Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.


How Many Education Secretaries Have Been K-12 Classroom Teachers?

By Alyson Klein — February 16, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Newly minted acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., who has been officially nominated to head up the Education Department, loves to weave his background as a social studies teacher into his speeches (especially when he’s talking about how government works.) And a couple times lately, he’s even played the former principal card (including when getting the attention of a room full of edu-advocates eager to hear about the president’s budget proposal).

It turns out King is the very first former principal to serve as education secretary (or acting secretary). That got us wondering—how many other former classroom teachers have been at the helm of the department? How many had other sorts of teaching backgrounds?

And it seems that just four out of the eleven, or less than half of, the officials who have led the department as secretary or acting secretary since its inception in 1980 were full-time K-12 classroom teachers at one point in their careers, according to our research team. Others though had done work in K-12 schools (like serving a big city superintendent) or taught at the university level.

See also: What Could Betsy DeVos Really Get Done as Education Secretary?

Want specifics? Here you go, in chronological order:

Shirley Hufstedler (served under President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat)

K-12 classroom teacher? Nope, but she was a visiting professor at a few universities, including the University of California-Irvine, after her tenure. More here.

Terrel H. Bell (served under President Ronald Reagan, a Republican)

K-12 classroom teacher? Yup. He taught high school chemistry, physics, and athletics in Eden, Idaho. Plus, he served as the superintendent of a bunch of school districts in the western U.S., including Salt Lake City. And he was the Utah state chief. More here.

William J. Bennett (served under Reagan)

K-12 classroom teacher? Nope, but he had some college teaching experience, in philosophy and religion at the University of Southern Mississippi, plus some teaching posts at Boston University. More here.

Lauro F. Cavazos (served under President George H.W. Bush, a Republican)

K-12 classroom teacher? No, he was more of a higher education guy. He taught at the Medical College of Virginia and at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston (where he was also dean). And he was the president of Texas Tech University. More here.

Ted Sanders (served as acting secretary under Bush)

K-12 classsroom teacher: Yes. He taught in Mountain Home, Idaho and for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Plus he was the state chief in Nevada and Illinois (also Ohio, but that was after his stint in the cabinet). More here.

Lamar Alexander (served under Bush)

K-12 classroom teacher? Nope. He had more of a political background. But as governor of Tennessee, he was chairman of the Southern Regional Education Board, and was one of the most active governors on K-12 policy in the country. More here.

Richard Riley (served under President Bill Clinton, a Democrat)

K-12 classroom teacher? Nope. But, like Alexander, he was very active early on in the standards movement, when he served as governor of South Carolina. More here.

Roderick Paige (served under President George W. Bush, a Republican)

K-12 classroom teacher? Yes. He taught health and physical education, plus was a coach. Later, he became the superintendent of public schools in Houston (where he won superintendent of the year.) More here.

Margaret Spellings (served under Bush)

K-12 classroom teacher? No, she had more of a political and higher education background, serving as the associate executive director for the Texas Association of School Boards, and as a top aide on domestic policy in the White House before taking the helm at the department.

She took some flak at a hearing once from Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., himself a former teacher, who seized on the requirement in the No Child Left Behind Act that all teachers be highly qualified—and asked Spellings what qualified her to be secretary of education, given that she had never been a classroom teacher. Spellings said she had substitute taught—and that she was qualified given her work in the policy arena. More here.

Arne Duncan (served under President Barack Obama, a Democrat)

K-12 classroom teacher? No, although he did other direct work with kids, including tutoring and mentoring, and held some high-level central office positions. He worked in a tutoring program started by his mother, and later ran the nonprofit Ariel Education Initiative. He also ran Chicago’s magnet school program, served as deputy chief of staff, and later, superintendent of the Chicago public school district. More here.

John B. King Jr. (serving as acting secretary under Obama)

K-12 teacher? Yes. He taught high school social studies in Boston and Puerto Rico, and co-founded a charter school in Roxbury, Mass. He was also a managing director with the nonprofit Uncommon Schools. And he later served as state chief in New York. More here.

Library interns Rachel Edelstein and Connor Smith contributed research to this story.

Image: John B. King Jr.; file photo

Related Stories

At a Glance: U.S. Secretaries of Education

Related Tags:

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal White House Launches Hispanic Education Initiative Led by Miguel Cardona
President Joe Biden said his administration intends to address the "systemic causes" of educational disparities faced by Hispanic students.
2 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona writes down and draws positive affirmations on poster board with students during his visit to P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021 in New York.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits students in New York City at P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school in the Bronx last month.
Brittainy Newman/AP
Federal Feds Add Florida to List of States Under Investigation Over Restrictions on Mask Mandates
The Education Department told the state Sept. 10 it will probe whether its mask rule is violating the rights of students with disabilities.
3 min read
Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session on April 30, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session on April 30, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Federal How Biden Will Mandate Teacher Vaccines, Testing in Some States That Don't Require Them
President Joe Biden's COVID-19 plan will create new teacher vaccination and testing requirements in some states through worker safety rules.
4 min read
Nurse Sara Muela, left, administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to educator Rebecca Titus at a vaccination site setup for teachers and school staff at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, Pa., on March 15, 2021.
Nurse Sara Muela administers a COVID-19 vaccine to educator Rebecca Titus at a vaccination site for at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, Pa.
Matt Rourke/AP
Federal Biden Pushes Schools to Expand COVID-19 Testing, Get More Teachers Vaccinated
President Joe Biden set teacher vaccine requirements for federally operated schools as part of a new effort to drive down COVID's spread.
7 min read
President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room at the White House, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, in Washington. Biden is announcing sweeping new federal vaccine requirements affecting as many as 100 million Americans in an all-out effort to increase COVID-19 vaccinations and curb the surging delta variant.
President Joe Biden in a speech from the White House announces sweeping new federal vaccine requirements and other efforts in an renewed effort to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.
Andrew Harnik/AP