District and School Leaders React to Arne Duncan’s Resignation

By Denisa R. Superville — October 02, 2015 9 min read
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News that Education Secretary Arne Duncan was leaving his post at the end of December reverberated among those representing the nation’s districts and school district leaders on Friday.

Reactions ranged from surprise at the Council of the Great City Schools, the Washington-based organization that represents some of the nation’s largest urban school districts, to gratitude for an emphasis during Duncan’s tenure on school leadership at the National Association of Elementary School Principals, which noted that while it did not always see eye-to-eye with Duncan on policy, the NAESP had “agreed with the secretary on his unwavering commitment to children and ensuring that every student has the opportunity to access a high-quality education.”

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, had been a strong advocate for addressing the needs of all students.

“I think Arne Duncan has provided superb leadership, and has been a strong advocate for students who have historically been left behind,” Casserly said. “He’s been one of the most energetic and transparent secretaries that we’ve seen in many years.”

Arne Duncan’s Focus on EquityImage

In March Duncan gave a passionate speech before “the home team"—a gathering of the council’s constituent districts’ superintendents, top school administrators, and school board members, who were in Washington for their annual legislative conference.

He talked about the release of data that would show that four-year graduation rates for minorities were improving. But even with those gains, he stressed that a lot of necessary work remained to help guide those students to greater success.

“This team, this group is leading that effort,” Duncan said. "...You could have said ‘stop, this is too hard... our kids can’t do this’ for whatever reason. You hear that, sadly, from other groups. [You] never hear that from here. And if we can continue to accelerate the pace of change, think what that means for our kids, and our families, and our communities, and our cities, and, ultimately, for our nation.”

He discussed the importance of equity in the then-ongoing and contentious debate over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“This is, at its heart, not just an education law—it’s a civil rights law,” he said of ESEA. “It goes back to 1965.”

And Duncan made clear that he and the Obama administration would ensure that any reauthorization of the ESEA would have equity at its core. He stressed a focus on equity, excellence, and innovation. Equity for him included universal pre-K, boosting Title I dollars to high-poverty schools, and setting high expectations for all children.

“If [we] end up with bill that takes huge amounts of resources from you guys and move them to the wealthier areas, if we have a bill that doesn’t emphasize accountability or [doesn’t have] high expectations or support innovation, that would be, for me, a travesty for children around this nation,” he said.

Areas of Contention: Race to The Top and Teacher Evaluations

Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said a major bone of contention between the association and Duncan was the department’s use of competitive grants like Race to the Top to award federal dollars to a few, lucky school districts.

The AASA had also acknowledged problems with the No Child Left Behind Act, but felt that the law should be fixed and that waivers to certain provisions of the law should have been available to all districts, not just a few districts that applied and were willing to comply with new sets of mandates and regulations, he said.

“Some districts were able to get the advantage of having the waivers, but the majority of districts did not,” he said. “It would have been the right thing to do to provide those waivers to everybody.”

The group also disagreed with the use of standardized testing for teacher evaluations.

Arne Duncan’s Legacy

But Domenech said Duncan had always maintained an open door policy with the organization—something he appreciated—and was certainly among the most visible education secretaries he had seen. And he commended Duncan for his focus on equity, including his most recent statements on the importance of spending money on kids instead of prisons. He said he agreed with Duncan’s focus on disparities in school discipline and disadvantaged students.

“I think that as a Secretary of Education, he was very much out there, very much in the public eye, more so than many of the secretaries of education that preceded him,” Domenech said. “Probably Dick Riley was the last secretary that had this degree of visibility that he had. Again, I think that his devotion to education, his fight for trying to do the right thing for kids will very much be his legacy, and rightfully so.”

Duncan’s tenure coincided with a period of increasing suspicion of the federal government’s expanding footprint in education. To Duncan’s credit, Domenech said, “he never backed off or backed away, and continued to do the things that he thought were the right things to do.”

For superintendents like Barbara Jenkins, who heads the Orange County, Fla., school district, the news of Duncan’s departure was met with sadness. Jenkins said she understood Duncan’s reasons for leaving and that she saluted him for his years of dedication to public schools.

“I was saddened [by the announcement], but I applaud his giving as many years as he has to public service, and I respect him and celebrate him,” said Jenkins, whose district was one of the two winners of the 2014 Broad Prize for Urban Education, which recognizes efforts in closing the achievement gap.

She said that some of the results from initiatives rolled out during Duncan’s tenure would not know be known for years.

Still, she said, initiatives like Race to the Top, “pushed the edges, and made people think outside of the box” about what it takes to help children to be successful and whether they were willing to be held accountable. The program allowed for innovation that could be later expanded or replicated in other districts, she said.

“The overall initiative would have to be judged sometime in the future,” she said. “It’s too early to judge.”

Jenkins praised Duncan’s efforts around expanding technology in school districts, teacher evaluations, a focus on the performance of student subgroups, narrowing the achievement gap, and demanding more rigorous curriculum for all students. He was also actively involved in President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, which focuses on improving education and life outcomes for boys and young men of color.

“He said over and over again that a child’s ZIP code should not determine his future,” she said. “So a huge emphasis on making sure we attend to the subgroups and the underserved in public education—I think that’s a huge part of his legacy as well.”

Principals’ Groups Say Focus on School Leaders Increased

On the leadership side, principals’ associations often gave Duncan positive nods, citing increased focus on school leaders and principals during his time at the helm of the department. (This coincided with similar movements in Congress and the rollout out of a number of initiatives that depended on principals to be successful.) Principals’ groups still continue to lobby for additional money for professional development programs for their members.

Duncan’s expansion of programs like having a superintendent in residence at the department, principal fellows, and offering opportunities for education department staffers to shadow principals and see the real-world impacts of their work, also drew some praise.

“His work over the past three years in particular has focused on bringing about greater federal recognition and support for the role of principals, and we commend him for addressing building the capacity of principals,” Gail Connelly, the NAESP’s executive director, said in a statement. “We know the impact of a strong school leader, especially for schools with the greatest needs.”

Connelly said the group was looking forward to working with Duncan’s successor, John King, Jr., in “putting into place the necessary support systems for principal leadership so that every child will receive a well-rounded educational experience.”

The secondary principals’ association had a similar response:

“Arne consistently demonstrates his high regard for the men and women in schools who do the demanding work of education,” JoAnn Bartoletti, the association’s executive director, said in a statement. “His leadership introduced an unprecedented level of principal engagement in ED activities—from the creation of the Principal Ambassador Fellowship program, to principal shadowing visits during National Principals Month, to regular meetings of NASSP leaders with high-ranking officials. While NASSP had occasional policy differences with the department, we have always found Arne to be approachable, responsive, and open to dialogue. “

And New Leaders, the New York City-based school leadership-development program, which worked closely with Duncan on initiatives like Teach To Lead and the principal shadowing program, said Duncan “proved the power of strong educational leadership every single day.”

“Secretary Duncan ably led our education system through a period of transformation, restoring critical investments to our schools in the aftermath of a difficult recession,” said Jean Desravines, the group’s chief executive officer. “As he did so, he took steps to ensure that those investments were focused on proven initiatives, with particular focus on finding solutions to improve our nation’s lowest-performing schools.”

“Secretary Duncan helped set the expectation that all kids, regardless of their background or ZIP code, should be prepared for success in college and careers,” Desravines’ statement continued. “And he recognized the critical importance of teacher leaders and principals in bringing that vision to life, creating the Teach to Lead initiative and Principal Ambassador Fellowship programs to ensure that educators’ perspectives and experiences helped to shape federal policy.”

Casserly, of the Council of the Great City Schools, and others said they expected that King, the former New York State education commissioner who will serve as acting secretary, would continue along the same path that Duncan paved.

Casserly worked with King on a number of issues, including serving in 2011 on the Equity and Excellence Commission, which Duncan convened.

“If he steps up, he is well-prepared,” Casserly said of King. “He is very smart, and shares the priorities of the administration, and is well-positioned to be successful.”

Photo: President Barack Obama thanks U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who announced Friday that he will resign in December. Obama tapped John King, center, to serve as acting secretary.--Associated Press

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.