Steven LEVITT: My guest today, Arne Duncan, has played professional basketball, ran the Chicago public schools for over seven years, and was a U.S. Secretary of Education under Barack Obama. I suspect you’ll be surprised to hear though, where you’ll find him these days. He’s on the streets of Chicago running an organization called C.R.E.D. that’s giving young men who everyone else has given up on the chance to build meaningful lives.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: I’ve known Arne — and admired him — for 20 years now. We first met under difficult circumstances when I discovered there was widespread teacher cheating in the Chicago public schools where Arne was in charge. More recently, the last three years, totally by chance, Arne has been my next-door neighbor. So compared to my typical interview, I have a much better sense of where things might head. But I do think Arne is in for some surprises because I have a couple stories about him that I’ve never told before. And I can’t wait to hear his reactions.
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Steve LEVITT: So, you were Secretary of Education under Barack Obama, and after you left that job, you wrote a memoir entitled How Schools Work and the first line of that book is, “Education runs on lies.” And I cannot imagine a Secretary of Education, other than you, ever saying something like that publicly. What did you mean by that?
Arne DUNCAN: Well, I always try and listen to what people say, Steve, but I always watch what they do. And when there’s a disconnect between what I hear and what I see, what I witness, that’s disconcerting. We all say we value education, but if you look at where we are in the United States relative to other nations — I always break it down, early childhood, K to 12, higher education. We’re top 10 in nothing. So, as much as we would say we value education, and care about it — we don’t invest, we don’t innovate, we don’t hold ourselves accountable. A second example, related, obviously, is that we all would say, we care about teachers. If you surveyed the American public, 99 percent of us would say teachers are really important, but we don’t value them as professionals, we don’t train them as professionals, we don’t compensate them as professionals. And it’s not fair, either to our teachers or to our students. And then a third one, which is a tougher one, is that everybody — everybody would say that we value our children, but we tolerate a level of gun deaths in our country that simply doesn’t happen in other nations. And I hate to say this, it breaks my heart, but I truly believe we value our guns here in the United States more than we value our children. And there’s just a loss of life and a level of living with fear and trauma that our children here in Chicago, in the South and West sides, and, unfortunately around the country, live with that simply doesn’t happen to children in other nations.
LEVITT: So, I know you had a really unique upbringing because your mom, Sue, ran an after school program here in Chicago called the Sue Duncan Children’s Center. Could you just talk a little bit about how you spent your afternoons as a consequence of her job when you were growing up as a kid?
DUNCAN: Yeah. So, we grew up about two blocks from where you and I live now. So I haven’t escaped too far and very intentionally stayed in the neighborhood. My dad was a professor at the University of Chicago for about 40 years in psychology and my mother ran an afterschool program. She started it in 1961, literally, like 12 blocks from our house at 46th and Greenwood. And in those days, 47th Street was the invisible barrier between middle-class integrated, and all-Black, all poor. So her program was like, just a block on the other side of that. I had my friends during the school day at Lab School, then I had my after-school friends, and just seeing the inequities in opportunity that my friends in the afternoon were as smart, as talented, as hardworking, as resilient as my friends during the school day but just wildly fewer set of opportunities, whether it’s educationally, whether in terms of safety, whatever it might be. And just the fundamental unfairness — people talk about different Zip codes. It’s, basically, the same Zip code.
DUNCAN: It’s a mile and a half. But just a different world. And that’s been the driving force in my life is trying to create opportunities, whether it’s here or in Appalachia, on Native American reservations, wherever it might be, just trying to take opportunity to where the talent is. And I always say, “Talent is evenly distributed. Opportunity’s not.” And that’s what she devoted her life to and my sister, brother, and I have all tried to follow in her footsteps in various ways. You can’t unsee or can’t unfeel something that’s such a critical part of you for all your years until you went away to college.
LEVITT: So, I know your mom’s program, that neighborhood’s all African American, and you and your brother and your sister were the three white kids there. I’m just curious. What did the kids in her program think of you? You’re this rail-thin, six-foot-five white kid who’s better than them at basketball. What do they make of you?
DUNCAN: Well, I was a late bloomer, so I was five-three as a freshman in high school. She had everyone work in age-group cohorts, and I was part of a group where I was the youngest, and the smallest, and by far the worst basketball player. But growing up, having to learn how to compete, trying to learn to be a good teammate, real competitive games. If you lost, you had to sit out for a long time, so you had to find ways to win. When I finally grew and got a little bigger, that was helpful. But, I think my identity was very much formed when I was small and slow and scrawny, and trying to just have to be as scrappy as you could to compete and to win and to stay on the court.
LEVITT: Now, you were an Academic All-American basketball player at Harvard, and you graduated magna cum laude, which is not easy to do. You played professional basketball in Australia for a handful of years and then you came back to Chicago in 1992 in your late twenties. And you began working with the Ariel Foundation on the I Have a Dream program — I think people know that program pretty well, that it takes a seventh-grade class, and tries to do whatever it can to have that class succeed and then pay for their college. So, tell me about your time in that program.
DUNCAN: I’ll just give you a little background on it — I had played for four years there in Australia and I loved it. You make good money, it’s a great living — it’s a very seductive lifestyle. I met my wife, Karen there. But all those opportunities I’ve had — I just felt I owed this city so much. And so, I was looking for an opportunity to come home. And John Rogers, who runs Ariel Capital and has been my best friend and mentor since I was about 10-years-old, he was starting to be successful in his money management business, and rather than buying a second house or a fancy car, a boat or whatever, he wanted to set up a foundation and give back to the community, and he just knew of our family’s involvement in the neighborhoods.
And so, he hired my sister and I — Sarah — to come back and set up the I Have a Dream program. Had he not given me that opportunity, I think it’s extraordinarily likely that I would still be living in Australia. And all this stuff is very personal. My mother had done an amazing job of getting her young people through high school, but we really struggled on the college front. And she had many students go on to college, but there were many others who — it just didn’t work financially, and she had a shoestring budget. She was a volunteer. The budget for many years and years was, like, under $5,000 a year. It was all volunteer-run and led. And just seeing my friends struggle financially and have to drop out of school and not even go, that was extraordinarily painful to watch.
And so, there were a couple parts of the I Have a Dream program that were appealing to me. One, of John committing to help fund the college tuition of students who could make it that far. That was just something that would have been amazing for my mother’s work all those years where we just didn’t have that opportunity. And the second thing was just the equality of opportunity — that we took all 40 children in that class of sixth graders. And there are many programs that take the top 5 percent, the top 10 percent — I love those programs. Those are really important. That just wasn’t what my focus was. What we really wanted to do was prove that children, regardless of where they were — many of our students started going into the seventh grade, were reading at the third or fourth-grade level. We just wanted to prove what was possible with opportunity and hard work. And the class ahead of ours — so the class that was in seventh grade when we started sixth grade, they ended up having a 66-percent dropout rate from high school. In our class, one year younger, had a 91-percent graduation rate from high school. So, same neighborhood, same school, same building, same socioeconomic challenges, same poverty, same violence, just a very different opportunity. So those were six extraordinary years just, you know, trying to demonstrate again, what’s possible when opportunity meets talent.
LEVITT: So, it’s an interesting program because it takes kids who are relatively old. So, it’s not starting with super young kids. And it’s small-scale and really intensive. I know the extent to which you and your sister and others would essentially put your life on hold for these 40 kids for six years. Do you think it’s a good use of resources? It’s an unusual model and we learn a lot from unusual models. And do you think of it as an answer to a question or more like a demonstration project to show you what’s possible in another world?
DUNCAN: Yeah, obviously, it’s always much better to start earlier and to start at kindergarten, start at pre-K, start at birth. The earlier the intervention, the better it is. There’s never one model that’s perfect or not. And as you said, that one by definition is smaller. You know, it’s hard to scale for a city. We really tried to extend it as we got working, not just with those students, but with their younger brothers and sisters and family members and neighbors. We had a situation where one of our girls who actually started in a really good spot — she was a high performer. But unfortunately, both her parents got caught in the crack epidemic and halfway through our first year she basically lost her parents and she was taken in by a neighbor. So, of course, we took the neighbor’s children and worked with them. And we would pick up all the kids after school. They’d be with us ’til, you know, six, seven, eight o’clock at night, but, obviously, going home every night. So we spent lots of time doing home visits and trying to stabilize home situations. And we had some fantastic families and we had families where there was, unfortunately, a tremendous amount of domestic violence and abuse and some very tough things going on. One of our children lived in Robert Taylor Homes and her brother saw a murder and had to go to Witness Protection Program. So, the work evolved over time.
LEVITT: So, then you joined the Chicago public schools as the Deputy Chief of Staff to Paul Vallas, who ran the Chicago public schools. So let me tell you a story that I’m pretty sure I’ve never told you before. So, it’s April or May of 2001, and you’ve been working at C.P.S. for a couple of years by now. And I got a call from the mayor of Chicago, Mayor Daley, and his people said he’d like to speak with me. And I said, “O.K.” This is years before Freakonomics. I was just some unknown professor, like the mayor had never called me. So, I show up at the assigned time at his office. And it’s he and I alone in the office — no other aides, no hint what’s going on. He just chats with me about education for at least an hour. And I’m just answering questions, completely confused and the only guess I even have is that he’s interviewing me to put me on the Chicago School Board because I just couldn’t make any sense of what was going on otherwise. And then, finally, it’s coming to the end of the conversation and he says to me, “What do you think of Paul Vallas?” — who was your boss at Chicago public schools. And I said, “I don’t know him, personally, but he seems pretty good.” And he shakes his head and he says, “No.” And he points to the fish tank and he says, “He’s in the tank.” And I had no idea what he was talking about. like, didn’t know what he meant. I said, “He’s in the tank?” He said, “Yeah. Paul Vallas is in the tank. He’s in the tank.” I don’t know what to say. I’m just nodding knowingly as if I know something about what he’s talking about. And finally, he says, “So, what do you think of Arne Duncan?” And I said, “I don’t really know Arne Duncan, but I’ve literally never heard anyone say a bad word about him.” And the mayor says, “I like Arne Duncan. I like Arne Duncan,” and then he shows me to the door. So I leave the office, and I go back to campus and I meet up with my co-author Brian Jacob, who was an expert on the Chicago public schools. And I said to him, “I’m going to make two really crazy predictions. The first one is that I’m going to be named to the Chicago School Board, shortly. And the second one is that Paul Vallas is going to get fired and Arne Duncan is going to take over as the head of the Chicago public schools.” And he laughs out loud and he says, “The first one is crazy, but at least within the realm of plausibility but there’s no way in the world that Arne Duncan could ever be named the next head of the Chicago public schools.” And two months later, Paul Vallas got fired and you were named the head of the Chicago public schools. Does that fit with your account of what happened?
DUNCAN: That’s a crazy story. You’ve never told me that. You’ve been holding out all these years. That’s more than 20 years ago at this point. I learned a tremendous amount from Paul, and to be clear, Paul wasn’t fired. Paul actually ran for governor. So he ended up resigning to run for governor. You said that meeting was in April. I think it was in July, so it was just a couple months after that that the mayor appointed me, and he took a lot of risks. I was, you know, 36 at that point. A lot of people probably questioned his sanity and he probably questioned his own sanity more than once. Those meetings in his office could be intimidating, as you knew. And there were a few times I went home and told my wife, “I might get fired tomorrow.” And she was like, “O.K., we’ll figure it out.” But I came into Chicago public schools in 1998. So, we worked with those dreamers in the I Have a Dream Program from ’92 to ’98, sixth grade through 12th grade.
And during that time, we actually started our own small public school, Ariel Community Academy, in the neighborhood. That was going to serve 400. But the Chicago public schools had 400,000. And there was something about the math of that, and the scale, that made me challenge myself and think it’s easy to do smaller-scale projects on the outside. It’s easy to throw stones and critique. It’s a very different thing to go into the system. So when our kids graduated and went to college, we thought about starting another I Have a Dream program. We thought about starting another public school, but I said, “Let me try and go in and see whether I can have impact.”
LEVITT: So, how scared were you going from one school, 400 kids, to 400,000 kids. I mean were you petrified?
DUNCAN: I wasn’t petrified. I had two and a half years of an apprenticeship, traveling across the city with Paul, visiting lots and lots of schools meeting with staff, and I had a real good sense of who was really committed within C.P.S. to making a difference in kids’ lives and challenging the status quo and who was maybe a little bit more comfortable or complacent or whatever. So you’re never fully prepared for anything like that. But I definitely felt that I had seen enough and knew enough folks and had a good enough sense for our schools to do it. And there are definitely some strategies and tactics that are applicable everywhere, but for me, just growing up in Chicago, growing up playing basketball all over the South and West sides, knowing so many of the communities and families — I’m a big relationship guy, relationships are just critical to me, and I just felt that was a huge advantage. I never could have done what I did in another city. I just felt I totally had home-court advantage working here in Chicago, honestly just being so passionate about the city and the families and the communities. That gave me, a lot of comfort walking into a job like that.
LEVITT: So that’s when I got to know you. I reached out to you more or less out of the blue, putting you into a terrible situation because I had been working on an academic project — looking at cheating in the Chicago public schools. And I had found some pretty compelling statistical evidence that maybe 5 percent of all the teachers in the Chicago public schools were cheating on standardized tests — on the high-stakes standardized tests by changing student answers. And I felt really bad for you, ’cause I was creating this public relations nightmare because here you are taking over the schools, and one of the first headlines that’s going to come out is that it’s rampant with cheating. So, I just went to you not expecting anything, but trying to give you the heads up so you wouldn’t be totally caught off guard. And I showed you the data, the evidence, and I would say your reaction to that conversation surprised me about as much as any reaction I’ve ever gotten in any meeting I’ve ever held. Do you remember what you said when I showed you all that data?
DUNCAN: I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it’s just interesting our different perspectives. Like, you can say you put me in a terrible situation, I actually thought you were a Godsend. I knew that there was some cheating and again, 5 percent, is too much and is a lot, but that meant 90, 95 percent of people were doing things the right way. And the big thing, Steve, that I wanted to do was I had to create credibility. I had to create trust and I wanted to hold myself accountable for results, but I wanted people to believe them. And I honestly had a lot of confidence that we could get better as a system, but because of Chicago public schools’ history of cheating and scandal, I think there wasn’t a lot of faith from the public. And you came to me very early on — I think it was in that first year. And what it did for me is that you had this extraordinary capability and insight that we did not have within C.P.S. So if we could set a baseline that we would not tolerate cheating — that we were going to do things the right way and hold ourselves accountable for results, then that would create a much higher level of credibility and integrity in the community. So, yeah, we had to deal with some tough issues for a short amount of time. But I wanted people to understand that we were going to do things the right way for the right reasons, and you actually gave me just an extraordinary opportunity, again, not to talk about that, but to actually try and live that and demonstrate those values.
LEVITT: I think that you don’t realize that your reaction was not the typical reaction of people in the situation. People who would be defensive and try and cover-up. But what really struck me about what you said — the first one was, “This hurts the kids and I won’t let anybody hurt my kids.” I think that might be an exact quote. And the second thing you said was, “You just tell me what you need me to do and I’ll do it.” And I said, “How would you feel if I took a bunch of resources and we retested classrooms?” And you said, “Sure, how many do you need?” I named some number. And I said, “And I’d also like, not just to retest the classrooms I think are cheating, but I’d like to be able to retest a whole bunch of other classrooms that weren’t.” You’re like, “O.K., good. That sounds great.” And in the end, we managed to bring down a bunch of cheaters and get them out of the classroom. Especially cheaters, who were not good teachers at all on top of that, and get the cheating way down. So really, from my perspective, it was an amazing success. The other thing you did that I thought was so simple and brilliant, which is you just held a press conference. And you said something like, “So there’s this egghead professor at the University of Chicago, and he’s got some algorithm I don’t really understand, and he thinks there’s cheating. And I’m not going to let there be cheating in the Chicago public schools and so I put my foot down today and I’m going to cooperate with him fully, and we’re going to get rid of the cheaters.” And then the reporters called up parents and said, “What do you think of cheating in Chicago public schools?” And they say, “We don’t want cheating in the schools.” And then they called up the teachers union and the teachers union even said, “We don’t want cheating in schools.” So, instead of the headline being “Chicago Schools Overrun with Cheating,” the headline is, “Arne Duncan Puts His Foot Down Against Cheating,” and it was a huge win. I don’t think of you as being very political, but somehow I think your own authenticity actually backs its way into being better than even the most strategic politician could ever be.
DUNCAN: I guess, I don’t think politically, sometimes it serves me well, sometimes it really hurts me, but I just think in life the truth will set you free. And your point, when folks cheated, what they basically did is take children who were below grade level and said they were above grade level. When that happens and they get denied services they need, like summer school, to actually help them catch up. So, I think that’s one of the most insidious things we can do is to lie to kids and families and say, “They’re on track to be successful,” and they’re not. You’re ultimately setting them up for tremendous failure and heartbreak when they graduate from high school and aren’t ready to be successful in college and don’t have those skills. And yeah, it’s maybe a little painful short-term and we had to let some teachers go. It was interesting, Steve, almost nobody contested. We thought they’d have some lawsuits. Basically, teachers just resigned. Your evidence, for better or worse, was overwhelming. I’m sure we didn’t fire every teacher that cheated, but it was enough to send a message and to try and bring that down, going forward.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. After this break, they’ll return to talk about Arne’s latest work aimed at reducing gun violence in Chicago.
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LEVITT: Hey, Morgan, what do you have for me today?
Morgan LEVEY: Hey, Steve. So Julia H. wrote in to tell us that after listening to your interview with Sendhil Mullainathan, she resigned from her job. She’d been afraid of change for six years, but your conversation actually inspired her to take the plunge. How does it feel to know that the things you say might inspire people to make bold decisions that could affect the course of their lives?
LEVITT: So in this case, it feels great because that’s exactly why I started this podcast, is because I felt like the research I was doing, and the ideas I was seeing around me, were having no impact on people. And in this particular case, I am about 99.8-percent sure that making a change is almost always the right thing to do when you’re on the fence. So, I feel great when people make those kind of changes. Now, I also just say stuff off the top of my head that I haven’t thought about very hard and that’s probably wrong. I would be a little nervous if people jumped too quickly at those kind of ideas.
LEVEY: I agree. I mean, you do give great advice a lot of the time, but I also think you’re a little flippant sometimes with the things you say. So, I worry about our audience.
LEVITT: I don’t think our problem is the audience following too much of my advice — that’s never been my problem in life is that people listen to me too much. But on the other hand, sure. Some of the things I say are a little bit crazy, but I think everybody needs a little bit more crazy injected into their life. And if you’re listening to this podcast, it’s probably because you want things a little different. So I’m definitely not going to stop saying crazy things. No matter how much you try to get me to do it.
LEVEY: On a whole, I agree with you. I think change is a good thing. Thanks Julia H. for writing in — good luck with the new job. If you have questions for us, please write in the address is email@example.com. Steve and I both read every question.
LEVITT: And Julia, if things go badly, I’ll take all the blame.
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LEVITT: In case you’re wondering, I never did get nominated for the Chicago School Board. Unlike Arne, I think I failed my interview with the mayor. In the second half of our discussion, I have a couple last things I want to discuss regarding education. But what I most want to talk about is his new organization. It’s called Create Real Economic Destiny, or C.R.E.D. for short. He co-founded it with Laurene Powell Jobs. It’s tough work with tough young men and Arne is right in the middle of it.
LEVITT: So the next thing — you’re 44-years-old and you become Secretary of Education. Fun job or not a fun job?
DUNCAN: I loved it. But honestly, Steve, I probably wouldn’t have gone for anybody else but President Obama. I had led the Chicago public schools for seven and a half years. There’s tremendous turnover in those jobs — the average tenure is about two, two and a half years. And it was sorta crazy — when I started running C.P.S., I was by definition the rookie, and by the time I left, I was the longest-serving big-city public-school superintendent in the country. And so I wanted to do at least 10 years, but it’s clearly a once in a lifetime situation when someone who’s a good friend and more importantly, someone who I’d done a lot of education work with — when President Obama was in the Illinois Legislature and then became our senator. I knew his heart for education. I knew his commitment. I’d grown up playing basketball with Michelle Obama‘s older brother, Craig. He was a good friend and super amazing family, but neither one of their parents had gone to college. They were both first-generation college-goers, and I knew what he was willing to do to fight for kids. So I had no aspiration to be Secretary of Education. Had President Obama said, “Come to the White House and help take out the garbage for me,” I would have done that quite happily.
LEVITT: So, obviously, Arne, both in the Chicago public schools and as Secretary of Education, you operated under enormous constraints, whether it’s teacher unions or politics, or the fact that schools have more or less been run the same way for a hundred years. But I wonder if you’ve thought at all — if we really just threw everything out and we started completely from scratch — you and me were given free rein to redesign everything in American schools from the bottom up, what would be your most radical changes? What would you just like completely overhaul?
DUNCAN: There’s so many things you’d like to do, but just a couple that aren’t impossible — and frankly, I always say, this stuff is really much more a matter of political will and courage. This is not putting a man on Mars, this is not finding a cure for cancer. It’s just, do we really value the lives and the academic and social potential of all of our kids? So, a couple of things. One, I would have universal access to pre-K. I’d make sure our babies have a chance to enter kindergarten, ready to be successful academically, socially, emotionally. Obviously access to technology — and the pandemic brought this home. Devices, broadband Wi-Fi — children should be able to learn anything they want anytime, anywhere 24/7. Learning should not be confined to a physical school building. And we gotta make that as ubiquitous in our country as access to water or electricity. Thinking very differently about teacher talent. And we all know great teachers, great principals make an extraordinary difference in kids’ lives.
If we systematically, Steve, identified our hardest working, our most successful teachers and principals and placed them in our most underserved communities — if we had the courage to do that and the will to do that, the difference that would make in the lives of our students would be extraordinary. And then the final thing is just really giving every child what they need. And it’s not a radical concept. So, here in Chicago, we served tens of thousands of children three meals a day. And we had a couple thousand children who we — very discreetly sent home with backpacks full of food on Fridays because we worried about them not eating over the weekend. What’s been constant in education is time, and the variable has been learning. And I just want to flip that construct on its head. I want the constant to be learning and the variable to be time. So some students might need school six hours a day. Some students might need school eight or 10 or 12 hours a day — Saturdays, Sundays, weekends, 11, 12 months out of the year.
It’s funny, when I went away to college, I met a bunch of students who had gone to boarding schools out east. I really didn’t know what boarding schools were, but I always say, “What works well in our country for the wealthy probably works pretty well for the poor.” And one thing I wasn’t able to do here in Chicago that I thought a lot about was trying to start some boarding schools for children where home might not be the safest place for them to be. And so just giving to every student what they need. The goal is not equal. That’s actually the problem. The goal is equity. And whether it’s more meals, whether it’s eyeglasses, whether it’s more time, whether it’s the best teachers, whether it’s access to extracurriculars — if we could meet every child where they are and help them grow, those would be game-changing things for our nation’s children, families. I’m absolutely convinced would take education in our country to an entirely different level.
LEVITT: So that all makes a lot of sense. Although, I’m surprised that you didn’t talk about what we teach, ’cause knowing a lot about you, I know that you’re focused very much on the trauma that kids are facing, and I think it’s really a mistake in our schools that we don’t make mental health and teaching kids about how to manage their own life, like, on par with geometry. What do you think of that as a concept?
DUNCAN: No, that’s hugely important. Sorry, I bucketed that and what students need. So, I always talk about physical, social, and emotional health, and I go back to my mother’s program that every single day when students walked into her program at 2:30 or 3 o’clock, she fed them. And what she always said is it’s hard to concentrate if your stomach’s grumbling. And so, for me, the foundation of the education house — to your point, Steve — is making sure students physically, socially, emotionally are in a good place. That they’re not being bullied, that they’re not living in fear, that you’re helping them work through their trauma. And if that foundation is strong, then let’s talk about rigor and A.P. calculus and biology and physics, and where you’re going to college. But if that foundation is weak, if there are cracks in it, then that house is very unstable. And so that is the basis, that is literally the foundation, of an academic house that’s going to be successful.
LEVITT: So there’s one particular moment that is burned into my memory from your years running the Chicago Public Schools. Chicago was in the national headlines then, as now, because of a flurry of homicides that had taken the lives of some young people. And you were interviewed on a news show. And the host asked you a series of typical questions, but your answers were raw with pain. And it was clear that you were spending your days and nights grieving in the living rooms with the parents of the kids who had died and you cared in a way like these were your own kids. What was that like for you?
DUNCAN: Yeah. Well, it’s, obviously, the reason I do what I do now. And there’s so much that I’m proud of during those seven-and-a-half years, and we could talk all day on another show about rising graduation rates and test scores and more students going to college and lots of money for college scholarships. So much I’m proud of. But on my watch, Steve, on my seven-and-a-half years, on average — and this is a staggering number — we had a child killed every two weeks due to gun violence. It’s just an overwhelming number. And thank God, never in one of our schools, but on the bus going home, walking to the corner store, — Starkesia Reed killed at 7:30 on a weekday morning in her living room, getting ready to go to school and shot by an AK-47 from a hundred yards away. And my wife and I had two young kids at that time and getting to know those families after they had just lost their son or daughter and going to those homes and going to those funerals and going to classrooms where there was an empty desk and a class of just traumatized kids, trying to talk to them and trying to make some sense of the senseless. That was by far the hardest part of my job. Nothing came close. And everything that’s supposed to be hard, you know, academic achievement, operations, budgets, labor management, you know — I don’t say any of that was easy, but all of that was wildly easier than dealing with that loss of our children. And quite honestly, it got harder over time. It did not get easier. I just know — I don’t think, I know — we as adults, we as educators, we as parents, we as leaders, we failed to keep our kids safe. And I’m still friends with many of those parents who lost their children while I was at C.P.S. I just can’t imagine — I can’t imagine that pain. I can’t imagine that heartbreak as a parent. And I just know we as a city have to do so much better to allow our children to grow up free of fear and trauma. And that is the reason why I do the work I do today.
LEVITT: So it’s not at all surprising, that after being Secretary of Education, where you could have done just about anything you wanted, you came back to Chicago and you dedicated yourself to reducing violence, starting an organization called Chicago C.R.E.D. Can you describe what C.R.E.D. does?
DUNCAN: It’s important for your listeners to understand I’m doing exactly what I want. There’s nothing I’d rather do. There are five pillars to our work today, Steve. First is, a street outreach team, these are guys who have tremendous credibility in the street, with connections to all the different cliques, all the different gangs, and they’re working to stem conflicts, they’re putting in place non-aggression agreements and peace treaties, but they’re also our recruiters. They’re bringing guys into our program — guys and women. And then when people come into our programming, we have a life coach for every single man and woman, and we always say, “Experience can be the best teacher, just doesn’t have to be your experience.” And unfortunately, many of our life coaches are folks that served 20, 30 years in jail who gave a lot of time away, but they’ve come out and dedicated themselves to giving back to the community and having their experience stand in the place of our young guys, learning from them.
We have an amazing clinical team — and I can’t overstate the amount of trauma. We have 17 folks on our clinical team now, and as much as we’re doing, I know we’re not doing nearly enough. And there’s a saying that “Hurt people hurt people.” But the converse is also true, that healed people help to heal people, help to heal their families, help to heal their community. And as our men heal, and seeing the transformation, it is just absolutely stunning. We have an education team. We’ve had lots of guys get high school diplomas. It’s just an unbelievable high point, incredibly moving to see guys who — 28, 29, 30, some of whom never actually made it to high school — to see them graduate and see the pride and joy they have and their family members have. It’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable. And then we have a jobs team. And our goal is after guys work with us for nine months, 12 months, 15 months, whatever it is, we spin them off into the legal economy. I can’t ask the guys to put the guns down if we don’t have something else for them to do. And, I say all the time, “These are men, they’re not boys. They’re going to make a living. They’re going to eat. They’re going to take care of their kids. It’s up to us, whether that’s in the illegal economy or in the legal economy.” Very naively, when our family moved to D.C. in 2009, I really thought Chicago was at rock bottom. I thought it couldn’t get worse. And unfortunately, for a whole bunch of reasons, in the seven years, we were in D.C., things got a lot worse here. And the epiphanies I had just from many, many conversations, were if you want to stop shooting, you have to work with shooters. You have to work in the crisis space. You have to intervene there. And almost nobody’s winning here, Steve. Nobody’s getting rich on the streets. It’s a myth that anyone is making a lot of money selling drugs — you understand that so much better than most — that a lot of folks are risking their lives for nothing.
LEVITT: So, what your team is doing is trying to find the most at-risk young men and women you can find, the ones who have been shooting at others, been being shot at, and you take them into this structure, and you try to give them a path forward where there isn’t a path. And it’s an intensive program that you’re running. By my calculations, you’re spending about $33,000 a year per person in this program.
DUNCAN: Your math’s about right, the cost is pretty variable. For some guys it’s actually a lot higher, some guys it’s lower. But every homicide costs our city $1.4 million. A bed at Cook County Jail is about $60,000 per year. And that cost for us is basically a one-year cost, and after that folks have spun-off to the legal economy and are productive citizens, and we’ve had folks like bank consulting do big pro-bono studies and talk about a 19-to-one R.O.I. for the kind of work we’re doing. So again, take out the tragedy, take out the heartbreak, take out the loss of human potential. Just on the hard numbers, the economics, I can make a pretty compelling case that this is the best investment we can make. And, five years into this work, I am clearer than ever that this is a huge part of the answer, and my frustration and my sense of urgency is our unwillingness to take to scale what we know works. We’re doing the vast majority of this with private philanthropic dollars, which is fine, but you can’t scale enough. And so, getting the city to do more, the state starting to do more, the county, hopefully, the federal government, then we can touch enough folks. That’s the next step.
LEVITT: I know you’re a big believer in data — what do the numbers say about the impact you’re having with C.R.E.D.?
DUNCAN: We have two metrics, Steve. It’s pretty simple and pretty stark. It’s homicides and shootings. So we started this work in 2016. 2016 was a horrific year in terms of violence here in the city, as you know. 2017, 2018, 2019, we saw double-digit reductions in violence each year, so things were very much going in the right direction. And then last year killed us — 2020, with a pandemic, with the aftermath of George Floyd‘s murder. That was the worst six or eight weeks of our work here. We had a staff member killed. We had three of our young men killed. We had a 20-month-old son of one of our men killed in a car seat going to the laundromat with his mother. And, so, last year violence was up about 50 percent here in the city. We were able to get those numbers down and as tough as things are, we still have a chance this year to hit our goal of a 20-percent reduction.
If you look at the C.R.E.D.- specific data, and Northwestern’s studying this — is showing about a 58-percent reduction in victimization for folks in our program. And we track every shooting. We check every homicide. We have put in place a number of non-aggression agreements and peace treaties between different groups and just having that kind of street intel — I just — again, so many crazy stories, but I was out Saturday night with our street outreach team and there’d been an incident early before I got there, with a gun at a gas station. And they had helped to diffuse that situation. And one of our street outreach workers calls a guy and didn’t hear back from him and said, “I bet he’s been shot.” And, lo and behold, we pieced together in about an hour that the people at the gas station went and shot him. Thank goodness he survived. But just the level of intelligence, the level of detail that we have of the different groups in the different conflicts and who’s at peace, who’s at war. It is unbelievable what our team is doing every single day.
LEVITT: Is it lack of money to keep you from scaling, or is it something deeper?
DUNCAN: Well, it is, yes, a lack of money but it is deeper. It’s understanding that people who have witnessed terrible things, who have had terrible things happen to them, who maybe have done terrible things, that there is a possibility of redemption. And we’ve worked with over 500 men, Steve, and again, this may sound crazy to your audience, but there’s not a single guy we’ve worked with that I think is a bad person. You know, one of our guys told me his earliest memory was of his father shooting heroin. That’s his earliest childhood memory. And another young man, in our first cohort who was, honestly, a pretty big shooter. He said “Arne, I grew up in a household full of guns. And I wish we would have had toys, but we had guns.” And I just thought about my childhood. Both my parents were educators. We grew up in a household full of books, and guess what? Me and my sister and my brother all went into education. That was our family business. His family business was guns and shooting. He became a shooter. It doesn’t make me a better person. It doesn’t make him a worse person. People see the world, I think, far too often as white and black. This is the grayest world I’ve ever been in, Steve. Who’s a hero? Who’s a villain? Who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? Is the hero the guy in the street? Is the policeman the hero or the villain? It is unbelievably complicated and people have to be comfortable with the tremendous amount of things that are confusing, that are uncomfortable, but that’s the only way we’re going to get to a safer city and give our children their childhoods back and allow them to grow up free of fear and trauma, which is all we’re trying to do. That’s all I’m trying to do.
LEVITT: So, speaking of redemption. A friend of yours in high school named Benji Wilson was shot and killed. And his shooter, Billy Moore, actually works with you today. How did that come about?
DUNCAN: Benji Wilson was a friend who I grew up playing basketball with. ESPN did a 30 for 30 special on him, and there’s a clip of him playing in the schoolyards right at the very start of that. I happened to be in that clip. And he wasn’t just the best basketball player as a senior in Chicago. He was literally the number one basketball player in the nation. And he was killed in 1984. And I was a sophomore in college. I still remember where I was when I got that call in my dorm that he had been killed. And to say that was shattering is a tremendous understatement. We had always, you know, really believed that we as ballplayers, that we had a pass, that we were allowed free passage in and out of neighborhoods and had a sense of safety, and that just absolutely went away with Benji’s death.
So when ESPN did that story, they interviewed Billy Moore who had killed him — and he’s interviewed at the end of it. And I actually — I couldn’t even watch it. And just didn’t wanna, didn’t want to hear him. And, Billy committed that murder when he was 16. He served 20 years and got out. And very symbolically, I met Billy on a peace march, and we had a mutual friend and he said, “Do you know who Billy Moore is?” And I said, “Yeah, I know exactly who Billy Moore is.” And he said, “He’d like to talk to you. Would you be willing to meet him?” I can’t say I wanted to but I said, “Sure.” So we walked and talked and just heard his story and heard what he had been through and he walked me through in immense detail what had happened. And I just got a sense for his heart and what he was doing and he eventually came to work with us at C.R.E.D., and he now leads all of our alumni work. But he is one of the most extraordinary men I know, and I don’t say this lightly — I would take a bullet for him tomorrow, and I know he would do the same for me. Very tragically, his own son was killed — was shot 16 times at Foster Park, which is a place where I played basketball for, you know, 30 plus years. And what Billy says, that I believe, and it still blows me away, is that if the young man who killed his son came into our program, that he would take him under his wing and mentor him and try and teach him. That he can’t ask for forgiveness and redemption if he can’t give it. And just what I’ve learned about, humanity and forgiveness from Billy — I can’t begin to put in words. And we can’t succeed in this work, we can’t begin to get where we need to as a city, if we don’t have the talents and passion and expertise and heart and lived experience of folks like Billy Moore, helping to lead us and lead our young men where we need to go. And I can tell you unequivocally that he is saving lives every single day in this work.
LEVITT: Let me end with something more trivial, which is basketball. You won the national three-on-three basketball championship in 2014. You were almost 50-years-old, and you were Secretary of Education, and that’s a big deal term and full of college superstar athletes, and stuff like that. Did you sell your soul to the devil for that win or what? What’s the story behind that?
DUNCAN: No, that was so fun. So we’ve played for years, three-on-three tournaments and we actually won — it’s nine or 10 national championships. That’s always been my stress relief and just a tremendous amount of fun. But that was an absolute highlight, was going to the Olympic Training Center there in Colorado and winning that national championship. And, we were supposed to go to Russia to compete for the international championship and because of the politics and because I was our Secretary of Education, I couldn’t go. So I’ll regret that to the day I die, but I have a group of guys that we work out, 7:30 every morning. That’s my stress release. This work, it absolutely takes a toll on me emotionally. I don’t wanna hide from that or shy from that. And just getting out there and breaking a sweat every morning and having that camaraderie — that really helps to keep me going. I still love to play. I’m slower than ever, but I feel so lucky to be able to still do it and I’m going to do it as long as I can.
LEVITT: When Arne’s family bought the house next door to me, the first thing they did was to rip out their backyard and turn it into a giant basketball court. My wife was not happy. For the first year Arnie lived there, his son used the court a lot, but I didn’t see Arne shooting baskets once over that entire time. Now, I figured maybe after his three-on-three championship, he’d hung up his sneakers. But then one day I looked out the window and it was Arne out there on the court. I watched his first shot. Swish. I watched his second shot. Swish. He made the first ten shots I saw. And these were not easy shots. Next thing I know, he’s up to 20 straight baskets without a miss, and then it was 30 straight. I had other things to do but how could I walk away from a performance like that? Soon it was 40 straight. And I would say at least 30 of those 40 shots had touched nothing but net. Finally, shot 58 rattled around the rim and bounced out. The streak was over at 57. At least I understood now why Arne never practiced. Now, was it a fluke? Maybe. It was another six months before I saw Arne take the court and I vowed again to watch him shoot until he missed. He made his first shot. He made his second shot. But this time he missed after only 23 consecutive baskets. But, you know, everyone’s entitled to an occasional off day. Thanks for listening and we’ll be back next week.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. This show is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. Our staff also includes Stephen Dubner, Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Eleanor Osborne, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Jacob Clemente. Theme music composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
DUNCAN: The true story is that at one point, the White House — Barack came up to me and said, “Arne, your mother fouled me too much.” I didn’t know what to say. Like, “I’m sorry, Mr. President.”
- Arne Duncan, the 9th U.S. Secretary of Education; founder of C.R.E.D.; former head of Chicago Public Schools; and former professional basketball player.