Arne Duncan

Truth and Lies of Education

Air Date: October 22, 2018

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discusses his new book “How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. We’re honored to welcome former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, to The Open Mind today. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Duncan served as CEO of Chicago public schools and won praise for uniting the city stakeholders behind a consensus education agenda. Today as managing partner at Emerson Collective, Duncan has returned to Chicago on a mission to improve the livelihoods of young adults in his hometown and create job and life opportunities for disconnected youth. Established by Laurene Powell Jobs, Emerson Collective spearheads social justice initiatives. Now, Duncan is author of the new Simon and Schuster book, “How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest Serving Secretaries of Education,” an authentic account of these real world struggles, Duncan focuses acutely on the big political lies and crises plaguing American education from the halls of Congress and state houses to the principal’s office and classrooms. Welcome Secretary, an honor to be with you today.

DUNCAN: Thanks so much. Appreciate the opportunity.

HEFFNER: What is the lie that you think you most effectively combated as Secretary of Education that may not be as pervasive in the culture of education today because of your service?

DUNCAN: We challenged lots of things and had some successes and places where we would love to have gotten further faster. I think one of the things that we really tried to challenge was the idea of dumbing-down standards where standards were very low where we were telling young people they run on track to be successful beyond high school and they weren’t, and actually I tell a fairly lengthy story in the book about a young man I worked with years ago in Chicago, who in his junior year was on a B honor roll, was a great basketball player, was trying to get ready to go to college. I started working with him and found he was basically functionally illiterate and that was just devastating. There’s a young man who’d played by all the rules, had stayed out of the gangs, stayed away from the violence in his neighborhood and he genuinely thought he was prepared to go to college and he wasn’t close.

As a nation, we spend 7, 8, 9 billion dollars a year on remedial education in college where people who graduated from high school are taking high school classes, paying college tuition, and not getting any credit for it. So challenging states incentivizing states to raise standards over the long haul I think this can be very, very important to make sure that we’re not lying to children anymore and that we say they truly are college and career ready. They will be.

HEFFNER: The bigotry of low expectations in urban centers and more broadly in America, you faced scrutiny from Senator Alexander despite the fact that he praised your approach and commended the good work that came out of the department. How were you able to successfully confront those folks who were unwilling to accept modern standards today?

DUNCAN: It’s an ongoing conversation, again, you try and work together, but for me this is really a triumph of common sense and who benefits the question not asked, the retort would be who benefits when we’re lying to kids who benefits when we’re lying to parents who benefits when we’re lying to the public.

And the short answer is nobody. And so change is hard in education and we’d definitely challenge the status quo and we ruffled some feathers and that that’s, that’s, you know, maybe a little bit tough. But as I always just feel this huge sense of urgency. Our kids have one chance to get a good education and we have to go further faster. We have to work harder. Our competition isn’t, you know, Illinois or Indiana or Montana or Wisconsin. The competition is China and India and Singapore and South Korea and our children here in the United States are as smart as innovative, as curious, as hard work as children anywhere in the, on the planet. I just want to give them the best chance in life. I want to keep high wage, high skilled jobs in the United States and do that we have to have the best-educated workforce on the planet.

HEFFNER: And what are the political lies that are imperiling and you even say or suggest demolishing or potentially demolishing education in this country today.

DUNCAN: Well there are a few things that concern me in a very, very serious way. The first is that we all say we value education. And the truth is Alexander, that almost no one votes around education and politicians, local, mayor, state, gov, DC, Congress, White House, whatever. I’ve never met a politician who’s anti-education. They like the sound bites. They like to visit classrooms. They like to pat kids on the head, but how many politicians do we hold accountable for increasing graduation rates and making sure more of our babies have access to high quality pre-K so they enter kindergarten ready to be successful. And the honest answer is, they’re not held accountable. And actually I don’t blame them as politicians. I blame us as voters.

And for me, education should be the ultimate bipartisan or nonpartisan issue. No one has a monopoly on good ideas. We should unite as a country behind this, but we all have to vote on this issue and that’s simply doesn’t happen. And I think that does a great disservice to our kids and ultimately to our country. So that’s, that’s one. The second is, we talked all the time how much we value teachers. I don’t think we actually do. Teachers are doing, I think some of the most important, most complex, most difficult work imaginable, and you know, they are literally helping the future to emerge and spark their curiosity. We don’t pay teachers adequately, we don’t train them effectively. We don’t have good career ladders for them and we don’t treat them as the professionals they truly are. So I think that’s, that’s dishonest that’s a lie.

And then maybe the toughest one in one I’ve been focused on for unfortunately for most of my life, having lost friends to gun violence and I’m obsessed with it now is as a nation, I honestly don’t think we value our children. And that’s a hard thing to say, but in other nations, you simply don’t have the loss of life that you have in America, not even close. And our teens today, we’ve basically raised a generation that are raised on mass violence, on a mass shootings and gun violence, and they’re fighting back. They’re saying it’s not acceptable, but I think we as adults have absolutely let them down and let them live with a level of fear and trauma that makes no sense whatsoever.

HEFFNER: This hubris that we don’t really need to acknowledge global standards. That is the politics and the brand of politics, of the present Administration. I don’t think that necessarily is something you’re running up against in Chicago public schools, it may be, but how have the nativist politics infected the education debate because that seems to be the biggest lie of all that we do not need to be concerned with the rest of the world.

DUNCAN: Yeah. So again, let’s sort of step back. If we want to have a thriving middle class, if we want to break cycles of poverty, if we want to have a vibrant, civically engaged democracy, the only way I know how to get there is through high quality education for all and the truth is the vast majority of our kids, 90 percent of children in America always have and always will go to their neighborhood public schools and we have to make sure that every school is a great school and the most important thing we can do is get great teachers in front of every single job and have a great principal in those buildings. And again, when we do those things, I’m actually very optimistic about our country and where we could go because I see how smart and how committed our kids are. But if we don’t take those responsibilities seriously, then we actually exacerbate the divide between the haves and the have-nots in our country.

We exacerbate the cycles of poverty and social failure and so that for me, the stakes here are so high. I go back to growing up on the south side of Chicago. If you dropped out then, and I had friends who did, it actually wasn’t great, but it wasn’t the end of the world. You could go work in the stockyards and steel mills and get a pretty good job and support a family, and own a home and as you know so well those jobs are gone and they’re never coming back. So for me the fundamental model has to change. We have a k through 12 model now that served as well, like for the past hundred years, but I think we have to be thinking about a pre-K through 14 model at least now starting earlier again, making sure our babies are ready to enter kindergarten and be successful academically and socially and emotionally and then, even if you get a high school diploma today, that’s not enough.

That’s great. That’s a very important step stone, but some form of education beyond high school, four year university, two year community college, trade, technical, vocational training. We have to make that the norm here. We have to educate our way to a stronger economy. We have to see education as an investment, not an expense, and again, challenging political leaders on both sides of the aisle to understand that we’re fighting for our country here. The stakes are extraordinarily high.

HEFFNER: In that fight, where is the most innovative work going on at the state level?

DUNCAN: There are lots of places, I like to point out, my good friend, Governor Haslam in Tennessee who happens to be Republican. I talk in the book about profiles of courage and him and Governor Kasich in Ohio who fought for higher standards. I talk about Governor Markell in Delaware and what President Obama did, the federal level, but just a couple of examples with Tennessee, Tennessee had some of the lowest standards in the nation.

They raised them significantly. That was tough, but they did the right thing. They have been improving much faster than most states. And then more recently, Governor Haslam has made community college free for every resident in Tennessee. Now historically that might be seen as more of a Democratic, you know, strategy, but he just thought it is an effective tool to help strengthen his state and help strengthen the economy of the state? And so there are governors like that. Again, Republican, Democrat doesn’t matter to me. He’s done some remarkable work. Again, never mission accomplished, long way to go, but very, very proud to partner and to see that progress.

HEFFNER: And the universal crisis that you point to is the absence of suitable wages, adequate wages for teachers. And in Kentucky and other states, there have been protests, marches, West Virginia demanding better treatment for those public servants who seek to steward the next generation. Where is that lie and where does that truth lie?

DUNCAN: That goes back to again saying we value educators saying we value teachers and we don’t. And I actually talk about those protests and strikes in my book and just the fact that I don’t like the politics of it, but the fact is those are all Republican led states where governors have starved those educational systems. And, you know, Oklahoma just go right down, went right down, West Virginia, the list

HEFFNER: Kansas.

DUNCAN: Kansas. And when we starve public education, when we don’t take care of teachers again, who are we benefiting? What’s, you know, where’s the win there? I’ll never forget talking to a teacher in my office in DC from North Carolina and it really hurt because North Carolina historically did a great job educationally, Governor Jim Hunt was one of my heroes. We still work together. But then things change and priorities change.

And I’ve talked to a teacher who was selling blood, selling plasma to make ends meet. And that was, it’s untenable. And here we are saying, yo, please educate our babies, our children; please give them a chance in life. And then we’re also asking you to sell blood to pay rent. It’s wrong, it’s wrong. And we should be paying teachers a lot more paying principles a lot more. We should hold them accountable for good results. This has never familiar about, you know, a blank check or a free lunch. But that’s the best investment we can make is in great teachers. And we need to think differently about teachers working in, whether it’s, you know, inner city Chicago or here in New York or in Appalachia or on a Native American reservation. Some jobs are just harder than others. How do we better support them? How do we better reward that?

How do we better incentivize great teachers to go to the kids and communities who are the furthest behind who need the most help? There’s so much in terms of creativity, we’re not doing.

HEFFNER: And this, Secretary is how it may relate to the, our civic consciousness overall and the gun issue because one of my critiques or concerns associated with common standards is that, and you said to me before, maybe you weren’t moving fast enough. We did not integrate civic education as fully as we should have in what was common core, what was shepherded through the stimulus money, and the first years of your tenure as Secretary of Education. So, reflecting on where we are now, how can we get to a point? Does it take candidates who are campaigning on raises for teachers? Can we get through state houses a more formidable civic education that resonates for people’s lives on an issue like safety, mental health, and school safety?

DUNCAN: We absolutely can. If, and this is the caveat, if we vote on these issues and again, whether it’s far left far right, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, it doesn’t matter to me. No one has a monopoly on good ideas.

HEFFNER: We don’t really have candidates who run on teacher wages, right?

DUNCAN: We don’t, we don’t have them running on education. And again, let me very clear, I don’t blame them, I blame us, I blame us as voters, because we don’t demand it. And for me, what I call it is a well-rounded world-class education. Yes. Civics education is a huge part of that, but for me, so is financial literacy…


DUNCAN: So is foreign languages, so is the ability to code and these are things that maybe, you know, 30 or 50 years ago you didn’t need, but every child needs and deserves access to a well rounded world class education, and they deserve access to great teachers and great principals and school buildings that aren’t crumbling.

And again, these are investments. These aren’t expenses, these investments in our future, and so we need candidates across the political spectrum who will fight for these things, but we as voters have to demand it or it’s not going to happen.

HEFFNER: From your tenure, was the principal impediment to achieving those common standards in a way that would garner consensus, the school prayer issue or the underlying resentment of the secular civic code?

DUNCAN: No, I wouldn’t say that it was. And you know, there’s a clear divide in, you know, in our nations or should be between church and state and you know, folks understand that. And so that was of all the things that I worried about that wasn’t wanted so much that I was proud of that we were able to get done, invest more than a billion dollars in access to high quality pre-K, which I think is the best investment we can make and have hundreds of thousands of additional children enter kindergarten ready to be successful.

We’re able to get high school graduation rates to all time highs. We were able to get additional $40 million dollars for Pell Grants for economically disadvantaged young people to be able to afford to go to college. We did that without going back to taxpayers for a nickel. That was wildly controversial in DC. We thought it was common sense; so we were really able to move things I’m very, very proud of, but again, so much further still to go.

HEFFNER: But what is the source then of the political gridlock and the refusal, was it just that President Obama was a Democrat and if a Republican President like a Jeb Bush, who in fact in Florida and forced his own rigid standards?

DUNCAN: What was so interesting to me was the disconnect between, and I’ll be honest, primarily Republicans in Congress and what their states are actually looking for. I spent as much time as I could out of DC out of the bubble and out in communities and traveled to all 50 states.

I’ll give you one on one example. That’s always stuck with me. We invest a lot, as we talked about in high quality early childhood education and really trying to give kids a chance so they don’t enter kindergarten a year to 18 months behind in one of the dirty secrets and educations. Often we don’t catch those children up and those children enter kindergarten behind too often become the dropouts down the road, so we were able to do some grants for a, for states at the state level for increasing access and we had like 36 states apply, but we only had funding for 18 and one of the states we weren’t able to fund was Mississippi. Now on any measure Mississippi’s at the bottom, nationally, 48th, 49th, 50th, and that governor at the time, Governor Bryant, who’s a staunch conservative, he and I may have disagreed on 90 percent of issues, but he called me and he was devastated that we couldn’t fund high quality pre-K in his state.

And guess what? I was equally devastated. I desperately wanted to do that. So that’s what he wanted. That’s what he needed, but we weren’t able to get enough of folks in Congress from places like Mississippi to say, this is not a federal mandate is not a must do, but where states want to invest, could we match, could we leverage money to help more students get in? That for me was the biggest challenge, was a disconnect between what local political leaders and their communities and their citizens we’re looking for and the bubble in DC.

HEFFNER: Chicago today compared to when you entered office as secretary of education, how has it evolved?

DUNCAN: You know, you go back and I talk about this to the then Secretary William Bennett in Chicago, the worst public school system in the nation, and I can’t say whether it was or wasn’t, but it was a system that had struggled for a long time.

And that for me was a motivating cry. And it was part of the reason I went to work for the Chicago public schools, was to see, could I help to see it improved, could I help it to progress? You may have seen recently a report coming out of Stanford University that shows Chicago’s the fastest improving urban school district in America. That’s amazing. So I’m so proud of that progress. Again, not where it needs not where we want to be, a long way to go. This is not a time to rest on our laurels, but to see the progress and being called the worst in the nation, to now being the fastest improving school district in America. That feels fantastic.

HEFFNER: That is ground zero for gun violence, but there are many ground zeroes. Chicago is one. It can hit any. That’s why it’s called every town for gun safety. It can hit any community, rural, suburban. You’ve seen that accelerate since Donald Trump has taken office. What are you doing, what is the Emerson Collective doing together to tackle the challenge?

DUNCAN: Well, let me give you a, if I can briefly just a little history. I grew up as a part of my mother’s intercity tutoring program and that was a formative experience and my sister and brother and I have all tried to follow in her footsteps. She did that work for 50 years until her health gave out. But when I started to be a teen probably 12, 13, 14, I started to lose friends to gun violence from, from the community. And I think that shapes you and honestly scars you in ways that are a little bit tough to talk about. Fast forward to running the Chicago public schools. Obviously lots of issues you deal with trying to raise academic achievement, tough budget issues, you know, labor management negotiations. I don’t say any of that was easy, but that was all much, much easier than dealing with the level of violence that we faced. During my seven and a half years running the Chicago public schools on average, we lost a child every two weeks due to gun violence, none in the schools. Schools are safest places, but in the streets, in their homes and going to those funerals, going to classrooms where there was an empty desk and trying to make sense of the senseless, talking to family members. That was by far the hardest thing I did, nothing came close. And unfortunately that violence in Chicago has, you in the seven years’ here in DC, increased violence across the nation has increased.

And I want to be very clear this, for me, it’s never a school issue. All those schools are a small piece of it. This is an American issue. This is a made in America problem, and whether its malls, whether it’s baseball fields, whether it’s. We’re coming up on the year anniversary of Charlottesville, we just, there’s a pervasive love for guns that puts all of us, our families at risk. And my worst day in DC, President Obama’s worst day in DC was the day of the Sandy Hook massacre. And prior to that, this is another tough thing to say, but when my kids were being killed in Chicago, the vast majority were black and brown. I really thought our country just didn’t care about black and brown kids. And then when Sandy Hook happened and 20 white children and five teachers and a principal were killed, unimaginable.

And still nothing changed. Who got zero done in terms of gun legislation. And that for me was the biggest failure. And I became unbelievably pessimistic. But since the tragedy of the Parkland massacre, those young people have stepped up and took my family to the March on Washington. Our kids from the south and west side of Chicago have been doing a ton of work with the Parkland students, and I am more hopeful now than never that the young people will win and they’ll lead our country where we need to go where frankly, we as adults and educators and leaders have had failed to take us.

HEFFNER: Where do common standards fit into civic standards, has this Administration’s efforts reversed most every change that you made?

DUNCAN: This Administration is trying to dismantle some of what we’d done some places they’ve done that a little bit effectively some places, thankfully they’ve been less effective. What I take great heart and it’s so much of what we’ve done is now routed in states and in communities where the real work is going on. And for me, again, it’s not about left or right or Republican/ Democrat. I think there are a couple goals that we as a nation need to unite behind. One is I think we should try and lead the world in access to high quality pre-K right now we’re like 30th, right? We were so proud to get high school graduation rates to 84 percent there. The goal of the current administration should be to go to 90 percent. Keep that going. We should make sure all of our high school graduates are truly college and career ready, again, high standards and then finally we should try and lead the world in college completion. The tough truth, Alexander is that we’re top 10 and nothing right now internationally. Nothing. And we can have lots of honest and vigorous debate and lots of innovation around the best strategies to achieve those goals, and again, what works in rural Montana will be different than Watts in LA, but we should unite behind the goals and then watch and scale what works to get there.

HEFFNER: Also not punish people. There was the perception and sometimes this was experienced, that folks’ individuality was somehow compromised in adhering to strict standards. If someone is more gifted in the humanities, or passionate about the humanities, that they would be dragged down by their inability or dislike for other subjects.

DUNCAN: That’s obviously never the goal. You go back to having a well-rounded world-class education for every child. Let them thrive. I do think we have to move to more individualized instruction and if a child is gifted in math, let them fly and if a child needs a little bit more help and more time, we need to do that…

HEFFNER: And not punitive…measures

DUNCAN: And not punitive. It’s always about catching up or for me; it’s always about growth. How much are students improving and whether you’re gifted or average or whether you have some learning, you know, learning challenges, are we getting better faster?

HEFFNER: That was my concern about common core, that just putting myself in the shoes of prospective students now, that I would have been accelerating in one discipline and not in another and wanted to keep riding that discipline.

DUNCAN: I think we should do both. Again, for me, it’s not an either/or where a child can fly and has real passion, let’s discover that. Let’s grow that, but where a child needs some more help and more resources, let’s not hide from that either and let’s get them that help and I don’t like when I hear young kids say well, I’m not good at math.


DUNCAN: I don’t, I don’t believe that. Somehow they’ve internalized that. We need to light that fire. We need to light that spark and we define ways to get to them and you know, jobs in STEM. Something. You know, let’s do that. If you love the humanities, let’s do that.

HEFFNER: Final question, Secretary. How do you operationalize the Heckman equation? How do you do precisely what you just outlined, which is, provide superior attention, education opportunities from pre-K up.

DUNCAN: For me, this is not rocket science. It’s not finding a cure for cancer. This is political will. This is political. We know how to do this.

HEFFNER: Universal pre-K

DUNCAN: Universal pre-K. Access to great early childhood teachers, access to AP classes, the chance to go to college, you know, chance to develop vocational skills. If we had the political will to provide universal access to pre-K, we would do it tomorrow. One again, tough example, I was a two summers ago with my son playing basketball in the Netherlands and they have universal access for four year olds to pre-K and they were then working on bringing it down for three year olds and when I told them about how hard I was fighting in the battles and the challenges and they almost thought I was lying, they couldn’t quite believe it, and then they asked me the question, how come your country doesn’t value children, and that was a very tough question.

They decided that that was a priority. Every four year old had access and they were working on every three year old.

HEFFNER: How did you answer that though?

DUNCAN: I struggled with it and I still struggle with it and I think the honest answer is, again, we say these things, but I don’t watch what people say, I watch their actions. I look at their policies; I look at their budgets. We say those things I think it is dishonest. I think it’s a lie. I don’t think we value our children in the way that other nations do. We don’t educate the way other nations do, we don’t keep them safe and free of fear the way other nations do.

HEFFNER: Meaningful progress. Secretary, thank you so much for being here. Amen to you and your work.

DUNCAN: Thanks for a great conversation. I appreciate the opportunity.

HEFFNER: Thank you and thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.