Rethinking Education in America


ARNE DUNCAN HAS SPENT most of his life in and around education, from helping out at the after-school community center his mother founded in one the most troubled neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side, to running Chicago Public Schools as its chief executive officer and then serving for nearly seven years as President Barack Obama’s education secretary.

In his new book, “How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest Serving Secretaries of Education,” Duncan turns a critical eye on the nation’s education system – once considered the best in the world but now is at most in the middle of the pack – describing how students and teachers alike are often set up to fail in school and in life.

You explain that our educational system is essentially built to create assembly line workers and that the system is exceptionally ill-prepared to meet the needs of today’s students. How did we get to that point?

About 100 years ago, America made secondary education in high school compulsory. That was almost unprecedented, a massive leap forward, and it drove a lot of our economic boom over the past 100 years. The problem is we haven’t moved past that and we haven’t adjusted the model. Obviously, the world is radically different from that time, but unfortunately education isn’t much different. And you see other nations out-educating, out-investing, out-innovating us. Not only have the skills needs changed dramatically, but we now have a globally competitive economy, a flat world. It’s no longer Iowa versus Indiana versus Montana for jobs, we’re competing with India and China and Singapore and everywhere else. That’s the world where our kids – my kids – are going to grow up into, and we’re never going to go back the opposite direction. It’s only going to accelerate.

At no level – early childhood, K-12, higher ed – are we even in the top 10 internationally. And that should scare us. It is scary and it does not bode well for the future.

What’s holding the nation back?


This is not a cure for cancer, this is not rocket science. It’s total lack of political will. And I think the politics of the left and the right stand in the way of what’s best for kids.

There’s a small number of political leaders that are willing to challenge the status quo and challenge the base, but that’s few and far between. And that’s what we desperately need. You have [Gov. John] Kasich in Ohio fighting for high standards, you have [Gov. Bill] Haslam pushing for free community college for every person in Tennessee. Those are hard places for a Republican to be. I’ve told stories of [Obama] talking about merit pay and paying teachers more when his political future was looking pretty bleak, and those are profiles in courage. That’s very very hard to do and that’s why, I think, kids too often lose.

The previous two administrations both took big swings at shaping American schools – President George W. Bush with No Child Left Behind; you and President Obama with Race to the Top and the state-led Common Core – with mixed results. What steps do you think future administrations should take, based on your experiences?

As you know, I probably got as much heat from the left as I did from the right. These are a couple of goals to me that are not Republican, they’re not Democrat, they’re not liberal, they’re not conservative:

One is that we should try to lead the world in access to high quality pre-kindergarten. We’re like 28th. We’re not close. Second, we were able to get high school graduation rates to an all-time high of 84 percent, which we were very proud of but obviously that’s nowhere near high enough. The current administration’s goal should be up to get that 84 up to 90 percent. Third, we should make sure that 100 percent of those high school graduates are college ready, with higher standards. And then fourth, we should try and lead the world again in college completion. That’s four-year universities, that’s two-year community colleges, it’s trade, technical and vocational training.

Those are goals that keep high-wage, high-skill jobs in our country. Those are jobs that grow the middle class, those are jobs that keep our civic democracy healthy. We should unite behind goals and have lots of vigorous debate around the strategies to achieve those goals. What works well in Montana may work differently in California. Something in Detroit may be radically different. So we should have lots of flexibility and local innovation around the best means and we should see what works best in rural communities and in urban communities and on Native American reservations, but we should unite around those goals. No one has a monopoly of good ideas.

Federal education policy is limited by design. What role should the federal government play?

We had what was called the i3 Fund, the Investing in Innovation Fund, which was a couple hundred million. And all we did is just scale what works. It wasn’t my ideas, it wasn’t the president’s ideas, it was just looking at the evidence from across the country where we saw student achievement rising, we just put money to scale. That was an unprecedented investment, but I think we were only able to fund about 4 percent of what we got in, the demand was so great.

We got a lot of pushback. What they’re used to in D.C. is what’s called block grants, which is one chunk of money and everyone carves it off and everyone takes home their slice of the pie. What was both hopeful and frustrating is we don’t scale what works enough. If that pot had been a billion dollars – we did more than anyone else has, which I’m proud of, but we did a tiny percent of what was needed, and that’s a massive missed opportunity. That’s the thing. When you ask about what’s the appropriate federal role, I always talk about innovation. It’s a uniquely powerful federal role that we played at an all-time high at a new level but is zero now. It has disappeared. It’s disappeared. You hear no talk – zero talk – about any of those goals from the current administration. And it’s all small-ball. It’s all ideology. It’s all trying to score political points.

We tolerate failing teachers in ways that we don’t tolerate bad doctors or lawyers. What are the ways, short term and long term, these issues can be addressed?

I just don’t think we value teaching enough. We don’t train teachers as professionals, we don’t respect them as professionals, we don’t compensate them as professionals. Great teachers should make a heck of a lot more money. Teachers that work in the hardest communities – the toughest environments, whether that’s inner city-urban or rural-remote – should receive extra support and compensation for taking on those toughest of assignments. And we don’t do any of that.

There’s a study that shows that two-thirds of young teachers are ill-prepared to enter the classroom, and these are the most committed, most altruistic people you can find. I always say that if two-thirds of doctors said they were unprepared to practice medicine, we’d have a revolution in our country. I close the book on the story about visiting an Academy for Urban School Leadership, which uses a residency model based on a medical model. That’s how they train there: Teachers take a year and they train with a master teacher before being given their own classroom. There are a couple other models that are like that, but it’s probably less than 1 percent of teachers get trained that way.

You think about the factory model versus now. You think about memorization rather than teaching kids to think critically. You think about how much more diverse our classrooms are, how much more poverty there is and trauma. Teaching was always a really difficult profession, but I think the demands on educators have unquestionably gotten more challenging. And the goal now is not to teach to the average of 25 or 30 or even 35 kids in a classroom, the goal is to meet the individual needs of every single child in that class. And that’s an extraordinarily important and difficult job. I see amazing teachers do it all the time, but that’s a professional – that’s not a factory line worker.

Why are the massive teacher walkouts we saw this year in Oklahoma and West Virginia and Arizona, among other places, happening now?

I’ll never forget meeting with one teacher who was from North Carolina. North Carolina used to be an education leader with Gov. Jim Hunt, who is just one of my heroes. But the teacher was selling her blood. She was selling plasma to make ends meet. Unfortunately, many teachers have to work second jobs. Many teachers work over the summer. But when you’re selling blood to stay in the classroom? That’s unconscionable.

Every single one of those walkouts was in Republican-led states where they have starved public education. And when funding was already low, they’ve cut it even more. And people reached a breaking point, and they broke through, which was very, very encouraging. But my question is why are we starving public education? Who does that serve well? Does that serve the kids well? States want vibrant economies. Jobs will go where the knowledge workers are. Every state should be competing to have the best-educated workforce in the nation, and collectively our nation should be competing to have the best-educated workforce in the world. The idea that we’re somehow going to dumb things down or reduce standards or pay teachers less or do less early childhood education, all of those things are so counterproductive, cutting off our nose to spite our face.

Why doesn’t it seem as if education is a priority in this country?

The challenge is that no one votes based upon education. It’s like we take it for granted. And when we take it for granted, it withers. It stagnates.

What used to kill me is you watch the presidential debates, education doesn’t come up. And why doesn’t it come up? Because no one votes on it. I’ve never met a politician that’s anti-education. I’ve never met a politician that doesn’t like to kiss babies and visit classrooms and pat little kids on the head. But very few are willing to invest, very few are willing to challenge the status quo and ask for results. It’s not just about more money, it’s about outcomes. It’s about accountability, and it’s so rare.

South Korea kicks our butt in everything educationally. I remember President Obama talked to the president of South Korea and said, ‘What’s your biggest challenge in education?’ And immediately the Korean president said, ‘My parents are too demanding. Even my poorest parents demand a world-class education.’ You can’t be president of South Korea and not commit to a great education and fight for that the best way you know how.

But here in America, you can do lip service, you can do photo ops, but you don’t have anything beyond that. And that’s our fault. I don’t blame politicians. I blame us as voters. We don’t vote on this issue. I wish our parents were much more demanding. If there’s one message to come out of this, it’s that if every election – local, state, national – people across the spectrum voted based on what their candidates would do for education, that’s the game changer.

Schools, it seems, have become ground zero for the gun debate, and that’s been a major focus of yours since leaving government. Why is this such an important part of the education conversation?

I’ll tell you a story. When I visited one school in Chicago, this kid – a young boy, 12, 13 maybe – gave me a drawing of himself climbing up a ladder as a fireman. The caption he wrote on it was, ‘If I grow up, I want to be a fireman.’ I kept that picture behind my desk the whole time I was in Chicago because that’s our kids’ reality. They literally say, ‘If I grow up.’ And many actually think they will not grow up, particularly our young boys. Everything I try to preach to kids – delayed gratification, think long term, think about college – if you’re just trying to literally survive day to day like so many of the young men I work with now, I might as well be speaking Greek. This isn’t just kids in Chicago, this is in rural Texas, wherever they are, thinking, ‘It’s a matter of time, it’s going to come my way.’ The psychological damage that we’re doing to kids, the level of fear that they’re living with, the trauma, it makes no sense.