Arne: Right now, I'm very concerned. I would feel better, Kevin, if we united behind some of those nation-building goals I talked about. I'd be more optimistic if we were more honest with parents about what their children's strengths and weaknesses are. I'd be more optimistic if I saw the sense of urgency. I feel we desperately need to help kids catch up academically, and I'm just not quite feeling or seeing that urgency at the national level.
Kevin: When it comes to education, Americans are sharply divided on topics ranging from what should be taught in schools to how much input parents should have on their child's education. With tensions increasing and becoming more personal, public education has become a battlefield.
What are the major concerns around public education? What are the impacts of the ongoing culture wars in our country? And can these educational tensions cause a threat to democracy? This is what I want to know. And today I'm joined by Arne Duncan to find out.
Arne Duncan is the former U.S. Secretary of Education. Nominated by President Barack Obama in 2009, Arne's tenure as secretary was marked by significant accomplishments on behalf of American students and teachers. Now, Arne serves as managing partner at Emerson Collective, where he works to improve the lives of young adults in his hometown of Chicago. He joins us today to discuss the state of public education.
Arne Duncan, thank you so much for joining us on "What I Want to Know." And, you know, we've known each other a long time, and now that you're no longer education secretary, you have a lot of time to reflect. Talk a little bit about how you would view your tenure, some of the things you're most proud of, some of the things you'd do differently. Frankly, many people in hindsight think you tried to make a difference by challenging the status quo, but it's often different when you're in the position.
Arne: Well, first of all, Kevin, it's great to see you again. It's been [inaudible 00:02:17], and just appreciate all of your leadership. So I always have, you know, you reflect back seven years. There's definitely a column of successes. There's definitely a column of failures. I'll try and do it quickly for you.
On the successes, loved that we were able to get unprecedented resources into high-quality pre-K and help hundreds of thousands of additional students have access to high-quality pre-K. For me, that's the best investment we can make, is to get our babies off to a good start academically, socially, before they hit kindergarten. We were able to get high school graduation rates to all-time highs in every category of students, White, Black, Latino, special needs, English language learners, students below the poverty line. So always more room to go, by no means complete, but great to see the progress there.
The fact that we were able to put so much money behind Pell Grants, seeing a million more students of color go on to college without going back to taxpayers for a nickel. We simply cut out the middleman and did the loans direct to students ourselves. That was wildly controversial in D.C. That felt great to be able to get that done and tried to really put a spotlight on community colleges. I think they're often the unpolished, the unrecognized gem along the education continuum, and trying to help them grow. So those are some of the successes.
On the failures, essentially, I put pre-K in both, that while we were able to do more than folks had previously, there was still so much unmet need, and we just weren't able to get our Republican friends in Congress to back investing more there. And I'll never forget a very, very tough conversation with the governor, Governor Bryant in Mississippi, who's a, you know, strong conservative. And he was heartbroken that we couldn't get more resources to Mississippi. I was heartbroken. Kids across the country need access to pre-K, but no kids probably needed it more than kids in Mississippi. But we weren't able to get some of his folks in Congress to sort of step up there. So wish we could have done more there.
Secondly, this is, you know, a big part of my work now, the Sandy Hook massacre was the toughest day of our seven years in D.C., and President Obama has talked publicly about it. That was his hardest day, and he went down the next day at that point. Vice President, now President Biden, and I went down a couple of days after that, and meeting those families, going to the funeral, the principal, that's something I'll never forget. I've stayed close with some of those families. And the fact that we got nothing done as a nation in terms of keeping our kids safe from gun violence, and we just had a very tough night here in Chicago last night, again that's a devastating failure.
And the third is that we weren't able to get anything done in immigration reform. And for me, that would have meant college scholarships, financial aid for dreamers. And the fact that we have so many students who, you know, work hard, play by all the rules, have lived here all their lives, you know, community leaders, athletic leaders, sometimes valedictorians, and then we say they can't go to college. We're just cutting off our nose to spite our face.
So those are areas where I desperately wish we could have made more progress.
Kevin: You know, it's interesting, Arne, I remember when I was a public official in D.C., and you mentioned, you know, the toughest period dealing with the results of gun violence. And in D.C. we had a lot of that. And I remember six kids got shot at a recreation swimming pool and then a kid got shot at Ballou High School. And there's nothing like that. But so much of what we see in education is driven by the politics of the day. Talk a little bit about those challenges. You know, I often said, I remember saying this to the president once, that if there was one area where we could strip away partisan politics, I think it should be education, where even before a presidential debate, you know, both sides agree, or both of the major party candidates say, "You know what, we're not even going to entertain questions on this. We're not going to go back to our party caucus and talk about it. The two of us are going to sit down and figure out what comprehensively would work for all kids and figure out a way to do it." It seems like at some point we need to get to that place.
Arne: We desperately do. You're exactly right. Obviously, what do you call it, bipartisan, non-partisan? There's nothing political about education. And I always say if we just had a couple of goals, I'll just give you a couple of goals. One would be, you know, leading the world in access to high-quality pre-K. Another one would be making sure high school graduation rates got above 90%. Another goal would be making sure 100% of our high school graduates are actually ready for college and didn't have to take remedial classes. And then finally, we should strive to lead the world again in access to higher education, whether that's four-year universities or two-year community college or trade/technical/vocational training. And for me, Kevin, all those things, they're what I call nation-building goals. There's nothing left or right or liberal or conservative about that.
And then if as a nation, if we could agree on those goals, we could have lots of vigorous debate about the best strategies to achieve those goals. And what works best in, you know, Montana may be very different and works well, you know, here on the south side of Chicago. And we should hold ourselves accountable and, you know, measure results. But the fact that we can't, as a nation, unite behind these goals, we fight over what I call very small ball issues, we just do a tremendous disservice to our children, to our families and communities, and ultimately to our nation. And I'm worried rather than coming together, we're getting more and more separated. The distance, you know, politically is getting greater and greater. And if we're going to come together as a nation, which I desperately think we have to do, I can't think of a better place to do it than around education.
Kevin: Yeah, I think you're right. And I want to talk more about that, particularly as things have become more politically intense. But I'm mindful of the fact that when the first PISA scores came out many years ago, that's, as you know, nationwide scores where they measure a country's effectiveness in terms of educating children and the outputs of the kids in these countries, into these countries, Germany expected, and I visited there and visited some schools there, but Germany expected they would be in the top two or three, and they weren't. And there was this national malaise. And they had people on TV, teachers saying, "We're failing our students." Elected officials saying, "Boy, you know, we have not done a good job. We need to get more funding." You had students upset that they weren't, you know, carrying their end of the ball, if you will. Parents were talking about I've got to do a better job in supporting my kids.
So, you know, when I talked to those officials there, the mindset and the cultural response to the failure was markedly different. There was no pointing the fingers. Everyone owned the challenge. What will it take for us to do that?
Arne: Wow, I wish I had an easy answer to that question. And it's so different here. And you may have seen recently, there's a nonprofit there in D.C. called Learning Heroes, that looked at sort of parent perceptions in a number of cities, including Chicago. And it's actually pretty devastating. You know, basically, across the nation, 80% to 90% of parents think that their kids are on track to be successful. And in fact, it's usually 20% to 30%. So they call it a perception gap. I call it a reality gap. There's this massive gap. And so . . .
Kevin: [inaudible 00:09:42], I wanted to just sort of ask you about several of them before I get to a couple of big questions about where we are with what I would call these culture wars. How do you see technology impacting education, particularly all the fervor around ChatGPT and AI, and especially in the current environment we're in, where we're sort of at each other's throats?
Arne: Yeah, well, I think there's real potential here. And it's interesting, many places, the first thing they've done is sort of seen this as a threat and let's shut it down and worry about kids, you know, cheating or whatever it might be. And I look at it a very different way. This isn't going to go away, and whatever we can do to level the playing field and create greater opportunity for kids in underserved communities, be it inner cities, be that rural and remote communities, be it on Native American reservations. And the idea, Kevin, that the idea of every child potentially having their own individual tutor and someone, you know, AI being able to challenge them and know their learning styles and help them get better.
We know, you know, we had tens of millions of kids behind before COVID hit. You know, once COVID hit, you know, the learning loss has been devastating. So I feel there's a tremendous sense of urgency to help kids catch up. And technology is never going to replace teachers. I have no fears about that. What we want is great teachers combined with great technology. And if we can do that, and if we can get this technology to underserved kids and communities, then we have a real chance.
My fear, Kevin, is a little different than others. My fear is if this technology isn't ubiquitous, if every child doesn't have access, if only the privileged have access, then it actually exacerbates the divide between the haves and the have-nots. So for me, that's the greatest threat, is making sure that every child has access to what is not going away. It's going to be the new normal going forward. We can't run from it. We've got to embrace it and figure out how to empower our kids to learn everything they need to learn and want to learn.
Kevin: You know, I totally agree with you, and I do think that, you know, for years, Arne, we've heard people talk about this notion of "personalized learning." I mean, my goodness, the technology could really embody personalized learning for every child.
Arne: No, exactly. So it's interesting, almost funny, if you look at the history, you know, people were threatened by calculators, and they were threatened by, you know, computers and the internet, and this is just the next iteration. And, you know, we're not going to go back in time, and it's not going to happen. So how we help every kid, you know, learn what they need to learn, how they best learn it, when they want to learn it. We can't do that without technology. So I'm hopeful, again, if my big caveat is if, if we get all these resources to the kids in communities who are always the most underserved.
Kevin: What are your thoughts about the role of the teacher going forward and the traditional, and you and I have talked about this many years ago about the traditional ed school approach where we sort of brought teachers along and put them in classrooms in basically the same way for the last 50, 75, 80 years, what have you. But with this technology, and also with the various individual challenges today's kids are facing, frankly, the challenges that working-class families are facing, the role of teachers should change and it will change, don't you think?
Arne: Yeah, I think the words that come to mind are like facilitator and, you know, you and I both have an athletic background and coach would be the other thing. And you talked about rather than trying to teach to the midpoint, the average of 32 kids, so you're not really meeting the needs of almost anyone individually. But, you know, with technology, if you can, you know, facilitate the conversations, help students that need additional help, you know, have them go home, work on these things, come back to class, ask questions, help them in small groups in an individual basis, it's a very different way of delivering instruction.
So much in the past, you know, Kevin was about memorization. You don't need to remember much of anything these days. What you do need to do is you need to be able to solve problems. You need to be able to think critically. You need to be able to ask good questions. You need to be able to work as a team. Those are the kinds of skills that we have no idea, you and I have no idea what the jobs 10 or 15 years from now are going to look like, but I can pretty much guarantee you those are the skills that young people are going to need to be successful in that world of work.
And having teachers who can impart those habits of mind and teach students to love to learn and be lifelong learners, that's the kind of job that I think teaching's going to be. And I think, honestly, it can be more rewarding. It can be more effective. It can be more efficient. So people see the threats and the challenges, and some of that might exist, but I think if this makes teachers' jobs easier, if they better understand exactly what their students know, when they know it, how they best learn, for me, that can be extraordinarily empowering, both for teachers but also very importantly for our children's parents.
Kevin: Totally agree. Let me ask you about, you know, the social services, the mental health of our children, trauma. We have exploding suicide and attempted suicide rates. COVID sort of accented those challenges, but they were there beforehand. How can we better integrate some of these support services in this arena that helps teachers and school leaders address these individual trauma-related issues that students are facing?
Arne: Yeah, that's such an important point and question. And I'm desperately worried about the millions of kids that have fallen so far behind. And frankly, I don't quite see the urgency to helping them catch up academically that I would like to see. And I worry about a lost generation. But part of that, just the flip side of that coin is helping our students socially and emotionally. And for me, people again, often education is sort of like pit one thing against the other. It's either-or. I think 99% of the time it's both, and, you know, it's college and careers. It's great traditional, you know, public schools or great traditional public charter schools.
And for me, this is the foundation upon which the academic house is built. And I'm always going to be the one fighting for high standards and more kids having access to AP calculus and physics and biology and having those kinds of aspirations. But our children have to be fed. If they need eyeglasses, they need eyeglasses. If they're being bullied, that has to be dealt with. And if they're dealing with trauma and loss, we had hundreds of thousands of children who lost a parent during COVID. We've never had that kind of loss probably since I can't even tell you, when World War II maybe in terms of children losing parents here in our nation.
And so taking care of our kids' social and emotional and physical needs, that is the ticket to entry to talk about high academic standards.
Kevin: That's right.
Arne: And I grew up as part of my mother's afterschool program. It was formative for me. And the minute kids walked into her after school, the school meals weren't that great back in those days. Unfortunately, she fed kids. And what she always said is it's hard to learn if your stomach is rumbling. And it's just a basic statement, but it's true, you know, 50 years ago as it is true today
Kevin: A couple of more areas and then I want to get more into some of these culture war challenges. You know, we still haven't, you know, cracked the nut on reading. And reading is so basic. You talk about the academics, and it's hard for kids to be able to focus and love learning when they have some of these social challenges. But still the basics in terms of, and this, you know, pardon me, but I think the pre-K issue that you supported for so long is so important so kids are ready to learn, but after all these years, our kids still aren't reading at grade level.
Arne: Not even close. And it's tragic. And obviously, if you're not, you know, doing that well, graduating from high school, thinking about college at a certain point that becomes like a distant possibility. We start to eliminate those options for kids. So, you know, I'll go back, obviously, we all know learning basically starts at birth and how we help young mothers, you know, how we help them, you know, read to their children, sing to their children, and young mothers and fathers how do we get books into the home. High-quality pre-K, we've seen a seven to one return on investment that, you know, those kids who don't have access to high-quality pre-K, that average child from poor family enters kindergarten, starts kindergarten a year to 18 months behind. And, you know, the dirty secret in education is often we don't do a great job at catching them up.
We talked about Mississippi earlier. It's interesting we've seen Mississippi really improve its reading scores. Why? Because they stuck with the strategy and understood the science of learning, the science of reading for a number of years. So they've made real progress there. New York City, the New York City public schools recently sort of took this on as a city, not letting, you know, individual schools figure this out by themselves. And so the knowledge base is there. The fact base is there more than ever. The evidence base is there of what works. And we just have to have the discipline and understand the critical importance that if we get this right, that opens up a world of possibilities for kids. And if we don't get it right, we really limit what they can do long term.
Kevin: Now this leads me to, you know, the area I really wanted to explore with you, and that is we're in the middle of what I would call culture wars. And you know, Arne, I've been a big advocate for parent choice, you know, school choice, the parent voice. But I also see there is some cautionary signs out here in terms of parents sometimes, even though their voices are legitimate and even though their concerns are legitimate, can be political pawns with these culture wars. We have the book-banning issue. We have curriculum fights. We have sex education. We have the gender equality issue. You know, I heard you speak on this before, and I was quite struck by the way you talked about it, not just in terms of the impact on education, but frankly the impact on the country. So expound on that.
Arne: Yeah. I'm very honest. For better or worse, I'll give you my honest opinion. Some folks may agree or disagree, but, you know, the fight to empower parents is so critically important. And the parents' role in education and folks weren't clear on it, became abundantly clear during COVID that there's three legs to this stool. You've got parents, you've got teachers, and you've got students. And no one can be successful if everyone is not being successful. What I've seen too much on the right is taking the worst parent empowerment and using that to drive fear and fear of things that frankly don't really exist. You know, how do you ban books? That's, you know, mind-boggling to me. That takes you right back to Nazi Germany. Obviously, we know what that looks like.
You know, how do you fight CRT when it's truly not in our classrooms? It's just you create these boogeymen. And I think there is not a small, a large bit of race-baiting in this. It's, you know, fear of the difference, fear of the vulnerable. And I worry that we as Democrats have sort of ceded this territory to Republicans, that somehow we can't own that.
For me, what's true in parent empowerment? For me, Kevin, parent empowerment is telling parents the truth about how their children are academically. True parent empowerment is giving them, you know, high-quality public school options. And, you know, if you have four or five kids, every kid might have a different learning style. One might love math and sciences. One might like the arts. One might like foreign languages. And giving them some different great options to choose from is, you know, letting our parents know when kids are in third grade and fifth grade and eighth grade, and are they on track to be successful, or do they need more help after school or summer school, or whatever it might be.
So parental empowerment for me is partnering in a very honest and real way to help parents help their children be successful. And you and I both know this, every parent, rich, poor, Black, White, you know, it just doesn't matter, every parent what's universal? We all want something better for our children. We all want that. And what we want to do is we want to be effective with our children and help them be successful, but we need to partner with schools to do that. And I worry about our country being divided, you know, less maybe along racial lines, although that still exists, than around access to high-quality public education. And if children are locked out of those options, if children aren't learning, then parents start to become very concerned about their children's future. And guess what? They should be concerned. That concern is legitimate. That's not hyperbole. That's very, very real.
And so I do see our country fraying at the edges, having our democracy fraying at the edges. And it sort of goes back to what we talked about earlier, that the only way I know how to knit our democracy back together and strengthen it is by, you know, providing a high-quality education to every child and doing that in full partnership, full transparency with parents. We all need each other. If we learned nothing else from COVID, we learned how interdependent we are. None of us are safe, none of us are healthy, none of us are, you know, living our best lives unless we all have those opportunities. So it's a massive challenge, but I think an extraordinary opportunity that I hope we have the courage and the wisdom to seize going forward.
Kevin: So we've talked about a number of the challenges and opportunities and to bring it all together, particularly with your vantage point of having been Secretary of Education for this country, so you look backwards, but in looking forward, Arne, are you hopeful or discouraged about the prospect of education and making advances in the future?
Arne: Very candidly, right now, I'm very concerned. And I'm always hopeful. I'm optimistic by nature, but I would feel better, Kevin, if we united behind some of those nation-building goals I talked about. And those are goals that I'd love to see our nation stick with for 10, 20, 30 years and see if we could make, you know, progress there. I'd be more optimistic if we were more honest with parents about what their children's strengths and weaknesses are. I'd be more optimistic if I saw the sense of urgency. I feel we desperately need to help kids catch up academically and to provide them with the social and emotional supports to deal with trauma that you've talked about. And I'm just not quite feeling or seeing that urgency at the national level. And so we have to come together.
I'm always, you know, trying not to admire a problem, but to try and work on it. I recently joined the board of the Hunt Institute as chairman of that board, Governor Hunt from North Carolina, I know you remember him. You know, he was a legendary, you know, leader, passionate about education, always worked in a bipartisan way. So unfortunately, his health has finally, you know, given out a little bit. He's one of my heroes. And to have the chance to sort of honor his legacy and chair that board. Susana Martinez, who's a former Republican governor of New Mexico, she's my vice chair. And so if we can try and start to, you know, lead together, not agree on every issue, but agree on some basic things, I'm going to try and do my part in my small way to bring the country back together behind these goals.
But we have to do better, Kevin. And if not, it's not just, you know, learning for learning's sake. It's not just lack of economic mobility. Our democracy is fraying, so the stakes here are just extraordinarily high. So I feel this huge, huge sense of urgency to try and get to a better place where I can be more objectively optimistic than I am today. But today, honestly, I'm worried, Kevin. I'm worried.
Kevin: Well, and I appreciate the honesty. As you said, we need to be more honest. That's the only way we can address the problem, even when it comes down to addressing individual parents children's needs. And we need to do so globally as well. Arne Duncan, thank you so much for joining us on "What I Want to Know."
Arne: Thanks for the opportunity and thanks for all of your leadership. It's great to talk with you.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education and write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Arne Duncan is the former U.S. Secretary of Education. Nominated by President Obama in 2009, Arne's tenure as secretary was marked by significant accomplishments on behalf of American students and teachers.
Now, Arne serves as a managing partner at Emerson Collective, where he works to improve the lives of young adults in his hometown of Chicago.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.