ROCKVILLE – Children living in poor neighborhoods are not receiving the same education as those in wealthier districts, former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said during a dialogue March 5 at Montgomery College in Rockville.
Duncan placed the blame for the inferior education on the federal government, which allocates fewer dollars to poorer districts; underpaid teachers; a lack of afterschool programs and the social baggage many students bring to class every day.
“My honest opinion, for too many of us in America, we care about our own children. We care less about our neighbors’ kids,” he told an auditorium filled mostly with current educators and students hoping to become teachers in the future.
“Many of you probably live in Montgomery County because you have a pretty good tax base. You have good schools,” he said, adding that is not the case in many other places.
For about an hour, Montgomery College President DeRionne P. Pollard peppered Duncan with questions about how to ensure that every child receives the same opportunities, regardless of where they live or how much money their families have. Both Pollard and Duncan grew up in Chicago and watched the city struggle with gun violence, drugs and other social problems.
According to Duncan, Chicago is seven-and-a-half times more violent than New York City, and the vast majority of homicides are never solved. If more of the victims were white people, “We would have a very different sense of urgency,” he said.
“I started to lose friends to gun violence when I was 15,” said the 54-year-old Duncan, who spent more than seven years as head of the Chicago school system before becoming former President Barack Obama’s secretary of education. He currently is a managing partner at Emerson Collective, a social change organization.
Duncan said society must help young people before they become drug and gun statistics. Pre-kindergarten education is vital, he said. When children have little family and school support, they may turn to selling drugs or becoming a lookout for police to make money. In the drug world, all are given a couch to sleep on and love, Duncan said.
They go down that road, “because there is no other choice,” he said.
Children need at least one good teacher to change their downward spiral, yet in all the schools he has visited, “not one district matches their best teachers with their poorest students,” Duncan noted.
“We lack the courage” to point out our best teachers and principals, because that would identify those who aren’t the best, he said.
Too often, young people graduate high school without the skills and knowledge to succeed, either in college or at a job, Duncan said.
According to Pollard, about 60 percent of Montgomery College students must take remedial math courses, and 30 percent take them for reading and writing skills.
Another problem, Duncan said, is that Americans “don’t truly believe that black and brown kids can be successful.” The answer is to raise teachers’ salaries and make sure only the best educators are hired, he said.
Throwing facts at students and asking them to memorize them for tests is not the solution, Duncan said. Students today can Google anything they need to know, but the internet cannot teach them how to think critically.
Still, he said, closing the education gap doesn’t rest solely with educators.
“Change will come when parents demand it,” he said, noting that the best way to speed up this process is to show parents in the poorer districts what the school day is like for students in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, whose schools, he said, sometimes are only one mile away from their district.
“Our country, I think, is absolutely divided by educational opportunities,” Duncan said, adding, “Education should be the great equalizer.”