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"Public Education Has to be the Great Equalizer," Arne Duncan Says in Ubben Lecture at DePauw

"Public Education Has to be the Great Equalizer," Arne Duncan Says in Ubben Lecture at DePauw

April 21, 2016

"We have one common goal, that's academic excellence, and one common enemy, and that's academic failure," Arne Duncan, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, said at DePauw University tonight.  "Our goal's got to be a 100% high school graduation rate.  Our goal's gotta be that 100% of those high school graduates are ready to go to college."

Duncan, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education from January 20, 2009 (the day Barack Obama was inaugurated) through the end of 2015, came to campus to deliver a Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture, "Why Our Schools Matter More Than Ever."

"I think we, as adults, have failed our kids in so many ways," Duncan told the crowd of aproximately 800 gathered in Kresge Auditorium. 

He began his speech by describing his path from Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood to becoming the nation's top education official.  Duncan's father was a professor at the University of Chicago and his mother ran a South Side tutoring program for inner-city children.  As a child, Arne Duncan spent his days watching his mother impact young lives.  His senior thesis at Harvard was titled "The values, aspirations and opportunities of the urban underclass."

Duncan went on to lead the Ariel Education Initiative, a non-profit education foundation which helped fund a college education for a class of inner-city children under the I Have A Dream program. In 1999 he was appointed deputy chief of staff to the head of Chicago Public Schools, then two years later was tabbed by Mayor Richard M. Daley to lead the city's school system. Duncan held the post for seven-and-a-half years, becoming the longest-serving big-city education superintendent in the United States.  He had planned to stay for ten years, but a call from his friend Barack Obama changed that.

"It must have been 2006, I went home and told my wife, 'I think Barack's gonna run for president.'  My wife said, 'President of what?'."  As the crowd laughed, a smiling Duncan added, "She thought it was the condo association or something ... and the rest is sort of history."

Duncan provided a frank assessment of the successes and failures of his term in Washington, which ended at the beginning of this year.  Positives included getting an additional billion dollars for early childhood education.  "I will argue anytime, anywhere that's the best investment we can make: seven-to-one return on investment," he said.

Forty-four states adopted higher standards in K-through-12 schools; high school graduation rates hit historic highs of 81%;  African-American dropout rates were reduced by 45%, with Latino dropout rates halved; 1.1 million additional students of color enrolled in college; and an additional $40 billion was made available for Pell grants and increased the number of recipients by 50% without raising taxes, among other things.

"None of this is a 'mission accomplished' moment. At every level we have to find ways to get better, faster, to accelerate the pace of change and give more young people a chance to be successful."

Disappointing to the education secretary is the ranking of U.S. students 28th among industrialized nations and that millions of American students still have unmet needs. Also troubling, the inability of the administration to get financial aid for undocumented students, and the deeply disturbing incidents of school violence.

"We allow a level of death in this nation that doesn't happen in other nations," Duncan stated. "Other nations have chosen other policies ... We just let kids in this nation die at rates that other nations don't."

Arne Duncan's day at DePauw began with a student forum at the Pulliam Center for Contemporary Media.  He then held a news conference with student journalists and attended a reception at The Elms, which was attended by students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the Greencastle community.  He posed for photos with countless students, including members of the Tiger men's basketball team (seen in image below left; Duncan was a standout hoops player at Harvard).

In his Ubben Lecture, Duncan said "a high bar" needs to be set at the federal level for teachers and schools, but decisions about how classes are taught should be made at the state and local level. "So tight on goals, loose on means, give lots of flexibility to get there.  There are lots of ways to get there, but let's make sure we're getting there."

Teachers need to be paid better, but they also need to be accountable, the former secretary stressed.  Annual testing of students should only be one tool of many that are used to determine whether teachers are effective.

"Student learning should be part of teacher evaluation," Duncan asserted. "Not the whole thing, but looking at student growth and gain." He continued, "A piece of teacher evaluation has to be looking at the impact of their teaching on student learning ... You always have to ask the question, compared to what? And when you totally divorce teacher evaluation from student learning, I think you demean the profession."

He added, "I say the goal of every great teacher is not to teach, it's to have kids learn.  And we need to have a conversation in our nation about who are those amazing teachers who should be mentoring younger teachers and be the master teachers. And who needs additional help?  And yes, maybe who should not be teaching if it's not quite working over time."

A system that ties school funding to local property taxes is flawed and a recipe for creating systemic inequality, he said. And Duncan argued that if half of non-violent felons were given alternative sentences and kept out of prison, $15 billion would be saved annually.  With that money, "we could give every teacher in America in a high-poverty school a 50% pay raise.  No one goes into education to make a million dollars, but teachers shouldn't have to take a vow of poverty, either." Investing those funds "in great teachers and great principals who are working in our toughest neighborhoods ... As a society I'd much rather invest in the front end, pay a little bit more for that, than to lock people up for 50, 60, 70-thousand-dollars at the back end."

When it comes to the debate over charter schools, Duncan says, "There's a lot of rhetoric: charter versus non-charter.  I'm just very pragmatic -- we need more good schools in our country."  As education secretary he was known for taking positions that were controversial with the Republican Party as well as his own. He urged the audience to embrace the idea that education is an issue that should not be viewed myopically through a partisan lens. "Whenever I hear, 'All of this is good' or 'all of this is bad' -- the world is much more complex than that," he declared. "Public education has to be the great equalizer.  It's got to be the path out of poverty and to the middle class ... Let's debate how we get there, let's debate what that means, but let's think about how we give every child a chance in life to be successful."

Duncan also bemoaned the fact that discussion of education has been hard to find during the current presidential campaign.  "I want government officials -- mayors, governors, presidents -- I want public officials ... held accountable for results.  I want them to have to spend political capital every single day and resources to improve the quality of education."

Taking that stand is a rare thing, in Duncan's view. "Your former governor, Mitch Daniels, was an exception.  He put himself out there -- you can agree or disagree, but he had real courage.  But in the vast majority of cities, mayors run away from public education, because it is hard, because it is difficult.  And I just don't know how you could have a great city if you don't have a great public school system."

Duncan cited several audience members during his speech, including Janeya Cunningham, a DePauw first-year student who helped create a documentary about gun violence while she was a high school student at Perspectives/IIT Math & Science Academy in Chicago. "I'll try not to start crying up here," Duncan said.  He noted that Cunningham and her student co-producers "led community marches, they talked to other schools, they made a powerful, powerful movie."

During the question-and-answer session that followed his speech, Duncan asked a student, "Where's your competition when you graduate? It's international. It's China, Singapore. It's India, South Korea.  And I don't want to scare you but these guys are working unbelievably hard."  He added, "We're in a global economy now, we're in a flat world.  And I think you're as smart, as talented, as creative, as innovative, as entrepreneurial as kids anywhere in the world.  I just want to give you a chance to be successful in that world.  And if I tell you you're on track to be successful and you're not, I don't think I'm helping you."

Now back in his hometown of Chicago, Duncan's new challenge is to bring the Emerson Collective, a philanthropy dedicated to providing jobs and reducing in neglected neighborhoods, to that city.

He called DePauw "a great school" during his day on campus, and -- while aware that about 70% of students engage in community service -- urged undergraduates to continue to focus on bettering their communities. "Teach, coach, mentor, tutor, don't underestimate what you can do as a 17-year-old, as an 18-year-old, as a 19-year-old, to make a difference ... Please give back now -- what you do now while you're on campus or back home over the summer can make an extraordinary difference.  You guys are all role models, you're working hard.  Many of you have overcome some very tough things to get here.  Think about how you give back and share now."

The former cabinet official added, "With all the animosity and the friction, this is not a great time, frankly, for our democracy.  You either throw up your hands and walk away or you bring new ideas and new energy.  And I have so much confidence in your generation to lead us where we need to go.  So don't be discouraged, don't walk away from it.  Think about how you step into that void and provide real leadership."

Listening is an important tool that great leaders need, says Duncan. "Start being more comfortable being uncomfortable."  He urged students to "find ways -- whether it's across generations, whether it's people with very different political beliefs and backgrounds -- think about how you can spend time just listening and getting to know them.  Not trying to convert them, not to convince them -- just trying to understand and build trust.  We need leaders who are not so certain they have the only answer, but leaders who are willing to listen and build consensus and take pieces from non-traditional places and learn."

Finally, instead of focusing on the job they'll get after college, Duncan encouraged students to ponder the problem they'd like to solve. "And whether it's education or poverty or health care or income inequality, think less about the job and less about the profession; think about what problem you're going to try and solve."

The audience gave a standing ovation as Duncan concluded his talk.

Established in 1986 through the generous support of 1958 DePauw graduates Timothy H. and Sharon Williams Ubben, the Ubben Lecture Series was designed to "bring the world to Greencastle."

North Korean defector, human rights activist and author Yeonmi Park (pictured at right) delivered the academic year's first Ubben Lecture on October 5.  Douglas Hallward-Driemeier, the attorney and 1989 DePauw University graduate whose arguments helped persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of same-sex marriage last summer, returned to his alma mater on October 26.

Previous Ubben Lecturers have included Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Peyton Manning, Tony Blair, Benazir Bhutto, Elie Wiesel, Jane Goodall, General Colin Powell, Shimon Peres, William J. Bennett, Martin Luther King III, Willy Brandt, Julian Bond, Jimmy Kimmel, Dan Quayle '69, F.W. de Klerk, Spike Lee, David Brooks, Lee Hamilton '52, Ralph Nader, Mike Krzyzewski, Bret Baier '92, John Major, Jimmy Wales, Ron Paul, Andrew Luck, Michio Kaku, Piper Kerman, Ken Burns, Oscar Arias, Barbara Bush, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, General Wesley Clark, Bob Woodward, Greg Mortenson, Naomi Wolf,   Ross Perot, Karl Rove, Howard Dean, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Eric Schlosser, Harry Belafonte, Leymah Gbowee, Sam Donaldson, David McCullough, Carl Bernstein, Jane Pauley, David Gergen, Mitch Albom, Brian Mulroney, David S. Broder, Candy Crowley, Liz Murray, Lester Thurow, Jason Reitman, Richard Lamm, Jim Lovell, ice cream entrepreneurs Ben Cohen & Jerry Greenfield, Sister Helen Prejean, Bill Bradley, Ferid Murad '58, David Ho, Allen Neuharth, Todd Rundgren, Andrew Young, Paul Volcker, Tom Wicker, Paul Tsongas, Gwen Ifill, Nicholas Carr, Rebecca Skloot, Mary Frances Berry, Zbigniew Brzezinski, George Will, Carl Rowan and many others. (at left: Bill Clinton speaks at DePauw on November 18, 2011)

To view a complete roster of Ubben Lecturers -- which includes links to video clips and news stories -- click here. Video montages of many events are available on YouTube.