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Former US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sits down for an interview with EqualEd, a new section from The Christian Science Monitor.

If we don't give kids mentors, the gang leaders will, former Education chief says

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Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke with the Monitor about mentoring, the effects of violence and poverty on childhood, and why the US doesn't seem to value its children as much as other countries.

Back home in Chicago after seven years as US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan says he's in a race against the violence and hopelessness gripping some of the neighborhoods where he played hoops as a kid.

His hometown is grappling with a surge in violent crime. Over the Labor Day weekend, Chicago surpassed 500 murders a year for the first time in two decades. Distrust of the police is also running high, after the shootings of unarmed black men and women, including teenager Laquan McDonald. 

One result is certain neighborhoods where, Mr. Duncan says, children cannot go outside to play.

“You think about kids literally being locked up, being imprisoned in their homes all day, every day. That's a staggering concept,” he says.

The education policies he oversaw in Washington, and before that, as CEO of Chicago’s public schools, contributed to narrowing achievement gaps, but also garnered their share of critique for a continued emphasis on standardized testing and what some felt was an overreach in promoting the Common Core standards. 

Mr. Duncan is now a managing partner at the Emerson Collective, founded by Laurene Powell Jobs to remove barriers to opportunity. He has been working to provide jobs to young people who may not believe they have a future, who “talk about 'if I grow up,' not 'when I grow up.' ” This summer, the collective also awarded peace grants to young people heading up innovative projects designed to reduce violence.

He spoke with the Monitor at his downtown Chicago office in August. The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

How important is mentoring in providing better opportunities for disadvantaged young people?

It's hugely important, not just for disadvantaged young people but for all people.

Our lives are changed through relationships. Yes, we need opportunities – educational opportunities, economic opportunities – but it's personal relationships that help us through good times and bad, that give us a sounding board. I don't think young people can make it without a positive adult –somebody. A parent, a coach, a teacher, a mentor, a tutor, somebody from a faith-based organization, someone from a nonprofit, someone who can be there for the long haul.

Are there forces you see at work that limit how much mentoring can accomplish?

This is time intensive. This is not one you can phone in. This is the ultimate of human interactions and relationships, and so I think the limits, if there are any, are not outside forces. It's self-imposed, and how much are we willing to to commit.

When you become a mentor, when you engage, yes, hopefully you are helping someone and making a difference, but I always think what you learn and what you gain is so much greater than what you give. And to be very very clear, specifically for disadvantaged youth, if folks in mainstream society aren't there, well then the gang leaders are, so it's not like there won't be a mentor. Trust me, there will be a mentor. It's just not one that we necessarily want. And far too often they are willing to commit more, they outwork us, they're more strategic than us. They know what kids are falling through the cracks. They are out there on street corners – rain, snow, sleet, shine. And unless we're willing to match that presence, we're going to lose kids that we should not lose. And that's not the kids' fault. That's us in the mainstream of society, through our actions, saying we don't quite believe in these kids enough, or we're not quite willing to make the effort. And when that's the case, as it often is, shame on us.

kindergartners listen to teacher Mary-Ann Rinaldi at the International Charter School on Sept. 8, in Pawtucket, R.I.
Alfredo Sosa/Staff | Caption

You recently said, “We value our children less than other nations do.” What kinds of improvements in education, and more broadly, would make a difference?

There’s been real progress that I'm very proud of. The fact that we were able to invest more than a billion dollars to increase access to high-quality preschool – that's a huge deal. The fact that high school graduation rates are at record highs for the nation. We’ve seen over the past couple years about 1.1 million additional students of color go on to college.

But the hard truth is that I do believe strongly that other nations do value their children more than we do.

There are literally millions of 3- and 4-year olds around the country whose parents want them to be ready to enter kindergarten and be successful academically and socially and emotionally, but we deny that opportunity. The fact that so many other nations are doing this and doing it at scale and we're not, that doesn't make any sense to me.

We don't allow undocumented students – DREAMers –  to have access to college, and in other nations, access to college is basically universal and is much, much cheaper. These young people have lived in the United States often from the time they were infants. They get great grades, they do community service, they’re leaders – and then we say, ‘You can't go to college.’ It's just a tragic loss of human potential.

The final one, a huge focus of my work right now in Chicago, is just the level of gun violence and the number of young people that we just allow to be killed by guns. What we see playing out here in Chicago on the south and west sides of the city is just horrific. I'm going to devote the next x number of years of my life to trying to keep kids safe and let them have a childhood and be able to play outside.

This simply doesn't happen in other countries. These are policy choices that other nations are making in very different ways. We lack the courage. Do we value, not some of our children, but do we value all of our children enough to make different public policy choices? As a nation right now, in my mind, tragically, we have lacked that political will that other nations have had.  

You spoke movingly at a church here, right before you left your tenure as Secretary of Education, about poverty and violence and the impact they have on young people’s hopes and lives. Are there hidden effects of poverty on learning that you think need to come to the surface more?

They're very evident effects. It's been documented that the average child coming from a poor community starts kindergarten a year to 16 months behind. We allow that to happen. Teachers and schools do an amazing job of trying to play catch up, but we don't always do that well, and I don't think that's fair to teachers, and I don't think it's fair to children and families.

In these neighborhoods that I'm so focused on now, you have a lot of kids who just simply can't go outside anymore. That's devastating. I spent all my life running around on the south and west sides playing on basketball courts all over. There wasn’t the randomness of violence, it wasn’t so pervasive. You think about kids literally being locked up, being imprisoned in their homes all day, every day. That's a staggering concept.

The other one that I’m thinking about a ton is the number of young men who just literally don't think they're going to live, who think they're going to die at 18 or 21. Everything that I preach is long term -- think about college and defer gratification and build a future. But if you really, really in your heart don't think you have a future, that changes everything about your calculations.  You're living for the day and for the moment ’cause you don't think you’re going to have tomorrow.

Young people today talk about "if I grow up," not "when I grow up." We have to give young people a sense of hope and opportunity, and that we will keep them safe so that they can think about the future.  

What kinds of solutions are you focused on?

For me it's how you create hope and opportunity, how do we create jobs, how do we create the mentoring and supports so young people feel they have a chance to make it and don't have to choose the path of the streets or the path of selling drugs. They watch what we do, and talk is a little bit cheap, frankly.  If we don't have great teachers and great educational opportunities, if we don't have meaningful summer jobs, then our words are empty.

We've funded through Emerson about 4,700 summer jobs for young people in the south and west sides of the city this year just because there were so many young people wanting to work.

How do you think adults can listen better to young people?

These young people are so smart and so committed and know what they want and need, and if we can do a lot more listening [and] acting upon what young people are telling us, I think they're going to lead us to where we need to go.

I met with one small lunchtime group, and one young man just stood out. You could see he was going places, and we talked about an hour. At the very, very end of the conversation, he then says that he's the youngest of eight, and he's got three older brothers, and every single one of them is locked up, he doesn't have much support at home, and he's trying to do something different. Despite all the odds, I think he's going to be the one to break through.  

There are  so many young people like that who are facing stuff that you and I might find unimaginable. He talked about how much this opportunity to work this summer meant to him.  That's got to be the norm. We have to be there to listen and to engage.

During this recent era that put a lot of emphasis on standardized testing, some have criticized certain urban school settings for discouraging self-expression, for narrowing the curriculum and putting up metal detectors, and prompting students to feel like they are in prison. Are you seeing a shift now to try to empower students more in communities struggling with violence?

I see lots of things that give me hope. I see many more peer juries. I see much more restorative justice. We pushed very hard to move away from zero-tolerance discipline policies. If a kid is struggling, don't kick him out of school, keep him in school. We have to dig underneath that to get at the root cause.

When I was leading the Chicago public schools, one of arguably the most violent neighborhoods was North Lawndale. There was a fantastic charter high school there where we were funding about nine security guards --  that's what we did in many of these neighborhoods – and they asked, rather than having nine security guards could they have nine social workers. It was a brilliant thought. And they saw a precipitous decline in violence in their school. One of those social workers was not just working with the young people while they we're in high school, but actually staying with kids that first year of college.

There are folks who are thinking very hard, not in an abstract way but in the heart of these urban war zones, trying to find different ways to listen to students, to meet not just their academic needs but their social and emotional needs. That's when good things happen.