Brad Keywell

Building a Bucket List of Consequence: My Conversation with Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

A few months ago I sat down with Arne Duncan for a conversation on The Upside. He’s well-known as the former Secretary of Education under President Obama, and as a pragmatic leader who spent his career pushing for innovation and positive change for students - a sometimes daunting task.

As President Obama said about him, “Arne has done more to bring our educational system - sometimes kicking and screaming - into the 21st century than anybody else.” 

Arne is and always will be a passionate educator and advocate. But he has a new goal: he’s back in Chicago (his hometown) and he’s laser focused on reducing gun violence here in the city.

During our conversation we spoke about Chicago CRED, the organization that Arne founded and now leads - CRED is a part of the Emerson Collective, a social impact organization founded and run by Laurene Powell Jobs. CRED operates on a single core belief: that jobs can stop bullets. 2016 was the deadliest year in Chicago in nearly two decades, with more than 764 murders and 4000 shooting victims, and in 2017 more than 600 people were killed. The perpetrators of gun violence are predominantly African-American men between the ages of 15-24. CRED partners with the local community and leadership, investing in job growth and entrepreneurship. Because the data shows that when young men have a chance in the real economy - not the illegal economy - and are encouraged to follow their drive, they will flourish. With the national conversation right now focused on gun violence, it was a unique and poignant opportunity for me to dig into the perspective of someone who has dedicated their work to finding a solution.

Arne said to me, “At one high school in Chicago last year, 17 kids were shot...These kids, they are just literally trying to survive day-to-day. It’s hard to think long term if you aren’t sure if you’re going to live.” 

Our conversation ranged from his current work with CRED to his launch of the College Scorecard at the Department of Education. The College Scorecard aggregates and provides reliable data on graduation rates and college tuition, so that every kid in America can make the choice of “Where should I go to college?” based on where they would be most successful. We had a great riff about the work that is doing to provide first-generation college applicants with a portfolio of schools that give them the best chance of admission and graduation.

I came away with an even deeper (if it was possible!) respect for the work that Arne has done throughout his career, his passion for giving all kids a fair shot, and his disruptive perspective on the solutions that will fix a broken system. A few of my favorite takeaways are below:

My bias is always on pattern recognition - looking backwards and applying those patterns when I look forward. I asked Arne about the patterns that he has found most frustrating in his life and what has driven him in his career, and he told an incredible story. In the 60s his mother started and ran an after school program in Hyde Park, and Arne and his siblings grew up with other kids. And the other kids were all African American and from a different socioeconomic background than Arne and his family. The kids were smart and dedicated and just didn’t have the same exposure to opportunity as say, a kid growing up in Lincoln Park. What Arne learned? “Talent is much more evenly spread than opportunity.” And so he has spent his life trying to democratize opportunity for kids.

I believe, as does Arne, that our current education system is outdated. The system is built for an agrarian economy, with a 1:many, teacher:student ratio. Flipping the classroom structure and leveraging technology in the classroom will only work if someone pushes on the system. Arne believes that the only way to change the system is “from the outside in” - business leaders, students and parents demanding more and demanding that we evolve. “Left to its own devices there is not enough push, there is not enough willpower, not enough courage - there is too much pushback from the left to the right ...for this to be healed from the inside, at the speed this needs to happen. My hope is for disruption from the outside.”

As Arne and I dug into his work with Chicago CRED, I asked him for a story of what success (or failure) looks like to him on a day-to-day basis. They have a young man who just started working in downtown Chicago, making 45K a year, who was a huge part of the problem in his own community just a year ago - gun violence and more. How did he get out - what was step one? Arne says, “These are good kids who never had a chance. People say, it’s so nice you’re giving them a second chance. It’s actually a first chance. The vast majority of our guys didn’t have a mom, didn’t have a dad, raising themselves, and basically the streets raised them.”

And in response to my question, what’s at the top of your bucket list? Arne calmly replied, with no hesitation: “Reduce the homicide rate in Chicago by 80%.”

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© Brad Keywell 2021