How Schools Work
LIES, LIES EVERYWHERE
Education runs on lies. That’s probably not what you’d expect from a former secretary of education, but it’s the truth. How schools work best is often by confronting and fighting these lies, but this is exhausting and sometimes perilous work usually undertaken by an isolated teacher or principal. So, the lies persist. They are as emblematic of our system as an apple left on the corner of a favorite teacher’s desk. But, unlike the apple, the lies aren’t sweet. They are overripe and rotten.
I’ve been aware of education’s lies since childhood: I saw them every day at an after-school program that my mom, Sue Duncan, ran on Chicago’s South Side—but as a child I never fully
appreciated how insidious they were. That began to change when I got to know someone named Calvin Williams.
That fall I was set to begin my senior year at Harvard, where I studied sociology and co-captained the Crimson basketball team. Like many young people who have the good fortune to get an elite college education, I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. (I got into Harvard through elbow grease and athletic skill, and the only reason I could afford it was because my dad’s employer, the University of Chicago, paid most of the tuition.) Many of my friends were going into law or investment banking, and I considered these too. But I wanted to test myself. I wanted to figure out whether the work my mom did was only a piece of me, or if it was truly who I was.
And then there was basketball.
Even though my Harvard team wasn’t very good—we won nine games against seventeen losses in my final season—I had a decent game and I hoped to play professionally, if not in the NBA, then perhaps overseas. I was young and I needed to at least try to play ball professionally, didn’t I? It had been my childhood dream, after all. Still, I knew basketball wouldn’t last forever and that someday I’d need to make use of the opportunities granted by a Harvard education. The question remained: would education be my life’s calling after basketball?
If my experiences at the Sue Duncan Children’s Center were any indication, the answer was probably yes. For more than twenty-five years my mom had been helping kids in the North Kenwood/Oakland neighborhood get their educations. From
three in the afternoon to eight at night she worked to make up for what the local schools couldn’t or wouldn’t teach between eight and three. My brother and sister and I had also grown up at her after-school program, and I knew that it was the perfect place to explore whether I wanted to work in education later in life. So, I took a year off after my junior year—which was practically unheard-of at Harvard—and went to work in her program while simultaneously doing fieldwork for my senior sociology thesis. The year was 1986.
I spent most of that year working with older kids, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who were preparing for the ACT, or with kids who wanted to finish high school strong so they could have a shot at a decent-paying job. It was a hard time in life for these teenagers, many of whom sat around and talked about whether it was possible for them to live past thirty. This was not something I sat around and talked about with my friends at Harvard; we all expected to live and hoped to thrive.
One of the neighborhood kids who walked through the center’s doors that July was Calvin Williams.
I’d known the Williams family for years. They lived less than a block away from the Kenwood-Ellis Church, where my mom’s program was located. Like nearly every kid in the neighborhood, Calvin was African American; but unlike many kids, his family was intact. He had two brothers, and all of them lived at home with their mom and dad, who both toiled away at working-class jobs. Most families in North Kenwood/Oakland were broken and scattered, without fathers or with siblings divided among aunts
and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers. Not the Williamses, though. They were seemingly immune to the violence and gang activity that hung over the neighborhood like a cloud, darkening everything that happened on the streets and in homes.
(This cloud also hung over my mom’s program. Once, in 1970, when I was only five, the center was located in the nearby Woodlawn Mennonite Church, but had to be relocated after the minister, Reverend Curtis Burrell, refused to allow a gang called the Blackstone Rangers to use it as an arsenal to store their guns. The punishment for that refusal was the Rangers firebombing the church, which thankfully they did at night when the building was unoccupied. No one was hurt, but the fire fatally compromised the building and my mom was forced to move out with what she could salvage. One of my earliest memories was of shuttling boxes of books from Woodlawn over to Kenwood-Ellis Church, where the center was still located in 1986. Another time years later, we were driving down a street a few blocks from the center to pick up one of her students. The car was full of kids and, like always, Sue ambled along at about ten miles per hour. But on that day, someone jumped in front of us with an assault rifle and aimed past the car at the older brother of the kid we were picking up. My mom jammed the brakes, threw our station wagon in reverse, and screamed away as fast as the car would go, probably thirty-five or forty miles per hour. No one got shot and no one was hurt that time either. To this day we still laugh that by far the fastest we ever saw her drive was going backward!)
One summer day I found myself sitting on the church steps, waiting for Calvin. The church, a gray Romanesque fortress of a building, its high-peaked gable end facing Greenwood Avenue, had stood watch over the neighborhood for more than one hundred years. Like any structure that manages to survive that long in an American city, Kenwood-Ellis had witnessed a lot of change, from the neighborhood’s early days as a leafy enclave for wealthy Chicagoans to the neighborhood’s current state as a mostly neglected black ghetto. My family lived in a small house less than two miles away, on the other side of the Forty-Seventh Street divide, in the racially mixed, middle-class neighborhood of Hyde Park. I’d walked to the church that day, a stroll that took barely thirty minutes. It’s a strange feature of cities, how quickly they can change from block to block. My family was solidly middle-class—it’s not like I was living in some walled-off community—but Calvin and I might as well have lived on opposite ends of the state of Illinois.
I specifically remember the heat that day as I caught sight of Calvin striding up Forty-Sixth Street. I was in the shade but it was humid and no breeze came off the lake to the east. I waved when Calvin was about a half a block away. He smiled and waved back before breaking into a light jog. He looked happy. He looked eager.
The Williams boys were great kids who stayed out of trouble and in school. They didn’t drink or smoke and they got good grades. They were on track to grow up and live decent lives. Maybe they’d get out of the South Side, maybe they’d choose to stay, but
whatever happened, all signs indicated that the Williams boys had a better chance at succeeding than many of their neighbors.
However, the most important thing about Calvin was that he could really play ball.
He was seventeen in 1986 and was easily twice the player I’d been at his age. He was long, lithe, and quick, had a good shot and better instincts on both ends of the court. I’d played pickup games with him; he was fun to play with and let his game talk for him. He was one of those players who made things easier for teammates and a hell of a lot harder for opponents. I had three years of college ball under my belt, and it was obvious that Calvin’s future college career had a lot more upside than mine ever did. He’d always been a good student, consistently making the B honor roll a few blocks away at Martin Luther King High School, where his Jaguars had gone 32 and 1 in ’86 and won the Illinois State AA Championship.
Bottom line: his game was good enough to earn a scholarship to a rarefied program at a Division I school. All we had to do was get him up to par on his test-taking skills so that he could get a decent score on the ACT.
“Hey, Arne!” Calvin said, stopping at the bottom of the church steps. He was in the sun, I was in the shade. “What’s up?”
“Nothing. Just trying to stay cool. You?”
“Same, man. It’s hotter than you know what out here.”
Chicagoans love to complain about the temperature no matter the season. Too hot in the summer, too cold the rest of the year. Cry us a river.
“Have you thought about what we talked about last time?” I asked. “About where you want to go for college?”
“Honestly, since school’s out, it’s all I think of,” he said. “Coach was saying I could aim high for Kansas, Kentucky, Georgia Tech. I was thinking maybe Illinois too, just to stay close to home. I don’t know where else. ’Cuse, maybe? They were good last year.”
“I think it might be colder there than here,” I joked.
“Yeah, maybe. More snow, I think. That’s what they say, anyway.”
I stood and stretched out my arms, my T-shirt clinging to my shoulders. Snow was the furthest thing from my mind at that moment. “You’re good enough for any of those places, that’s for sure,” I said.
“I guess, man. Not good enough for Harvard, though,” he said with a snicker.
“Are you kidding? You’d destroy the entire Ivy League by yourself. They wouldn’t be able to keep up.” I spoke the truth. There wasn’t a player in the Ivies who could stay in front of him. Not on the break, not in the half court, not bursting off of a pick and roll. No one. “I’m not going to let you waste your time at a place like Harvard.” I turned toward the church door. “Come on, let’s get started.”
The church didn’t have air-conditioning in those days but the stone walls kept the inside a little cooler, especially in the early part of summer. By the end of August, after it had cooked for a couple of months, it would be hotter, but for now it was comfortable.
Calvin followed me up a rickety flight of stairs to the second floor. The classrooms there were arranged by age, a couple of them subdivided into smaller learning areas. The room for little kids had tables and chairs that were low to the ground, a cushioned reading area with some matted stuffed animals, a place to draw and cut out shapes from donated magazines or construction paper, and a place to lay out colored blocks that Sue used to teach math concepts. The area for older kids a couple doors down was less kid-like. The desks were normal height, and the motley collection of wooden and plastic chairs were all made for adults, even if kids like Calvin were still getting taller and longer. (I shuddered to think of where his game would go if he grew two or three more inches.) Books were piled everywhere in a seemingly haphazard arrangement, but one that my mom knew inside and out. On the walls were posters of inspirational figures: people you’d expect, like Martin Luther King, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Langston Hughes, and Mahatma Gandhi, but also people who were local to the Kenwood/Hyde Park area—Muhammad Ali, Carol Moseley Braun, Edward H. Levi, and Muddy Waters. The message with this latter group was simple: Great people come from here. You can be great too.
Calvin and I sat at a regular school table with a pale linoleum top that was cool to the touch. I’d arrived a little earlier and already set out materials. This would be our first time working together, so I needed to get an idea of where he needed the most help. I was giving him what today I’d call an assessment, but which back then I just called a reading packet.
The packet replicated the English comprehension section of a standardized test like the ACT. There was a passage—a piece of fiction from an old book or an article from a periodical—followed by some basic questions. Calvin would have to write out his answers, so I’d set out a couple of sharpened No. 2 pencils and a short stack of loose-leaf paper. I made sure he was comfortable, watched him read the passage and the first question, and left him to write while I got us some ice water from the kitchen downstairs.
When I came back I set his glass on the table. I looked over his shoulder at his work. He’d answered about five questions already. He took a break, looked up at me, smiling, and said, “Thanks for the water, man. I’m thirsty as hell.” “Hell” is about as tame as they come, but this was one of the few times I heard Calvin swear, including on the court, where foul language blares constantly. He picked up his glass and drank all the water in three or four loud gulps.
I didn’t drink. Instead I stood there, frozen solid like the ice in my glass. I was shocked. I plainly saw that Calvin struggled to read and could barely form a proper sentence. His letters were fine but his spelling was dismal. His ability to craft a cohesive thought using written language was nonexistent. I wasn’t an expert, but if I had to guess, Calvin Williams, a rising high school senior on the B honor roll, could read and write at a second- or third-grade level.
“You all right, man?” he asked.
“Yeah. Fine.” I took a sip from my water, hoping the cold ice clinking on my teeth would jolt me out of it.
Calvin looked down at the page, then back up at me. “I do something wrong?”
I sat down next to him. “Nah, nothing.” I put a finger on the words he’d written out. “You write much at school?”
He shrugged. “Guess so. I got a B-minus in English at the end of the year. Passed the tests and all.”
I didn’t know what to say. I knew automatically that, barring some miracle, I would not be able to give Calvin ten years of English instruction in two or three months. I knew in my heart, and as much as I wished it otherwise, that he had no chance of ever getting into a Division I school. He probably wouldn’t score higher than 12 or 13 on his ACT: the absolute minimum for getting into college was 16, and that was still incredibly low.
“We have a lot of work to do, Calvin.”
“This ain’t good?”
“It’s . . . Look, I’m not going to lie to you. If you want to go to Kansas or Syracuse or any of those other places, we have to get down to work. And we’ll have to work hard, all summer long.”
He kind of chuckled. “All right, no problem. That’s why I’m here, ain’t it? You know I’ll put it in.”
I did know it. He was an easy kid, a joy. He worked hard at basketball and he’d work hard here too. He wasn’t lying.
But I was. It hit me so hard. The odds of him living out his dreams were close to zero—and why? He hadn’t screwed up. He hadn’t joined a gang or started drinking. He hadn’t ended up in juvenile hall for some stupid teenage transgression. He hadn’t become a teenage father. He was a model kid who’d done everything
right. His talent for basketball would be all for nothing. Not because he had failed or his family had failed, but because the education system had failed. Calvin Williams wouldn’t make it because of the lies that the Chicago schools had told him and his parents about how much he’d learned, and about how ready he was for college. The truth, though, was that he’d learned far too little, and he wasn’t ready.
We did work hard that summer, sometimes seven days a week. The more I learned about what he didn’t know, the more depressing the whole exercise became. In math, Calvin had to begin with fractions, which was what fifth and sixth graders did. He knew almost nothing on the social studies section of the ACT. I remember him saying, “I do good in history, but either that stuff isn’t in our books, or we skipped that section, or something.” He couldn’t answer any questions that dealt with science. Also, he didn’t know he was allowed to write in the test booklet. Calvin thought part of the test was having to do all the math problems in his head. He was amazed when I told him he could work them out right there in the book.
Through all of this I didn’t give up on him, but I also never had the courage to tell him straight up that he wouldn’t be going to college. I’m not proud of that. I’ve fallen out of touch with Calvin over the years, and I’m not sure when it dawned on him that he wouldn’t be going to some big-time program, but if I had to guess it was probably when his ACT scores came back later that year.
My mom always liked to get the kids young. She knew she could change the life of a five-year-old but that changing the life
of an older kid was a lot harder. With Calvin, we were too late. If he’d come into the center as a sixth grader, then he would have been more than fine. But not as an eleventh grader. The hole was too deep, and the timeline was too short. Yes, he worked hard. Yes, he improved. Yes, we helped him. But it wasn’t close to enough.
“This ain’t good?” he innocently asked that first day. This question haunted me for years, and in some ways it still does. The worst part of the whole thing was that he didn’t know what he didn’t know. He truly thought he was a B honor roll student. He was as certain about this as about the fact that he was a gifted athlete with a bright future. He had simply been passed through the system. Did this happen because he was a good kid? Or because he was a star basketball player? Or because he was a black kid from the inner city for whom there were no real academic expectations? I don’t know, but what I do know is that he’d been lied to his entire life. The lies were so ingrained and had been told for so long that they’d become invisible. The whole thing was so needlessly cruel. Here was a young man who represented the best of what we had on the South Side, and we as adults had given him our worst. Why? Because, unlike me, he came up on the wrong side of Forty-Seventh Street. Those twelve blocks from my house changed everything.
I returned to Harvard that fall and finished my undergrad studies. My senior thesis was all about kids like Calvin and about my mom’s program, in which I had the good fortune to grow up and learn, not just about what was in books, but about what was on the basketball court, about what was on the streets, and about
what was in people. My thesis was, in part, about the lie I told Calvin Williams that hot summer afternoon.
I ended up playing professional basketball for a few years after I graduated, although in Australia and not the NBA. (I did manage to get invited—and cut—from camp with the Celtics.) I played for two years in Melbourne and for another two in Tasmania, where I met my wife. Since returning from that faraway place, I’ve devoted my life and career to helping kids. I’ve tried to make the American educational system better functioning and more honest. For me this work has been all about closing that achievement gap between where I grew up and where Calvin grew up. It’s been about trying to erase the Forty-Seventh Street divide, which exists all across the country, from the densest cities to the most sparsely populated rural areas. In America, there’s no reason that a kid born in one place should not have the same chances and opportunities as a kid born in another. This work has not been easy. I have seen the lies challenged at many turns, but they survive. They persist.
The lies told to Calvin were not told to torture him. They were not intended to make children’s lives worse, or to demoralize parents, or to make America less competitive or less intelligent. They didn’t exist with the purpose of turning poor kids into poor adults. More often than not they existed to protect resources, or to safeguard jobs, or to control what kids were taught and how or whether they were tested on what they knew. Nearly all of the lies had to do with money and where power was concentrated, not with education. This was the case then, and in too many places
it’s still the case now. The big lies are the ones that the system tells to parents about how their kids are learning—the ones that schools tell to every level of government about how great their students are doing. In turn, these government offices tell families and students that their children are well prepared to grow up and graduate into an increasingly complex, technically challenging, and highly competitive world. The truth is that, compared to students in other countries, far too few of our kids actually are prepared. These are the lies that create students like Calvin Williams.
Are we coming up short everywhere? Absolutely not. I’m not throwing the entire system under the school bus. Despite the issue of gun violence, schools are safe havens, and there are countless K–12 public schools in this country, in every single state, where great leaders and teachers buck trends and where resources are concentrated, laser-like, on doing right by students. Some states, like Massachusetts and Tennessee, have made hard decisions that have paid tremendous dividends for the children of their states. But the existence of these schools and statewide initiatives does not exonerate those other schools or states that are not up to par, nor does their existence help with the problems of perception. Time and again I’ve seen how schools suffer from something we might call the “Congress polling problem.” This is the phenomenon that results when voters are asked to rate Congress, which they invariably grade poorly, and are then asked to rate their own congressperson, whom they rate as satisfactory or higher. The same thing happens when Americans are polled about schools: “Oh, the nation’s schools are in big trouble, but ours are pretty
good!” If the latter were true everywhere, then how can the former also be true? It can’t. This is the definition of “cognitive dissonance,” and it is harming the country as a whole.
The “good” schools in this country haven’t managed to defeat the lies that undermine our system so much as they’ve been able to circumvent them. Too many of our schools have not been able to do this. This is true across the United States. But if the story of Calvin Williams was the most poignant in spurring me toward a life in education, then the story of John Easton and his damning PowerPoint presentation was the most alarming. It wouldn’t happen for many years to come, but it compelled me to push ahead and, eventually, to try to upend the system entirely.