“The idea of 50 states doing their own thing has led to a … dumbing down of standards,” says Duncan, photographed in 2006 at King College Prep, a CPS selective-enrollment high school on the South Side. “I want to flip that; I want to reverse that.”
In 2001, when Arne Duncan became the CEO of Chicago Public Schools—the third-largest district in the nation, accounting for more than 600 schools and 400,000 students—some local education insiders worried aloud about his lack of experience and adopted a cautiously pessimistic wait-and-see attitude. Eight years later, Duncan, 44, heads to Washington to serve as President Obama’s secretary of education, having earned a reputation as an even-keeled pragmatist and mostly good grades across constituencies for transforming CPS in substantial—and occasionally controversial—ways. Duncan talked to Chicago magazine the day after Congress passed the $787-billion stimulus package, which includes $100 billion in new federal money for education. “It’s unbelievable,” Duncan said of his vast fund, itself nearly double what the department spent in 2008. “It’s staggering.”
Q: Which numbers best tell the story of your tenure at CPS?
A: The one that I’m most proud of is that we tracked the college scholarship dollars of our graduating seniors. The class that just graduated, it’s like $157 million in competitive grants and scholarships, up double from the year before. I told the students this scholarship money [was] not a gift; that was an investment because people believe in you. We went from two teacher applicants for every job to ten teacher applicants for every job. We doubled the number of kids taking and passing AP [advanced placement] classes. If you look at test scores, we improved at twice the rate of the state on the elementary test [the Illinois Standards Achievement Test], and we improved at twice the rate of the state and three times the rate of the country on the ACT test.
Q: Is there something you wish you could stay around to watch happen?
A: This past summer we brought back 16,000 freshmen a month early, voluntarily; we called it Freshman Connection. We hired 1,000 juniors and seniors to be mentors and role models to help to bridge that group, do some academic work with them, some team building. It went beautifully well. Our year was too short and I worry about the eighth to ninth grade transition. This year’s freshman class, I think, when they’re seniors will be the most successful class that the Chicago Public Schools has ever seen. In hindsight, I would have loved to have done Freshman Connection five or six years ago. That extra time is hugely important.
Q: Why are the Chicago school day and year among the shortest in the country?
A: It’s always been that. It’s a real challenge. And the Chicago public schools are desperately underfunded by the state. There were 34 kids in my daughter’s class in first grade in Hyde Park. We’re moving to Arlington, Virginia, and there’s a great little neighborhood school and there are 19 kids in her class; there are two teachers in every kindergarten class. Illinois is 49th out of 50 states in the percent of [state] funding going to public education. We’re 43rd in the disparities between the rich and poor districts, so we had one of the widest gaps. How can we be proud of that?
Q: One education pundit I talked to said we’ll know that CPS is working when middle-class families send their children to the system’s schools in numbers far greater than they do today. Your response?
A: I think you’ve seen dramatically more middle-class children going to Chicago public schools. I can give you 30, 40, 50 neighborhood schools—Nettlehorst, Lincoln, Ogden, Alcott—there’s a whole series of schools.
Q: But citywide CPS is still predominantly low-income.
A: Poor. Yeah. The middle class has always gone to the magnet schools. What you see now is more middle-class kids going to neighborhood schools. And, you’re seeing public schools outcompete Lab and Latin and Parker for students.
Q: Northside College Preparatory is one of the CPS high schools that are attracting students who can afford private schools. Now that you’re in a national policy role, is that a model exportable to other cities—or was it successful because of the way things aligned in Chicago?
A: What was so special about working in Chicago was that so much was aligned. It started with the mayor—everywhere the mayor went he let people know this was his top priority. Because of his leadership, we had an appointed board; we all worked together; we were able to make some really tough decisions. What you see in so many cities is just chaos, where the governance is all messed up and, as you know, I was the longest-serving big-city superintendent in the country.
Q: Paul Vallas was there for six years before you, and that was a long time, too.
A: What it shows is the importance of governance. When the average tenure of superintendents is two and a half years—and often the whole board turns over as well—all you do is perpetuate mediocrity. You perpetuate status quo. It’s actually my only regret; I desperately wanted to do ten years.
Q: What’s the change you’re most proud of that you think no one outside of CPS noticed?
A: Teacher quality, principal quality. I just knew great talent matters tremendously. The other huge one for me was creating a critical mass of great schools in neighborhoods that have been underserved for decades—30, 40, 50 years. Such as in Englewood, where we have six new schools; such as in North Lawndale, where you have nine new schools.
Q: Can you give me an example of something you tried in Chicago that ultimately didn’t go anywhere or have the hoped-for results?
A: Oh, sure; I made lots of mistakes. When we first started, we took three high schools and just made them smaller. [For example,] the one at South Shore, we shrunk the size. While they got better and pretty significantly in some ways—[such as a] reduction in dropout rates—those schools needed stronger medicine. What we did going forward [was] we didn’t just make big schools smaller; we created a lot more new schools from scratch. So ninth grade could really build a culture from the ground up and then in the past couple years through High School Transformation [a program that introduced rigorous new curriculum into 43 of CPS’s 116 high schools]. For schools that were really underperforming, we kept the kids and brought in new teams of adults. So, much more radical medicine, much more controversial. But ultimately it’s going to lead us to get the kind of dramatic improvement that you need.
Q: Is the national education conversation turning away from pre-K and things like Head Start and moving toward high schools?
A: Not if I have anything to say about it. We did a ton of stuff on the pre-K side as well. Folks like to think there’s a magic bullet, and I’m always trying to remind them this work is really hard and complex. You have to do lots of things together, simultaneously. We added between 1,000 and 1,500 pre-K seats. We worked hard to strengthen quality so that it wasn’t glorified babysitting. In the Latino community, where it is more overcrowded, I worked closely with [then state senator Miguel] Del Valle, now the city clerk, [on] what we called the “third shift.” We literally had no space so we did an evening shift [of pre-K] from four o’clock to eight o’clock. People thought I was crazy, but it worked beautifully.
Q: So high school is not necessarily coming to the fore?
A: I will say nationally I worry most about the high schools because there isn’t a big city in the country that has a system of great high schools. Some cities have pockets of excellence but no one has a system, and that has to happen.
Q: You’ve been described repeatedly to me as a CEO who listens to the data. But what are the limitations of using data to drive reform?
A: It’s important to have great data, but that’s half the battle. The other half is listening to teachers, parents, principals, students, and really encouraging them to tell you the truth. I was in schools almost every day. I probably visited every single one of our schools, well over 500. I had a group of the best teachers in the system, picked by their peers—25 each year, out of 25,000. The really innovative pay-for-performance stuff? That wasn’t my idea; that came from them. The answers are out there.
Q: I know that the killings of CPS students were wrenching to you. But can schools solve that problem?
A: They can’t. But our schools have become these safe havens and they do need to expand. What people don’t understand is the psychological impact on not just the family, but on classrooms and on schools and entire communities when innocent kids are killed and nothing happens. You have a lot of kids who talk about if I grow up, not when I grow up. That’s real. And here we are saying, “Think about what you want to be when you’re 30, 35.” If you don’t know if you’re going to live, how can you begin to focus on that?
Q: Have you read Whatever It Takes, the new book about Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone? I bring it up because that project, which tries to catch kids from birth and guide them all the way to college, suggests that it may be necessary in certain communities for the neighborhood school to take on functions that lie traditionally in the realm of social services.
A: Geoff Canada’s a good, good friend of mine. I’m actually meeting with him Monday.
Q: Obviously you’re familiar with what he’s doing.
A: Yes. I’m going to create 20 Harlem Children’s Zones around the country. I am.
Q: Really? Do you think you’ll face opposition to the federal role expanding in that way?
A: I don’t care. I’m going to fund it.
Q: Can we talk a little bit about No Child Left Behind?
A: A little bit. I’m going on a listening tour, so I can’t tell you too much.
Q: I want to tie it to your discussion about states’ standards—how you object to there being 50 different goalposts. States like California and South Carolina have rigorous state standards, but even they are watching as good schools fail to meet improvement targets in line with NCLB requirements for 2014. What if all states adopt tough standards and that sort of reality check happens everywhere?
A: The idea of having 50 states doing their own thing has actually led to a race to the bottom, the dumbing down of standards. I want to flip that; I want to reverse that. What I want to do is what we tried to do in Chicago—simply tell the truth. The good, the bad, the ugly. Right now, many states are lying to their children; they are telling their children and their families they are on the path to success when in fact they are not. So what I want to do is not set artificial benchmarks but to set real benchmarks and a real clear bar and then measure progress. I’m also going to rebrand it. NCLB is toxic.
Q: Did NCLB create the wrong incentive?
A: The goals behind it, obviously I really support. You want to have great teachers; you want to measure progress. I’m going to go out and listen and travel the country. I’m sending my team out to rural, suburban, urban [areas]. We’re going to come back at the end of the year and the simple message is, What’s working, let’s build upon; what’s not, let’s fix. Just be very pragmatic and thoughtful about it.
Q: You and President Obama are the products of private schools. Do private schools represent the best in education in our country right now?
A: The country does not have enough great schools. We need more great schools of all types.
Q: Do the problems of educating all of America’s children go beyond money? In other words, if we fully funded everything we now know works, would we still have problems?
A: Absolutely. We still have to create and innovate. Other countries can afford not to educate a huge piece of their population. They just don’t do it. We think that’s morally unacceptable. We’re trying to educate every child. So, what do we need to fix? There are huge challenges in family structure, in lack of support. [In Chicago,] I was trying to start some boarding schools. We have children whose homes are so dysfunctional, so devastating that the best thing we can do is to work with that child 24/7. And let me give you a sense of the magnitude of that: Let’s assume for the sake of argument that only one percent of our kids live in homes so tough that the best of schools isn’t going to be enough. In Chicago, one percent is 4,000 kids. So you don’t just need one boarding school; you need ten. To me education is the only way out of poverty. So if we’re serious about breaking cycles of social failure, we have to do everything we can to save those children. Because I’ve worked in those communities all my life, I know what those kids can do when we give them a chance. But you’ve got to give them a real chance. Half a chance. You’ve got to put them in the ball game.
Photograph: Anna Knott