How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation's Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education
August 21, 2018
Arne Duncan, one of the nation's longest-serving Secretaries of Education, has some ideas for us as our kids return to school.
Arne Duncan is one of those rare people that has upset people on all sides on education issues. But here's the thing: he's not in the debate to play sides. He wants to make a difference, sees where he thinks change is needed and wants to see it realized. And beyond being one the longest-serving secretaries of education, he also has a lot of on-the-ground experience in education, dating back to his time working with underserved communities on Chicago's south side at the Sue Duncan Children's Center (Sue being his mother), an after-school education program serving kids in the North Kentwood neighborhood. It was near his family's home in Hyde Park, yet a world away. It was the first time he realized, in his own words, how "education runs on lies." And he believes it still does. His new book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation's Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, was released earlier this month to take on the topics. As the nation's children return to school, it's a perfect time to consider an educational system that fails far too many of them.
I haven't had a chance to get through the entire book yet, because I'm camping with the family in Wisconsin's Door County to mark the end of summer this week, but it has been good vacation reading so far, even if it's sometimes a reminder of the daily news and hard realities we're here to escape, hard realities that Duncan witnessed when he ran Chicago's Public Schools:
During the 2007-2008 school year, my last at Chicago Public Schools, we lost thirty-four school-aged kids to gun violence. Our schools were safe—school was often the safest part of a child's day—but we couldn't protect them once they left the building, and during my more than seven years as CEO of CPS we lost one child every two or three weeks to gun violence. Their memorials were far and away the most scarring aspect of the job. Each was harder to go to than the last.
He tells the stories of some of those lost to the violence, and the stories of their mothers left behind—still grieving. He tells the stories of Sandy Hook, and the funeral of the school's principal, which he attended as Secretary of Education. He tells the story of Parkland, which ties back to Chicago, through the story of an old friend of the secretary who founded a school on the West Side:
His school, whose entryways were guarded by metal detectors, had recently been allocated money for eight or nine additional school resource officers, aka security guards. But he wanted something else. "I'd like to take that money and hire eight or nine school counselors instead, Arne." he said.
"Yes. We have a teacher here named Tiffany Childress, and she's been doing a lot of Kingian nonviolence work with the students. It's just beginning to take root and they need support. It's student-centered and I think they have a shot at making a difference. They're calling themselves 'Peace Warriors.'"
It was an idea I'd never heard before: counselors instead of guards. Support instead of policing.
The idea that one of our longest serving secretaries of education hadn't ever heard the idea that counselors would be more needed than guards is a little depressing, but the story's hopeful ending is its antidote. The school began grading itself on peace, and it worked so well that they eventually removed the metal detectors altogether. Two of those Peace Warriors ended up speaking at the March for Our Lives demonstration that sprang out of Parkland in Washington D.C. on March 24, 2018. They're not only making a difference in their own lives and schools and communities, but became central, literally center stage on a nationally televised protest, to a larger story about gun violence in this country—because they were prepared, because they were already leading. Duncan was asked on a local Chicago station around that time how people like him had come to lead these students. He quickly interrupted:
I'm not leading. I'm following. The students are the leaders, and I'm following them. I'm doing whatever I can to help them, but that's it.
Students led 800 such events across the country to coincide with the one in Washington, drawing an estimated 1.2 to 2 million people, making it was one of the largest protests in U.S. history. I don't know if How Schools Work will change things, but I think those kids will.
To describe how schools work, it is necessary to describe how they don't, and Duncan speaks to so many of them: "no support for pre-K or early education programs; no access to after-school programs or enrichment; a failure to meet the social and emotional needs of children; closing and locking school's doors after the bell rings at three o'clock," (I just want to give a shout out to my kids' school, Highland Community School, here in Milwaukee, for being as far away from that description as you can get) just to start the list. There is so much work to do, in those challenges an opportunity to do better, to make schools work for all America's children. How Schools Work has some ideas.
We have 20 copies available.