Arne Duncan: Education A Bellwether for Long-Term U.S. Growth

At a Glance

  • Former U.S. Secretary of Education says U.S. economic future is “inextricably linked” to providing a high quality education for all.

Arne Duncan grew up around education. His mother ran a successful after school program on Chicago’s South Side, where Duncan volunteered throughout his youth, an experience he calls “absolutely formative.”

He would go on to lead one of the country’s largest school districts as head of Chicago Public Schools before becoming U.S. Secretary of Education under President Obama.  When he left that post in 2015, the U.S. was experiencing record-high graduation rates and record-low dropout rates among high school students.

In his book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, Duncan writes about his career spent implementing school reforms, which have at times been controversial, and his view that all students, regardless of race or socioeconomic background deserve a high quality education. It is a moral and economic challenge that still faces the United States, he says. “The stakes for our country’s economy are inextricably linked to high quality education for all, in order to have the best educated workforce on the globe,” Duncan told us in a recent interview.

We caught up with Duncan following a recent meeting with CME Group Foundation board members. Following is an edited version of our conversation.


OpenMarkets: You have called the struggles of the U.S. education system an economic issue. What is the economic fallout if the United States doesn’t improve in some of the areas where it’s lacking?

Arne Duncan: It’s devastating for the country. We live in a flat world and a globally competitive economy, and jobs are going to go to where the knowledge workers are. I definitely want high wage, high skill, middle class jobs – jobs that could support a family — to come to the United States and stay. But if we’re not educationally leading the pack, those jobs are going to go to India or China or Singapore, Japan, or somewhere else.  The stakes for our country’s economy are inextricably linked to high quality education for all, in order to have the best educated workforce on the globe.

OM: Investment generally improves when economies grow, but some are predicting a recession for the United States in the next few years. How do economic cycles affect investment in education?

AD: Economies are always going to be cyclical, but education has to be the constant. Education is the best long-term investment we can make. And you have to continue to get better, you have to continue not just to educate, not just to invest, but to innovate and to challenge the status quo and try and get better faster.

But none of that should be dependent on day to day, year to year fluctuation. This has to be every day, every month, every year, for the next hundred years and beyond. So, you can never go back. The consequences are real and severe.

OM: What are some of those consequences?

AD: If you get to a system where you have a set of folks who are lucky enough to receive a good education, and you have a set of folks that are not, you start to move to a caste system.

The promise of education, my passion for it, comes from the belief that if you work hard, if you commit to get an education, it shouldn’t matter your race or your socioeconomic status or zip code. But if we get to the point that quality education is only for some, the impact on our economy is profound.

But the impact on our democracy, I would argue, is even more damaging and destructive. And if you have a set of people who are locked out, and they know they’re locked out, that becomes untenable. So it is about economic progress – giving people an opportunity to climb that economic ladder and enter the middle class. But it’s also about trying to have a thriving, civically engaged economy. And I feel that there’s risk there now.

OM: A handful of states require financial literacy as part of their curriculum. Is that something that should be adopted everywhere?

AD: Financial literacy issues are important. I think it’s helpful to have some state requirements. I always worry about the quality of those. And I always wonder, ‘is it too late? Is that something we should be doing in high school? Or should we be doing it first and second, and third grade?’

But I always want to dig a little deeper and find out if it is it meaningful learning or memorization? Is it critical thinking skill? Is it really teaching them something that’s going to last a lifetime?  I really want to understand. Are they getting it for one semester, senior year, or is it just part of what they’re learning throughout their childhood and teenage years?

OM:  As you know, one of the focus areas for the CME Group Foundation has been early childhood education. What role do foundations and philanthropy play in preparing kids for the future?

AD: I always say that if I had $1 to invest in education, I would invest it in high quality pre-K. That’s where we can get the highest ROI. James Heckman, Nobel Prize winning economist of University of Chicago, has done a ton of research on this and found a seven to one return on investment.  There is maybe no place else you could invest in tax dollars and get that kind of return.

Whatever we can do to get our three- and four-year olds ready to be successful, academically, socially and emotionally in kindergarten, there’s nothing more important we can do.

OM: Looking to one of the themes from your book, what can average people do?  How can a regular person help to improve education in their community?

AD: The very practical thing is everybody can help tutor, they can mentor, they can help kids after school, they can share their passion, whatever that might be, with young people. So that’s the hands-on piece.

In a bigger sense, I just wish people across the political spectrum voted around education. Local, state, national, Governor’s, Congressmen, Senators, President. Nobody votes and that’s actually, for me, what breaks my heart. If we, across the political spectrum, held politicians accountable for increasing education opportunity, and for accelerating achievement, everything would change and no one has a monopoly on good ideas. Left, Right, Republican, Democrat. Doesn’t matter. That would be the biggest game changer for me if people actually went to the voting booth in parts thinking about what was a candidate going to do to boost educational achievement and increase access to high quality education.

OM: Looking back at your time as head of Chicago Public Schools, what are you most proud of in terms of results?

AD: High school graduation rates in Chicago have continued to climb, past when I was gone. It’s not where it should be — things need to continue to improve – but directionally it’s very positive. And you may have seen the study last year from Professor Reardon at Stanford that said Chicago was the fastest improving school district in the country. I’m always looking at less absolute progress than I am at growth and gain whether that’s for kids for schools of our districts. And again, I always want that to be faster and Chicago’s got a long way to go. But to see Chicago be called the fastest improving district in the nation, that gave me a huge amount of joy and satisfaction.

OM: Tell us about what you’re working on now with Chicago CRED?

AD: We have a level of violence in our city that is devastating. Chicago’s seven times more violent than New York, and probably three to four times more violent than LA. It’s not fair to our children growing up in the south and west sides, who are born into a level of fear and trauma that is mind boggling, and is absolutely unacceptable.  We have robbed a generation of kids of their childhood. And so I’m just absolutely laser focused and work with great partners across the city to dramatically reduce the level of violence in the city.

We started I work in 2016, we saw 15 percent reduction in homicides in 2017, and other 15 percent in 2018. Just like education, you have to keep getting better, faster and I’m so proud of the progress but we have so far to go as a city and we have to continue to work with the young man if we’re serious about doing this.

Evan Peterson is director of corporate marketing at CME Group and managing editor of OpenMarkets.

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