Former Education Secretary Says Reducing Violence Will Help Students Learn, Grow

Arne Duncan talked about the ways that violence is widening the learning gap

Before Arne Duncan served as the Secretary of Education under President Obama, he spent seven years trying to improve Chicago’s schools as CEO of the country’s third-largest school district.

One of the city’s most pressing challenges was curbing the gun violence that many of Chicago’s students experience on a daily basis. It’s one of Duncan’s focuses in his new role as managing partner at the Emerson Collective, a nonprofit organization that promotes social justice initiatives.

During a recent episode of KERA’s Think, he talked about the ways that violence in cities like Chicago are widening the learning gap.

Interview Highlights

On the violence Chicago students face

What I’m doing full time now is working to reduce the violence here in Chicago. We’re working with the young men most likely to shoot and be shot, trying to give them a pathway from the illegal economy — which almost inevitably leads to violence — to the legal economy.

We work with guys for about a year. We hire them. We have life coaches for them. We work on the trauma that they’ve dealt with all their life. We’ve seen some extraordinary transformations. I’m actually hopeful that our young men are actually going to lead our city where it needs to go.

On the role of guns

The Sandy Hook massacre happened. That was the worst day of President Obama’s presidency. That was my worst day. We never imagined in our worst nightmares 20 babies, 5 teachers and a principal being killed. Subsequent to that, we got nothing done in terms of legislation.

For me, the worst lie is that we all say we value our children. In fact, I would argue we don’t. I would argue we value our guns more than our children.

On giving students more time in school

Historically, time has been the constant in education. I would argue that should be the variable. Different students need different times in school. For some children, six or seven hours a day is plenty. Some kids might need eight, 10 or 12 hours. There were tens of thousands of kids in Chicago where we fed them three meals a day — breakfast, lunch and dinner — because we worried they’d be hungry going home at night.

On ensuring students are tech-savvy

Make sure all young people are growing up fluent in the new world that they’re being raised in. I would say technology can be a great equalizer, but if it’s only going to the haves and not the have-nots, then it exacerbates that divide we’re fighting so hard to challenge.

Interview responses have been edited for clarity.

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