Shooting for the Highest Office: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

This past Friday night, Eric and I had the opportunity to meet U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a brief Q & A session with students involved in the educational field at the Quadrangle Club at the University of Chicago.

I didn’t realize how much Secretary Duncan was historically connected with Chicago. He was born in the city, and attended the University of Chicago Lab School all throughout K-12 before pursuing work in education, including starting up a school of his own and serving as the Chicago Public Schools CEO for seven years. His father was Professor of Psychology here at the University, and his sister currently works at the School of Social Service Administration. Clearly the educational genes run in the family.

He’s also super tall. He played professional basketball in Australia for a bit before a mentor convinced him to return to the educational field in the states.

Secretary Duncan spent a few minutes to talk about his journey into the educational field, and then opened up the floor to questions. Eric was the first to ask his question:

One thing that I am worried about is losing my passion for changing the state of education.  As a college student, I have a lot of it.  But as I enter the field I know that I will face realities that may make me disillusioned with making a difference.  My question is: have you ever had a moment where you felt the world was against you?  If so, how did you deal with it and do you have any regrets with how you dealt with it?

The response was reassuring. He answered that there were many children facing much more difficult challenges than us.  In addition to financial issues, they must cope with dysfunctional family situations, gang activity, etc.  Students still striving to get an education in spite of their obstacles inspired the Secretary.  Whenever he feels that he is facing a difficult challenge, he remembers who and what he is working for. It is those children that give him the reason to “shoot for the highest office” and try to make a difference.  With that always in mind, he always finds the strength to keep pushing.

Early childhood education, special education, focusing on the positive progress rather than the negative setbacks of educational reform – the engaged audience asked question after question of educational concerns, reflecting the reality that there is no magic bullet to solving a plethora of educational issues.

One individual asked Secretary Duncan to speak on the differences between teaching and educational policy. Especially in the current educational climate, it always seems as if there is a divide between those who approach education from a policy standpoint, and those who approach it from a teaching perspective.  Secretary Duncan stated that he is working to bridge that gap, while acknowledging that there are clear differences between each approach. He misses that personal interaction experienced within a local setting: as a teacher or principal, you enjoy the opportunity to face the people whose lives you affect every day. In policy, that interaction simply isn’t possible all the time. You need to work for 400 thousand, or 400 million students, and not just a classroom of 20 children.

After closing statements, the meeting ended, and people began to disperse out of the Quadrangle Club. I approached Secretary Duncan to ask him about advice he could give us about our school, especially considering that he had undertaken such a project himself.  Again, he gave us reassurance and motivation to continue to pursue our dream.  I also mentioned that our school would revolve around a concept of mentorship, where each child would be given a mentor who would guide the student throughout their K-12 career and beyond. This point seemed to stick with him, since having mentors had played a large role in his life. The concept of mentorship has always been around, but officially integrating mentorship into a school was something that he hadn’t seen yet.

He also gave us an important piece of advice: don’t be afraid of borrowing and learning from other pre-existing curricula. There have been so many efforts to improve education, and there’s no reason to have to reinvent the wheel.


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