Arne Duncan, the former education secretary under President Barack Obama, has always been more candid than others who’ve served in that role. He’s often used his platform to talk about what he sees as the persistent socioeconomic and racial disparities in access to quality schools. His new book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, further cements that reputation. How Schools Work’s first chapter is titled “Lies, Lies Everywhere.” The first sentence: “Education runs on lies.” If one were to create a word cloud of the book, lies would probably pop out as one of the most frequently used words. Duncan writes that even the countless fantastic schools across the country “haven’t managed to defeat the lies that undermine our system so much as they’ve been able to circumvent them.” These lies, according to Duncan, include a culture of setting low expectations for high schoolers who later discover they’re not prepared for the real world, and poorly designed accountability systems that allow teachers to fudge their students’ test-score results.
Duncan started his education career in Chicago as a tutor, mentor, and researcher at his mother’s after-school program for low-income, black youth on the city’s South Side, and eventually became the head of the city’s massive public-school system. He occupied that role for nearly eight years until 2009, when then-President Obama—whom he’d met through mutual friends years prior—tapped him as the country’s education secretary, bringing him to Washington, D.C., where he’d spend another seven years as one of the president’s longest-serving cabinet members. In 2015, Duncan, holding back tears, announced that he was resigning, marking the end of his leadership at the U.S. Education Department, a tenure marked by demanding reform initiatives—such as efforts to tie teacher pay to test scores, which took an immense toll on educators’ morale and garnered a lot of criticism. Hungry to spend more time with his family, Duncan returned to where it all started—Chicago’s South Side—and he’ll likely finish his education career there: Today, he’s at the helm of an anti-violence initiative called Chicago CRED that provides job training and positions to Chicago’s unemployed, out-of-school black men. (The CRED initiative was created in 2016 by the Emerson Collective, which now owns a majority stake in The Atlantic and at which Duncan is a managing partner.)