Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Speaks at Smith

Photo courtesy of Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP via | Arne Duncan spoke at Smith on Sept. 21 about his term as U.S. Secretary of Education and the current debate on charter schools in Mass.

Molly McGuire ’18 Staff Writer

On Sept. 21, students, faculty and members of the community filled Weinstein Auditorium in order to hear the Presidential Colloquium given by former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The lecture was titled “What I’ve Learned From Children,” and provided an overview of Duncan’s long career in education.

The talk was given in celebration of the new Jandon Center for Community Engagement, which allows students, faculty and community organizations to work together to improve education within the community outside of Smith. This event also served as the inaugural Jane Grossman Cecil ’50 Memorial Lecture, which was implemented in order to bring leaders in urban education to Smith.

Smith President Kathleen McCartney introduced Arne Duncan to the audience. McCartney explained that Duncan’s mother, Sue Duncan, was a 1956 graduate of Smith, as well as a huge influence on Duncan’s passion for education. “She ran the Sue Duncan children’s center, an after-school tutoring program serving mostly poor, African-American students on the South Side of Chicago from 1961 to 2011. And what’s more remarkable is that her children worked alongside her day in and day out,” she said.

President Obama appointed Duncan as the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2009, after he had served for eight years as the superintendent of Chicago Public Schools. Focusing on early childhood education, Duncan expanded the role of the federal government in American schools and worked to set higher standards for academics and teachers.

Duncan described his career in the Chicago Public Schools. “We were able to double the numbers of taking and passing AP classes over a four-year period,” he said, exemplifying the success he had in this position.

“I did that for seven and a half years, and then a sort of crazy thing happened. My friend became president,” he said, describing President Obama’s election in 2008.

Duncan then discussed his time as the Education Secretary. He was “thrilled that graduation rates have climbed to all-time highs. Drop-out rates have been down pretty significantly. Over time, Latino drop-out rates have been cut in half, from 28 percent to 14 percent ... We’re able to see about 1.1 million additional students of color going on to college.”

Duncan now works at the education non-profit group the Emerson Collective. When he returned to Chicago after his time working for President Obama, he was shocked at the increase of violence in the city while he was away. “All I’m focused on now is trying to get guys to stop shooting each other,” he said.

He ended his 30-minute lecture by telling the audience, “Don’t ever lose heart. Don’t ever think something’s not possible. If you get out and listen and learn and pay attention to what kids and principals and teachers are doing, it’s absolutely extraordinary.” After this, a 30 minute Q&A session was held.

The talk also drew around 20 protesters from the grassroots organization Save Our Public Schools. This group opposes Question Two on this year’s Massachusetts ballot, which would allow up to 12 new charter schools to open annually, if passed. The group quietly held signs in the back of the auditorium, which read “Save our public schools,” “Vote No on 2,” and “Students are not a cash crop.”

The debate over public and charter schools was also mentioned in the Q&A session that followed. One student asked Duncan, “One of the things that I heard you mention was that big changes have to happen from the inside … So I’m wondering where this idea of change happening from the inside fits into your idea of charter schools?”

Duncan responded by saying, “I’m very agnostic, I’m very pragmatic. I just think we need more good schools in America. So there’s nothing about the name ‘charter’ that tells me anything about quality … I just think we need more good schools for kids particularly in under-served neighborhoods.”

“Fighting about who is delivering quality education, to me, misses the point,” he also said.

Duncan was one of the longest serving U.S. Education Secretaries, and many argue that during his term he was also one of the most influential.