Arne Duncan: 6 Lessons I’ve Learned From My Time in Education

Opinion | Diversity and Equity

Arne Duncan: 6 Lessons I’ve Learned From My Time in Education

By Arne Duncan     Dec 21, 2018

Arne Duncan: 6 Lessons I’ve Learned From My Time in Education

Education is the surest path out of poverty. You can’t imagine a world in which people succeed without providing them with a world-class education.

I’ve been in education my whole life: My mother set up a tutoring program for kids in our Chicago neighborhood. Eventually, I was in charge of Chicago’s 600 schools. Then my friend, Barack Obama, became President of the United States and he asked me to develop an education strategy for the country. Now I’m back in my old Chicago neighborhood, and in some ways, it’s worse: Of the young men I deal with, very few have high school diplomas. None have graduated from college. And many have already done jail time, even though they are heartbreakingly young.

Here are six lessons that those experiences have taught me.

1. The single best investment we can make is in high-quality early childhood education. There’s nothing more important than giving our babies the best start in life we can. University of Chicago Nobel laureate in education, James Heckman, found that there’s a seven-to-one return on investment for money spent in early childhood education. In other words, for every dollar we invest in high-quality pre-K, dropout rates decline. We must get out of the “catch-up” business, where we’re trying to fix problems when a child reaches the end of elementary school or middle school. If we could do only one thing, I’d put my last dollar into early childhood education.

2. Poverty is not destiny. We try to explain away why our children struggle, so we pin it on poverty. And yes, a child who is hungry or a child who lives in poverty has a lot to wrestle with every day. But data on student achievement from the OECD shows huge variations in how children from disadvantaged backgrounds perform. There’s tremendous variation across countries, between states and even within single schools. We have 600 schools in Chicago. At many of them, 90 percent of all students are below the poverty line. Some kids fail—but many succeed. Poverty is never destiny. And all of us have to be committed to helping children who live in poverty become the first in their families to go to college. The question for us is: How do we create opportunities for every single child?

3. Equal is not equitable. If we try to “close the achievement gap” by giving every child the same access to resources, the same teachers—we will not be equitable. Giving the same to each isn’t equitable. Equity is giving every child what he or she needs to be successful. If we’re treating everyone as “equals,” we give them all access to good teachers. Equity means giving our poorest students the best teachers. It means we gave them two, sometimes three meals a day when I was running the Chicago district. No kid can concentrate on what’s going on in algebra class if they’re hungry.

Sometimes in Chicago, back when I ran the district, we sent kids home on Friday with a backpack full of food to help them get through the weekend. Sometimes equity meant giving them eyeglasses or providing them with the social services they needed to deal with the grief and trauma that so many of them live with day in and day out. The goal of education isn’t to make everything “equal”—it is to make opportunities and resources equitable. It means giving every child exactly what they need to fulfill their own unique talents.

4. Teachers matter deeply. I’ve learned a lot about teachers. But here are a few salient points: Teachers change lives. Teachers are the most important factor in a student’s school experience. As part of his research, Harvard professor Raj Chetty looked at the impact of one good teacher on the lives of students in New York City. He found that one good teacher can increase the average lifetime earning of an entire class by $250,000. Teachers change lives because they don’t just deliver content. They believe in our young people. Good teachers help students envision a positive future for themselves.

That means that one of the other most important things we can do is find and support great teachers. Help the great one mentor the next generation of teachers. Think of the cumulative impact that three good teachers in a row have on students. And then think about the negative impact three mediocre teachers have on those students.

We’ve had a lot of debate about class size. Creating small classes is a politically popular move and is popular with parents. But the quality of the teacher, I’ll argue, matters more than the size of the class. We need to pay our teachers more to attract great talent. Giving teachers more time to engage in professional development is also important.

But think about this, parents: if you were given a choice between having your child go to a teacher who is mediocre but in charge of a class of, say, 20 students—versus going to a great teacher who has a class of 25—which option would you take? I’d take the bigger class.

What about when the spread moves to a class of 30? Would you take the trade? I would. I’d go substantially higher (in class size) to give my child access to a great educator.

A final point on teachers: There’s always debate about whether technology will replace teachers. That will never happen. Effective, blended learning—a combination of in-class work with a teacher and technology-delivered instruction—is the best way to accelerate student learning. Teachers are invaluable in building meaningful relationships with students. We can all point to those teachers who saw things in us that we didn’t see in ourselves. That will never change.

5. The “job” of our children’s generation will be learning. The next generation of learners won’t go looking for “jobs”—they will create jobs. How we chose to train this next generation of technology leaders and of civic leaders is critical. Content knowledge will always be important. But more than ever, the habits of the mind will be deeply important for this next generation of leaders. They will need the ability to think critically, to synthesize information, and will need to have an eagerness to embrace problems. They deserve a chance to find joy in learning—to become lifelong learners motivated by the challenge of solving problems. Those are the skill sets that our children need.

What our children don’t need is rote memorization of facts. What they don’t need is complacency about learning and attitudes that signal that as long as they ace the test, they don’t need to learn anything more about the topic. Our children will have to want to learn the rest of their lives.

6. We get to choose when to compete—and when to collaborate. While it may be appropriate for countries to compete in the Olympic arena or in the business marketplace, education is something that we must collaborate on. When I was in the Department of Education, I met with education leaders from more than two dozen countries. What I learned from those other education leaders was invaluable. Many of them were facing similar challenges to those that we confront in the US. The opportunity for our education leaders to learn from each other is extraordinarily beneficial.

The more we can be open and honest about our challenges—to talk about our strengths and where we struggle—the more we’ll find solutions. Our problems are being solved somewhere on the planet. We can do much more to solve the problems that we face by collaborating on the solutions. And to me, “work” is simply that: The ability to solve problems creatively and collectively.

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