Ed. Secretary Arne Duncan: Achievement gap is “morally unacceptable”

By Hamid Bendaas

The day after Obama returned to Chicago to cast his ballot, U.S. Secretary of Education and Hyde Park native Arne Duncan came back to speak with students about their role in the future of education in America last Friday evening in the Quadrangle Club.

Duncan spoke before an audience comprised of students in UChicago Careers in Education Professions (UCIEP), the Neighborhood Schools Program, and the Institute of Politics.

Calling the current state of education “morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable,” Duncan noted that more than one million students drop out of high school every year in the United States.

“We are so far from mission accomplished,” he said.

Duncan first witnessed the dismal state of education while still in grade school. Although he attended the Lab Schools, his mother ran a children’s center in Kenwood. Through the center, he befriended many students from the neighborhood public schools, some of which saw the majority of students drop out.

The differences he saw in opportunity and expectation for his Lab School classmates versus his Kenwood friends has stuck with him. “I worry about kids and entire communities stuck in perpetual poverty,” he said. “Here we go from world class to third world and that gap is what is unacceptable to me.”

His “Race to the Top” initiative aims to close that gap. Major tenets of the program include implementing national “Common Core” subject standards, promoting the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, and supporting an increase in charter schools. It has drawn the ire of teachers’ unions, among others.

Duncan also briefly noted the Obama administration’s work in sending billions in grant dollars to low-performing schools, increasing funding for federal grants like the Pell Grant, and investing in early childhood education, which he called “the best investment we could make.”

Most of the talk, however, was spent looking toward the future. “If we’re serious about closing the achievement gaps, we’ve got to close the opportunity gaps,” Duncan said. “We just need a lot more talent at every level” he said, stressing the need for “more people from schools like the University of Chicago rolling up their sleeves and making an impact.”

In response to a question from Eric Reyes, a third-year in UCIEP, on how to avoid cynicism and disillusionment when it feels like “the world is against you,” Duncan credited students like the ones he befriended from his mother’s children’s center, or those he mentored upon returning to Chicago in his young adulthood. He said the resiliency of students who stay determined when the odds are stacked against them keeps him inspired.