Arne Duncan talks legacy: 'Are we willing to hold ourselves accountable or not?'

The former education secretary opened up on ESSA, Common Core, his regrets, and Chicago

Regarded in some circles as the "ultimate Obama loyalist," Arne Duncan surprised many when he announced in October that he would step down as U.S. Secretary of Education with just one year left in the president's final term.

But the decision ultimately came down to one thing, he says: family. Duncan's wife and children had returned to Chicago, where Duncan previously headed Chicago Public Schools, over the summer — and commuting between the two locations began to take its toll.

"I miss the work, and the team, tremendously," Duncan told Education Dive during a recent phone call. "But at the end of the day, being a dad and being a husband comes first. My kids are at the age where they still want me around. That doesn't last forever, and that window is closing. That really was my reason."

His replacement, acting Education Secretary Dr. John B. King Jr., is left with a limited amount of time and less influence to make his mark, though Duncan gave him a few words of wisdom on doing so.

"The more that he can be laser-like focused on two or three things over the course of the next year ... if one focus is not making progress, you know, come April or May or June, you basically have to jettison it at that point," Duncan said. 

In what proved to be a very reflective conversation, Education Dive got his thoughts on his legacy, his regrets, and the current issues plaguing the Chicago school system.

EDUCATION DIVE: How will ESSA impact the legacy of your accomplishments? 

ARNE DUNCAN: No bill is perfect, but we are very pleased with how that bill turned out in terms of our values. To give a couple of examples: For the first time ever, the bill incorporates early childhood education. That was a huge battle, and we would not have gotten it in without having (Sen.) Patty Murray (D-WA) be so strong. She's a former early childhood educator herself. 

There was tremendous resistance there. But as we know, education doesn't start at five. It starts at birth. Having that breakthrough was very important. 

Historically, in terms of reaction to No Child Left Behind—this is an unintended consequence, but it happens — many states dumbed down standards. And now, in the law of the nation, you have to have high standards. That's a huge breakthrough that will hopefully help to challenge the past, where it was too easy for politicians to reduce standards. 

Ultimately, it is a civil rights law. It comes out of 1955: the focus on equity, the focus on achievement gaps, the focus on dropout rates and dropout factories.

I always thought that there was too much focus on just a single test score in No Child Left Behind. Now we're moving to graduation rates, to long-term outcomes, to giving more flexibility there. Those values that we think are so important, that we fought hard and tried to do it through policy and through our waivers, those things all now are in the law. We're just very, very thankful that we were able to get to a better spot. 

The world has changed so much since No Child Left Behind, 10-12 years ago. That's almost like the dark ages. The key is now to focus on the next 10-12 years. People needed to update it, make tweaks. Think about our existence pre-Google, pre-Facebook—the whole world has literally changed. 

There will be states with imperfections, it shouldn't hurt teachers to be challenged. Folks need to go in, on a regular basis, and make the adjustments they need to.

You've said that some of the reforms you spearheaded need 10-15 years to play out and show results, so is that legacy of reform compatible with ESSA?

DUNCAN: It is. And again, the early childhood piece is just desperately important to long-term results. We have to start playing catch-up. By definition, if we're talking about three- and four-year-olds, we're not going to see graduation rates for another 11-12 years. Those are long-term plays, but that's a hugely important way to get there.

The fact that so many states have adopted higher standards is going to be a game changer over time, not overnight. It's easy to adopt higher standards, but harder to teach. To explain it better, you have to work with students, but it's hard to make an argument that to lower standards somehow helps kids long-term. (He laughs.)

There are building blocks that are in place. They’re not guaranteed successes, but they start to put the nation in a spot — maybe in the ballpark. There's a shot if people are smart and hold themselves accountable for student learning. At the end of the day, when kids don't learn, that's not the kids' fault. That's our fault as adults. Are we willing to hold ourselves accountable or not?

One quick example: We put a huge spotlight on reducing these dropout factories, where basically the majority of kids were failing. It was unbelievable. They were producing failure every year. There were 2,000 nationally. We cut that to 1,000.

What if we just eradicated dropout factories just like we eradicated polio? That would be a big deal, and that's eminently achievable. Now, it's gonna take work. It's gonna take resources. It's controversial sometimes. But who can say that a thousand dropout factories is OK, and that no one cares if that number goes up? That's untenable. There's a real opportunity to take the next step, and my goal always had to be get better, faster. It takes a couple years to accelerate the pace of change.

Duncan, seen here at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, KY, visited many of the nation's schools on bus tours during his tenure.

Is there anything you regret not being able to focus on more during your time leading the Department of Education?

DUNCAN: I have many regrets, unfortunately. One is that we failed to get our Republican friends in Congress to do a real federal/state partnership. And despite the billion dollars for early childhood ed, there is still tremendous unmet need around the country. The United States ranks something like 28th relative to other nations that provide access to high-quality pre-K. 

For me, that's abysmal. We should be ashamed as a nation. There was an amount of unmet need that I saw in virtually every state I traveled to. The fact that we're not closing that opportunity gap—it's a huge regret. 

The second regret is that I desperately wanted to provide financial aid and college scholarships to DREAMERs, undocumented students. And we were really hopeful that immigration reform would happen and that would be a part of it. In my travels, I met these amazing young men and women. This is their home. This is the country they love. They were raised here. They are young leaders who have worked hard, and then we slam shut the door of opportunity right after they leave high school. We just totally cut off our nose to spite our face and condemn these talented, committed, smart young people. We just marginalize them. We literally just condemn them to the shadows. And it's heartbreaking. It makes no sense.

These are all things having to do with Congress, to sort of go back to your original question: That we need Congress to partner with us on early childhood education. We need Congress to partner with us, to give our department permission to provide financial aid to undocumented students. 

And the final one is very personal. It goes back to Chicago. We failed in producing an act aimed at gun violence and reducing that. That is the hardest thing I've dealt with when I was leading Chicago Public Schools. It's only gotten worse nationally. It's only gotten worse in Chicago.

Other nations simply don't allow for so many of their kids to die. It's as simple as that. They simply prioritize their kids' safety more than we do as a nation. And the fact that we don't think protecting our children and keeping them alive is a more important value — it's absolutely stunning.

What do you think large urban districts can do beyond legislative efforts to address and curb both gun violence, but also the school-to-prison pipeline?

DUNCAN: One of the things that we worked really hard on was trying to change policies that actually exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline, because you'll see many urban districts moving away from out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. Now, they're actually working with the kids who are struggling.

We see that when kids are acting out, we need to deal with the behavior—which is the symptom—or you can deal with the root cause. To really try to understand what is going on in the child's life, be it at school, in their community, or at home. What’s causing them to be angry? What's causing them to be upset? How can we help them meet those needs and equip them with the skills to handle their situation? 

We've seen real progress in schools in changing discipline policies. Just to be very clear, for me, the school-to-prison pipeline is basically what you're doing for young boys of color. We need to be very clear here about race. And sadly, not surprisingly, suspensions and expulsions are disproportionately happening to young boys of color.

Where schools are challenging that and doing more restorative justice and peer juries — and more counselors and emotional and psychological support — you see, again, primarily young men of color doing better. And [they're] becoming community leaders and helping to contribute to building a positive culture in their schools. We've actually seen real progress in that area, but still we have a long way to go. 

Many districts have actually had very substantial reductions in suspensions and expulsions. We think that's fantastic, but clearly there's more work that needs to be done.

Another question related to Chicago Public Schools. With the ongoing bribery scandal involving recent CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the other issues facing the district, what are your thoughts on the state of Chicago's schools? And if Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked, would you return to your previous role as CEO?

DUNCAN: Well, we've not talked about that, so — well, it's been really hard and it's been hard to watch, frankly. I've been gone seven years. I think there's been five or six different superintendents in those seven years. It's a tremendous turnover. 

To see someone probably going to jail, who is in a position of leadership and a position of trust, because they abused that trust, it's just the kids who lose when that happens. I served as CEO for seven years. And the guy before me, Paul Vallas, I think he served for seven years. You had two people for 14 years, and now you've had five or six over the past seven years. 

Having continuity, having stability is really important. Hopefully, they'll find somebody who can stay with it for the long haul and who can build continuity. The amount of corruption —I  guess there's no better word — just the corruption, the illegal and immoral stuff we saw happen...

This is home. There are just so many kids who need a chance for an education. We all need to be working together to provide opportunity for children, particularly those in Chicago where there simply isn't enough. Where the schools aren't good enough. Where the unemployment is too high. Where the violence is at staggering levels. All of these things are obviously interrelated and unfortunately creating a perfect storm. 

It's not the kids' fault where they're born. It's not the kids' fault what neighborhood they live in. We have to provide opportunity for them regardless. I'm hopeful that the Chicago Public Schools can get to a better place. There's been some hard years there.

Duncan during his tenure as CEO of Chicago Public Schools
Public Domain/U.S. Department of Education

One of the catchphrases of your tenure was "making sure that all kids get a chance to succeed," and asking "What's the right thing for kids?" There's a proliferation of ed tech devices and platforms, but there's also a lot of digital inequity in schools. With the Future Ready Schools and Connected 2.0 initiatives, as well as the FCC's E-rate program, is enough being done to bridge the tech gap?

DUNCAN: That's a great question. What I've said is that the tech revolution isn't a revolution if it only exacerbates the disparities between the haves and the have-nots. If it only reaches kids that already have it, that's not a revolution at all. That's not a revolution that I want to be a part of. 

I’m actually pretty hopeful here, thanks not to what we did at the Department of Education, but because of what the FCC did. (FCC head) Tom Wheeler has done a fantastic job. There's a huge increase in the number of schools that actually have access to high-speed broadband. That's very encouraging. Like tens of thousands of additional schools now have the infrastructure to really accelerate the learning curve. 

We are challenged because this is not something we can do at the federal level. I've said this a lot publicly, but school districts just basically need to stop buying textbooks and start buying digital devices. Most textbooks are pretty much obsolete by the time they show up in the classroom, and all this stuff is expensive and there's never enough money. We spend somewhere between $7-9 billion each year as a nation on print material. I'm just not sure if that makes sense anymore.

We now have many more schools with the capacity to do this in a significant way. We need to start thinking about how we use the scarce resources and in a more strategic way going forward. In places like Morrisville, NC, they've done an amazing job with the same resources, using technology, closing gaps. 

We just need more districts to follow and make those choices.

Some states, like New York and California, have seen dramatically different responses to Common Core. Should there have been a more uniform, steady rollout plan to keep it from going off the rails in some states? Or would a less-visible federal push have helped maintain traction?

DUNCAN: It's very interesting actually, if you look at the facts. We had 40-plus states adopt higher standards, for all the noise that came with it. That never would've happened without us pushing.

This wasn't even our idea. This came out of governors back in the '90s talking about the need for states to have higher standards. Folks have been talking about this for a couple decades. And guess what? There was no action. 

In fact, under No Child Left Behind, about 20 states were dumbing down standards. The media likes to focus on the noise, and there is legitimate debate and pushback from the far left and the far right. But the facts were that we had 20 states reduce standards under No Child Left Behind. 

I can't find any compelling educational reason why that's good for kids. It's actually quite the opposite. It's very destructive, particularly for disadvantaged kids, to reduce standards. The fact is, in a short amount of time, with our incentives and tremendous leadership and courage from states, we had an absolute breakthrough. 

Folks can tweak, and they move around the edges, but now you have in the law of the land a requirement for states to have high standards. This is a huge breakthrough. Again, raising standards is a big step in the right direction.

And how your implement it is legally important, giving different abilities to implement well. And that's the hard work going forward, but it can be done.

We encouraged it and really called people out for doing the wrong thing. We saw unprecedented progress in the right direction. Change is hard. It’s never easy. It's always controversial. But thinking in the long-term, there's nothing more important we can do for kids than to challenge them to be actually college-ready, not only to graduate high school. And again, when you look at the facts rather than rhetoric and politics, it's hard. (But) why would we not want to increase graduation rates?

As much as some charter models have seen great success, there have been a plethora of high-profile charter scandals nationwide — particularly in Ohio. What should be done to rein in bad actors in that sphere and mitigate any interests that might play a negative role?

DUNCAN: This is so important. The word "charter," or a school that calls itself a "charter," that tells me nothing about the school itself or its quality. 

Good charters are a part of the solution, and that bad charters are part of the problem. There's nothing magical about the name, whether it's a charter school or traditional neighborhood school or a magnet school. There's nothing about a name that tells you anything about quality, about what are the kids actually learning there.

A couple things: One, the goal is not to have more charters. The goal is to have more high-performing schools of every form and fashion, including charters. It's so important for those who are authorizing charters, whether they are states or districts or universities, not to let a thousand flowers bloom, but to have very high quality where you have good authorization and accountability. Then good charters will and can grow and prosper, and bad charters who do not improve can be closed down. 

The power of the idea behind charters was to have increased autonomy, being free from bureaucracy, to be creative, to have some vision and do things independently. But the goal is not just autonomy. The goal is autonomy coupled with accountability. And those two things, when they're together, help produce high-performing charters. 

When you're missing either one of those, when you're lacking autonomy, have too much bureaucracy, or you don't have accountability, then you're not really helping kids. That's got to be the goal. I've been to amazing charter schools that are literally changing kids' life chances, but I've also gone to the National Charter School Convention and told them that they've got to stop protecting bad charters and close them down. I remain committed at both ends of the spectrum. Nothing has changed for me there.

Would you like to see more education news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Education Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Education Dive's look at three North Carolina tech rollouts that offer takeaways for administrators nationwide.

Filed Under: K12 Technology Policy & Regulation
Top image credit: Public Domain