Arne Duncan Stepping Down as Education Secretary

By Alyson Klein — October 02, 2015 8 min read
President Barack Obama shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the White House on Oct. 2, where the president announced that Duncan will be stepping down in December after nearly seven years in the Obama administration. Obama has appointed senior Education Department official, John B. King Jr., center, to oversee the U.S. Department of Education.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who plans to step down in December as one of President Barack Obama’s longest-serving Cabinet members, has pushed through an unprecedented level of change in K-12 education in his nearly seven years in office—and drawn the ire of critics from across the ideological spectrum in the process.

Duncan’s surprise resignation announcement on Oct. 2 also came with the news that John B. King Jr., who is currently filling the duties of the deputy secretary of education, will head up the department as acting secretary until the end of the Obama administration.

The turnover comes as the administration heads toward its final year in office and at a time when Congress is wrestling with dueling measures to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Both a bipartisan Senate education committee bill and a Republican-backed House bill would take aim at some of the administration’s most-cherished priorities, including teacher evaluation through student outcomes, common-core standards, and aggressive school turnarounds.

In announcing Duncan’s resignation, Obama said he had hoped the education secretary would stick it out. “I’ll be honest. I pushed Arne to stay,” he said at a televised news conference at the White House Oct. 2. “He’s one of the longest-serving education secretaries in history and one of the more consequential.”

For his part, Duncan was teary-eyed as he recalled his mother’s work running a tutoring program in inner-city Chicago, which he’s often said inspired him to go into education. “All my life we saw what kids could do when they were given a chance,” he said. “I love this work. I love this team. I love this president.”

Watershed Tenure

The rapid pace of change that Duncan and his team initiated in the nation’s schools—especially through the Race to the Top grant competition and waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA—eventually led to blowback from teachers to state chiefs and the administration’s own Democratic allies in Congress.

King’s appointment, though he won’t go through congressional confirmation, may put a fresh face on the administration’s efforts on K-12 policy at a critical moment, as Congress wrestles with the future of the federal role in education.

Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, is one of just two Cabinet members left from Obama’s original team. And he started out in the job in an enviable position.

Initially, he had the backing of both national teachers’ unions and the most knowledgeable Republican in Congress on education issues—Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who called him the administration’s best Cabinet pick.

What’s more, Duncan and his department were handed unprecedented federal resources to push through big changes in education through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The legislation included $100 billion for education, more than $4 billion of which the administration was able to use to prod states and districts to adopt its priorities.

The administration bet big on teacher evaluation through student outcomes and rewarded states for adopting college- and career-ready standards and assessments, linking teacher data to student outcomes, and proliferating charter schools. That signature program, Race to the Top, wrought big changes nationally, including in states beyond the dozen states that won grants.

Waiver Season

In 2011, with NCLB reauthorization languishing in Congress, the administration gave states the opportunity to apply for conditional waivers from the law’s mandates.

The waivers called for states to put in place teacher-evaluation systems linked to student outcomes at exactly the same time they were moving forward on new standards to prepare students for college and the workforce—and new assessments linked to those standards.

“He was just at the right place at the right time,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a former official of the George W. Bush administration. “Congress gave him a huge amount of authority with Race to the Top, a blank check for $4 billion. It empowered him to be the most powerful education secretary ever. And he was happy to wield that power. He then doubled down on that with conditional waivers. ... That left a bad taste in the mouths of conservatives and led to a lot of the backlash we’re seeing today.”

But Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius, who was appointed by a Democratic governor, dismissed the notion that Duncan had pushed for an overly aggressive federal role in education.

She said Duncan had no choice but to act boldly, because of the urgent need to improve the nation’s schools—and Congress’ failure to act in reauthorizing the ESEA, leaving states to cope with a bad policy.

“If [efforts to fix the ESEA] are stalling out, and children are underperforming, and schools are screaming for help, you’ve got to do something,” said Cassellius. “You need a solution.”

Arne Duncan Talks to PBS NewsHour Special Correspondent John Merrow

Turbulent Times

So much change, so fast, from the top down has led to turbulent implementation of those policies and major political opposition. Duncan and his department moved the goal posts on pieces of the waiver policy, particularly teacher evaluations through test scores, but states continued to struggle with implementation.

The ESEA bills in both the House and Senate are just the latest in a long string of reactions to what Duncan’s loudest critics have considered as major overreach on the part of an Education Department that pushed through too much change to the nation’s schools too quickly.

Now, Congress is mulling NCLB rewrite legislation that would essentially—and deliberately—place a straitjacket around the Education Department’s ability to influence state policy, knee-capping the federal role in education for the foreseeable future.

Last year, the National Education Association called for Duncan’s resignation. And the American Federation of Teachers put him on an “improvement plan.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she sees Duncan as having a dual legacy of sorts. On the one hand, Duncan and his allies gave schools a big financial lift when they needed it the most, providing $100 billion in emergency education aid under the ARRA.

“That was a huge moment. It can’t be overstated,” she said. And she was glad to see a new emphasis on career and technical education, early-childhood education, and other issues in the administration’s second term.

But there was just too much emphasis on tests, in her view. “They never made the adjustments when it was clear that everything was boiling down to the high-stakes consequences of two tests a year,” she said. “It became the centerpiece for all of K-12 policy – whether a school stays open or not, whether a kid gets promoted or not, whether a teacher gets fired or not.”

In an interview with Education Week last month, Duncan was unapologetic about the direction he’d taken. In fact, he said he wished he had initiated waivers from the NCLB law earlier.

“We have 44 pretty happy customers across the political spectrum,” he said of the states that have taken the department up on the waiver flexibility. “To be more helpful to children and more supportive of teachers and schools, we should have known Congress was good at talking but not good at acting. And the fact is that we hurt kids and hurt teachers and wasted so much of our time. That was a big mistake.”

Duncan also took flak for several public relations gaffes, at one point calling Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans,” because of the sweeping changes it set off to that city’s school system. Later, he painted opposition to the Common Core State Standards as the product of “white suburban moms” fretting about lower student performance.

Stepping Up

The man who is slated to replace Duncan also is no stranger to controversy. King, who was never confirmed by the Senate in his current role, had a tumultuous tenure as New York’s state education commissioner from 2011 to 2014. The state teachers’ union voted “no confidence” in his policies and called for his resignation in 2014, primarily over what it saw as a bungled implementation of the common core and an aggressive rollout of new licensing exams for teachers.

In an interview earlier this year, King, the son of educators, talked about the role his teachers had in giving him a chance to succeed. “Teachers could have looked at me and said, ‘Here’s an African-American male Latino student with a home life in crisis in an urban public school, and what chance does he have?’ But instead they looked at me, and they saw an opportunity to help me grow academically.”

Andrew Rotherham, the co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, predicted that King also could face pushback.

“John’s going to be a political lightning rod around the common-core stuff ... the evaluation stuff, all the controversy there,” he said. (King’s wife, Melissa Steel King, is an associate partner at Bellwether.)

ESEA Reauthorization

A big question going forward: What happens with ESEA reauthorization? The House and Senate have each passed bills, but the impending resignation of Rep. John A. Boehner, the Speaker of the House, seemed to throw up another potential roadblock to a final bill.

Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, praised Duncan’s work for children—and made it clear she still wants to go forward with the ESEA.

But others aren’t so sure.

“The reality is for it [ESEA] to go through, everything has to go right. For it not to go through, only one thing has to go wrong,” Rotherham said. “This confuses an already confused environment.”

Associate Editors Catherine Gewertz, Sean Cavanagh, and Stephen Sawchuk, Assistant Editor Liana Heitin, and Staff Writer Arianna Prothero contributed to this report.

Arne Duncan Talks to Education Week‘s Editor-in-Chief Virginia B. Edwards

A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as Duncan Sets Departure as Secretary


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