Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, led a panel discussion on the state of public education in America during a lunch session at the Council on Foundations’ conference I attended in Charlotte last year. He cleared up a few matters of social ignorance in his short presentation. Needless to say, I was impressed, while at the same time, becoming aware of my social ignorance about our public school system.
I didn’t know that there are hundreds of high-performing schools in densely impoverished districts. I had assumed that poverty dictated low performance. You’re a product of your environment, right? I used to think that children could not excel in a school where the buildings were decrepit, the neighborhood dangerous, and the teachers feeling hopeless. Not true. Hundreds of schools in our country’s worst pools of poverty are in the top percentage of performance standards.
Duncan said that a failure to educate is what perpetuates poverty. Education is the great equalizer. Poverty does not have to be a destiny. He went on to say, “Poor quality education will never build strong sustainable communities.”
Secretary Duncan gave an experience of a school in Philadelphia that had been considered one of the worst. Graduation rates were the lowest in the state, fights broke out daily, and the environment was deplorable.
I need to pause here to tell you about Arne Duncan’s background so you can appreciate what he accomplished with the school in Philadelphia. He has the distinction of being the one school superintendent in America that served the longest continual term – a little over five years, (the average is two years). This was in Chicago. When he started, the school system was at the bottom of the ranks. He brought them out of the basement. Today, five of the top ten performing schools in Illinois are in Chicago.
Back to Philadelphia. As in Chicago, Duncan gave his full attention to Philadelphia’s plight. In less than two years, the school’s graduate rate had risen to 85%, far above the national average of 75% and double for African American students. The environment had changed from hopeless to hopeful. All the fighting stopped. While walking through the halls one day, Duncan asked a student why the fights weren’t happening anymore. The student replied, “Now we’re not expected to fight.”
There are lots of ways to measure the success of a school. In recent years, test scores have become the sole measuring stick. I have a question: on what test would you find the answer, “Now we’re not expected to fight?”