity of every single student.
Reform so often comes with unintended consequences. Even the Freshman On-Track initiative at least initially incentivized some schools to fudge their numbers. We saw that with No Child Left Behind—a law that you describe as “horribly constructed.” Can the prospect of unintended consequences be avoided?
You have to constantly be learning. We have to be very clear about our goals—whether it’s college-going rates or access to pre-K—and then allow a lot of flexibility, a lot of innovation, to achieve those goals. What works best in rural Montana may look a little different from what it is in Anacostia in Washington, D.C., or in California. If you’re clear about your goals and creating real-time adjustments, you’re learning and getting smarter. You’re never going to anticipate every potential bump in the road, but if you’re nimble and thoughtful and pragmatic—and not dogmatic—you can effect real change.
What compelled you to frame your memoir around the theme of lies?
Far too often political leaders mouth platitudes. I’ve never met a politician who was anti-education—who didn’t like to kiss babies and pat them on the head and do photo ops. Everyone says they value education.
I talk a lot about gun violence—it’s what I’m dealing with in Chicago all the time; it unfortunately shaped me as a kid; we saw it in the Sandy Hook massacre, which happened when I was education secretary. There’s no political leader who says they don’t value kids, but the truth is: We value guns more than we value the lives of our children. And that is irrefutable if you look at the rates of gun deaths in the U.S. compared to other nations that make other policy choices.
So whether it’s valuing education or truly valuing teachers or valuing the lives of our kids and giving them a good start to life with early-childhood education, everyone will say yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, but their actions don’t follow, don’t correspond, don’t correlate. It’s intellectually dishonest, and the stakes are too high. I worry about a caste system; I worry about people feeling like they can’t get ahead.
I don’t only blame politicians—I blame voters. We don’t vote based on education at any level—local, state, Congress, president; we don’t hold anyone accountable for results, voting based on whether a politician is going to help increase access to pre-K, is going to increase high-school graduation rates, and so on. Education should be the ultimate nonpartisan issue.
For me, the joy in education, the reason I devote my life to it, is that education should be the ultimate equalizer. It shouldn’t matter what your race or class or ZIP code is; it shouldn’t matter where you come from. It should be that if you work hard because you have access to a great education, you can do anything. But we don’t do that, and as a result we can actually exacerbate the divides between the haves and have-nots. We’re all part of the problem. Those are the lies that I try to confront very openly.
These days, especially amid growing political polarization, it seems that many of the main issues in education are prone to reductive debates that come down to semantics. Even the mention of terms like school reform and school choice can steer a constructive conversation off course. Did you notice that becoming a problem during your time as secretary?
So much of that stuff is about adult dysfunction and has nothing to do with what kids want and need. Work in education is nothing if it isn’t humbling, so whenever you have people who say they have it all figured out, I think they probably don’t. If people are shutting down a conversation based on a word or a phrase, how is that in the students’ best interest? When I see adult ego get in the way, it troubles me. It misses the point of why we do this work.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.