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

By Alyson Klein — February 16, 2016 4 min read
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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

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At a Glance: U.S. Secretaries of Education

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