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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

An Interview with Arne Duncan

President Obama's secretary of education was formerly the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. In this interview, he discusses his strategy for reforming the city's school district and his passion for after-school programs. More to this story.
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An Interview with Arne Duncan (Transcript)

Narrator: Arne Duncan was appointed CEO of Chicago Public Schools in 2001 by Mayor Richard Daley. A champion of community schools and after-school programs, Duncan helped create the Ariel Academy, a unique public school backed by a private firm that supplies each class with a $20,000.00 stock portfolio to manage. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and was co-captain of the basketball team. He has played professionally in Australia and in countless pickup games with President-elect Barack Obama.

Arne: I was just so lucky to grow up -- I was always the young guy. I was part of my mother's program, so I'd grow up playing against guys who were a lot older and a lot better than me and was able to learn from them and get beaten enough times to get a little toughness maybe, but it's just sort of shaped me growing up, and I was able to sort of travel the city and play in playgrounds all over the South and West Side, and you just learn so much through sports. It's all the values that we're trying to instill in our kids of hard work and unselfishness and being part of a team and teamwork and sort of sacrificing personal goals or personal glory for the larger good. And it's easy to talk about those values. It's another thing to try and live them and living them on whether it's a basketball court or a football field or whatever it might be. I think sports is just an extraordinary teaching ground, and so I was able to have great, great mentors like John Rogers and others, who I learned from, and those lessons on the court have helped to shape my character and I'm so lucky for that. I got to play in lots of neighborhoods that were tough neighborhoods and you learned to judge character very, very quickly and who you could trust and who you couldn't. And I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today if I didn't have those skills, and it's a real way for me to relate to our students. I'll go out and play with the high school kids or play the elementary kids and rather than seeing a guy in a suit, you can sweat a little bit and have a real nice shared experience, and then you can really sit down and talk afterwards and get a real sense from students in terms of what's working, what's not, so it's been a real bridge-builder for me and it's a lot of fun as well.

Overall, I'm extraordinarily proud of the progress we're making. Over the past five years, we've actually improved at more than twice the rate of the rest of the state. It's been dramatic improvements. We are absolutely closing the achievement gap. Twenty years ago we were called the worst school system in America by the former secretary of education, Bill Bennett. I don't know whether that was true or not, but we definitely didn't have a school system we could be proud of. We've come an extraordinarily long way, particularly since the mayor took over in 1995. But our goal is very ambitious. We want to go from worst to best, and I absolutely am convinced that we have a chance to become the best big city, the best urban school system in the country over the next couple of years, and that's what we're trying to work extraordinarily hard to do and there are lots of strategies we can get into, but the bottom line is we have to dramatically increase graduation rates. We need to continue to dramatically reduce dropout rates, and we have to make sure all of our students upon graduation are ready to go to college and have the academic skills or are ready to go into the world of work, and ultimately that's how I want to be measured.

The core of our work is a focus on instructional excellence, sort of a back-to-basics curriculum and reading, first and foremost, and I'm just convinced that if we can teach our children to read and to love to read at an early age that they have this world of opportunity available to them if they can express their ideas verbally and on paper. And if we don't do that well, frankly, nothing else we do matters, so it's a huge, huge laser-like focus on great instruction, great teaching and a laser-like focus on literacy. Second is what we call our "Human Capital Initiative," which is really trying to recruit the best and brightest into every level of the organization. We've gone from 9,000 applicants wanting to teach in Chicago public schools to over 20,000 applicants. We're actually more selective than universities like Stanford now in terms of hiring. WE have about 12 applicants for every position.

The third-quarter strategy's a bit of a broad one. I call it sort of more learning opportunities. It's sort of challenging the assumption that -- if I don't really think a school day that is five days a week, six hours a day, nine months a year -- I just think that's an outmoded model; it's broken. It's based on the agrarian economy. Last time I checked here in Chicago not too many of our children are working in farms, and so we have to do a lot more, so after-school programming is a huge one for me, really making our schools, community centers open long hours, where our schools can become the hearts of the community, make good things happen for children and going to more detail on that. We're trying to do a lot on early childhood education, getting to children younger, three- and four-year-olds, more preschool, more full-day kindergarten. We can get those literacy skills intact. When our students hit kindergarten, they're ready to go, and then finally we have a very ambitious effort that the mayor's done a great job leading called the Renaissance 2010 Initiative to create 100 great new schools in the city by the year 2010, and we're about halfway there. We opened 15 great new schools this fall. We're at about 48 total now. We have 17 planned for fall '07, and we want to, again, continue to create great, new opportunities where they haven't existed historically, and so there's a range of just more -- the large bucket I use has more learning opportunities, more time on task, more time during the day, getting to children younger and creating more opportunities where they didn't exist. But those three core strategies, instructional excellence, getting the best and brightest to work at every level of the organization and trying to do more for our children, both in terms of early childhood and after school, more new schools, if we can continue to execute on those every single year, I'm convinced we'll get where we need to go.

This piece of it's a really personal one. My mother tried to start an after-school program in 1960 and started it at the local public school, and they didn't allow her to, so she had to start -- she had to work in the church basement across the street. And then about 30 years later, my sister and I came back and tried to also start an after-school program, and we weren't allowed into the schools and so we ended up in the same church basement as my mother. And so when I got in this position, the first thing I said we'd do is that we'd open the schools to the community, that these are these fabulous resources. We have over 600 buildings. Every single one have classrooms and libraries and computer labs and gyms and you name it, swimming pools, these fabulous physical resources that previously at two-thirty in the afternoon the kids were swept out of there and into the streets. It's incomprehensible to me. And so what we tried to do is create a culture where we welcomed the children but, most importantly, welcomed the community in with all the nonprofits and social-service agencies who are now providing services in the schools. And we have a set of over 100 schools now that're open 11, 12, 13, 14 hours a day, 6 days a week, 11 months out of the year with a whole host of after-school programming, whether it's academic enrichment for our students but also drama and sports and music and chess and debate and yearbook, whatever it might be, and then activities for older brothers and sisters and parents as well: GED and ESL and family-literacy nights and family counseling. And, again, I'm just convinced where school becomes the true heart, the true center of the community, which is the center of a family's life, our students are going to do extraordinarily well, and we're seeing those results. This is hard work, and, again, it's harder to keep schools open. It's messier. It's dirtier. You got to figure out hours; there's some challenges there, but it's the right thing to do and our children desperately need it, and they need it more than ever, and to me this is an issue that cuts through race and class, whether it's two parents or both parents working in an affluent family or whatever it might be, whether it's a single mom working whether it's a job or two jobs or three jobs, or we have about 9,000 homeless students, and whether it's students going home, frankly, to no-parent families, whatever the family situation, whatever the socioeconomic status, our children need great after-school programming. We have some extraordinary kids. We have some extraordinary kids who're beating the odds every single day after coming from some very tough situations, and we owe it to them to do our best and to create the best opportunities possible for them. I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing.

I've been fortunate growing up as part of my mother's after-school program to see phenomenal young people who happen to be poor, happen not to always have the most put-together families, but to see how much those students wanted to succeed academically and to see how successful they were, given her support and other support over the long haul, and so rather than just running an after-school program, could you create a school? And then if you could do that, could you create a -- creating a system of schools, a whole city of schools that really help students fulfill their tremendous academic and social potential. Quite frankly, most of the time growing up as part of my mother's program the public schools were the enemy. We were trying to do from three o'clock to eight o'clock at night with students what wasn't happening during the school day. And I'm a little radical on this. I think when public education doesn't do its job, public education perpetuates poverty and perpetuates social failure. And, when it does do its job, it really is the -- it opens the door of opportunity to the mainstream of America and to the middle class. And so, for me, it's a labor of love; it's a passion, and I think quality public education is the civil rights issue of our generation.

Ariel is how I got my start in public education. I ran John Rogers' nonprofit Ariel Foundation for about six years starting in 1992, and in 1995 we were young and dumb enough to think that we could create a great public school, and that was one of the first things the mayor did when he took control of the public schools in 1995, along with the previous CEO, Paul Vallas and the board chair Gery Chico. They issued an RFP, request for proposal, for groups that were interested in running new schools, new public schools. And myself and my sister and a small team of us, again, were young and naïve enough to think that we had a few ideas about how to create great education in the heart of the inner city, and we had applied and we were one of six groups chosen to open new schools. It has enabled us to do lots of things you couldn't just do as a public school here, because public education in Illinois is so desperately underfunded. So, whether it's a curriculum director, whether it's extensive after-school programming, whether it's a chance for our students to actually invest in real stocks and be part of this investment curriculum, which is this fascinating whole series of summer opportunities. Literally today we have almost 50 of the Ariel Academy students at a McDonald's board meeting with [inaudible], and it's just been a phenomenal partnership and it is exactly a model that we'd love to try and replicate and get other companies to step up and similarly invest and invest deeply and over the long haul with a school and really make a huge difference in those students' lives.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

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Video Credits

Interviewed by

  • Ken Ellis

Coordinating Producer

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland
  • Doug Keely

Camera Crew

  • Rob Weller
  • Bennett Spencer

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