Arne Duncan didn’t mince words in his final speech as Education secretary.
“Congress is disobeying the will of the American public“ in wanting protections for America’s children from gun violence, he said. But he also called on communities and the nation to do more to bring hope and opportunity to every student in America, and outlined four areas requiring long-term vision.
Speaking Wednesday in the basement of Saint Sabina Church in his hometown of Chicago, one day before stepping down as U.S. Secretary of Education, Duncan alluded to the progress that the country has made in education. He noted, among other indicators, that students are graduating from high school at a higher rate than ever before.
But he cited two numbers that stood out to him most during his time as Education secretary: “16,000 — that’s the number of young people killed in our country” during his first six years in the job. “It’s a devastating number,” and one that’s likely to surpass 18,000 by the end of this year, he said.
The other number is 5 million — the number of students “who walked away from our high schools” over that period. Though the latest available figures show the number of high school dropouts has dropped 27 percent since 2008, when President Obama took office, more must be done, he said.
“These two populations — those we’ve lost, and those we’re loosing — are connected,” he said, pointing to the need for greater commitment to social and economic support for the nation’s children.
He chided Congress for its unwillingness to tackle the public’s concerns over gun violence. “There’s not a greater disconnect in public policy … in what American’s wants and what Congress has actually done,” he said.
But he also said that communities and the nation must do more to fix the underlying causes that lead to violence, underscoring the need to rebuild trust between police forces and the public in many cities, calling for a greater national commitment to truth and transparency.
Duncan urged the nation to strike a “new deal” for kids, outlining four areas where greater national and local commitment could make a difference:
First, he urged greater support for early childhood education. Children in poor communities, including those plagued by violence, tend to start school 14 to 16 months later than the national average, he said, calling for programs to help prepare kids as young as 3 for the rigors of early schooling.
Second, he stressed that the needs of teachers and counselors in poorer communities are “very different than on Gold Coast” of Chicago, and communities like it. He praised school systems like Charlotte-Mecklenburg for identifying their best talent, putting them where more help was needed, and for addressing needs in new ways. Additionally, he said suspending troubled kids from schools does little to break a cycle of social “disconnectedness.” He suggested, “If we stop locking up 50 percent of our non-violent offenders” in the U.S., “that would free up $15 billion,” that could be put to better use supporting teachers and social workers, he said.
Third, Duncan insisted, “every kid needs a mentor and role model,” and that more of them are needed. He recalled personal experiences from his days working in Chicago, noting that relationships and intervention can make a big difference in countering destructive behavior.
Lastly, Duncan said more must be done to create jobs. He cited examples like Southwire, a factory in Carrollton, Georgia, that puts troubled teens to work as a way to help them stay in school. “This isn’t philanthropy,” he said of the initiative. “They’re making a profit.”
Duncan, who has been one of the nation’s longest-serving, and most influential Education secretaries, emphasized there are many successful pilot programs already proving these ideas can work. “What we don’t have anywhere is scale,” he said.
“What we need in Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland and so many urban centers … isn’t [the educational equivalent] of the next cure for cancer — it’s do we have the will, the courage, and the ability to think at scale, comprehensively, and for the long term,” he said.