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Arne Duncan, Priscilla Chan Discuss Next Steps for K-12 Education

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Burlingame. Calif. 

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been out of office for months and is now working for the Emerson Collective, a philanthropic and advocacy organization. But on Wednesday, he sat down for an exit interview at the NewSchools Venture Summit here, with Jim Shelton, his former deputy. (Shelton was recently tapped to lead the education work at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropy funded largely by the couple's Facebook shares. More on what they're up to these days below.)

Shelton started with an easy question: What is Duncan most proud of his over his seven-year tenure as secretary?

Duncan ticked off three things: pouring $1 billion into early childhood education, an all-time high graduation rate (fact check on administration's role in making that happen here), and increasing Pell Grants. Not on the list: The two K-12 initiatives he's best known for, the $4 billion into Race to the Top initiative and the $3 billion School Improvement Grant, both of which have yielded mixed results so far.

Shelton also wanted to know what Duncan sees as his three biggest failures.

Duncan ticked off one he's mentioned a number of times before—not being able to get Congress to go along with an even bigger investment on early childhood education. The fact that so many of our children enter kindergarten behind means "we're just setting our kids up for failure from the start," he said.  

He also mentioned that the Obama administration failed to get immigration overhaul done and, therefore, didn't give immigrant kids a path to citizenship. "We could not get our Republican friends to back that," he said.

And he brought up another missed opportunity, the failure to get meaningful gun control legislation done: "In our worst nightmare we never imagined we'd have 20 babies killed and five teachers and a principal."

Not on Duncan's list of failures? Two things that many other folks would probably cite: requiring states that wanted flexibility from the mandates of No Child Left Behind to tie teacher evaluations to test scores at the same time that assessments and standards were changing, and hugging the Common Core State Standards so tight that they became politicized.

Duncan had some other—pretty powerful—thoughts on the gun violence issue.

"What I always thought is that people didn't care about black and brown kids and that it would take white kids" getting hurt to force change. But Sandy Hook didn't change that, he said.

And he had some thoughts on education's place in the American political system more generally.

"Our nation is struggling right now, this is not a shining moment for American Democracy," he said. "If we did a better job educating all kids our nation would be a lot stronger now. Our economy would be a lot stronger. So this is more than doing the right thing for the black community, the Latino community, although that's desperately important, desperately urgent. Our nation is struggling now and I worry going forward if we don't take this on and take this on at scale we're not going to be able to rise as a nation." 

Watch part of the interview here:


New Schools Venture Fund Summit 2016 Highlight: Arne Duncan from NewSchools Venture Fund on Vimeo.

Priscilla Chan Talks Philanthropy

Before Duncan and Shelton spoke, Priscilla Chan, who with her husband, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, launched the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, chatted with Stacey Childress, the chief executive officer of the NewSchools Venture Fund. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which is a separate entity from Facebook, is involved in education and other issues. 

Chan, a pediatrician by day, talked about her own background, growing up in Quincy, the "Good Will Hunting" section of Boston. Her parents, she said, didn't go to college, she applied to Harvard University not because she thought it would be a good fit, but because it was a school nearby, that she had heard of. She credits her teachers—including her robotics coach—with helping her figure out how to navigate the path to college.

"I know that showing up there freshman year changed my life," she said. "I got there because of a lot of luck. ... We want to take the luck out of that experience" and make sure every student has the opportunity to take advantage of college, she added. 

Chan said she and her husband—who have bet big on personalized learning and meeting the needs of disadvantaged kids—learned from their experience in education philanthropy in Newark. (The couple poured $100 million into the troubled district, with mixed results.)

"We've seen that this work is a very long-term investment," she said. Some of the investments the couple made in the district, she said, seem only now to be paying off. And they learned the "power of listening to the community and getting a sense of what families are asking for, what teachers are asking for." (Zuckerberg had a similar take in this interview with my colleague, Ben Herold.)

In fact, Chan got teary-eyed as she talked about a school the couple has started from scratch, the Primary School, which seeks to pair education and healthy services, and was inspired by one of her patients. K-12 education and health, she said, need to go hand-in-hand. 


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