How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education by Arne Duncan, Simon & Schuster, US $26.95, Pp 244, August 2018, ISBN 978-1501173059
We very often say or hear that there is something wrong with the American educational system. But few among us can really articulate what is wrong with education and how we can revamp the system. In How Schools Work, Arne Duncan hits the nail on the head when he opens his book with the mind-numbing sentence, “[American] Education runs on lies.” This is surprising, if not shocking, coming from one of the longest-serving secretaries of education. But he insists that this is the bitter truth. Arne Duncan writes, “How schools work best is often by confronting and fighting these lies, but this is exhausting and sometimes perilous work usually undertaken by an isolated teacher or principal. So, the lies persist. They are as emblematic of our school system as an apple left on the corner of a favorite teacher’s desk. But, unlike the apple, the lies aren’t sweet. They are overripe and rotten.”
Arne Duncan draws on three decades in education — from his mother’s after-school program to his tenure as Secretary of Education under President Obama — to give a truthful exposé of our broken education system. Duncan provides a deep analysis of why American kids are falling behind their peers in the developed world. Duncan says that these lies are not intended to make children’s lives worse, or to demoralize parents, or to make America less competitive or less intelligent. He argues that more often than not they exist to protect resources, or to safeguard jobs, or to control what kids were taught and how or whether they are tested on what they knew. Nearly all of the lies had to do with money and where power was concentrated, not with education. This is not a new phenomenon. This has been the case for a long time.
Duncan suggests that we should talk to each other more so that we can set goals at all levels of government. Currently, we don’t have any goals. He says that this is a failure of American leadership. We should debate about what these goals should be. In Duncan’s opinion, we should have at least four objectives. The first should be to provide access to high-quality public pre-K to all American children. The second should be to continue to make progress on high school graduation rates, hitting 90 percent nationwide in the next five years. The third should be to ensure that 100 percent of high school graduates are college- and career-ready. And the last should be that we commit once again to leading the world in college graduation rates. He writes, “If we can come together to meet these goals, this could also be a source of inspiration, regardless of which party you support.”
Politicians at all levels — from local school boards to mayors to governors to members of Congress and all the way to the White House — must be held accountable for improving educational outcomes. The presidential candidates are hardly ever asked questions about education, even though it is a critical component of our national and economic security. Ensuring that we have a strong education system is the only way to build a strong and vibrant middle class, and it is vital to a healthy and functioning democracy. Our public schools should not be so easy to forget and not care about. If we continue to not care or to allow our leaders to lure us into political fights that lead nowhere, then our schools will continue to suffer. He expresses the hope that the next time each of us steps into the voting booth, we think of education. It isn’t only the future of our children that’s at stake. It is the future of our country.
Arne Duncan has a long history of making efforts to fix America’s education. How Schools Work is as insightful as it is inspiring. In How Schools Work, he shares new incisive insights and perspectives on what ails our schools. Unfortunately, our schools are not where they should be on our list of national priorities. He points out that the presidential candidates are rarely asked questions about their vision of education and what they plan to improve our education. The book is peppered with moving anecdotes of his experiences with the families of students killed by gun violence. It is as much an indictment of our school system as it is an impassioned appeal for school reforms. This is a book every American must read.