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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

A Few Reflections Upon Secretary Duncan’s Departure

By Rick Hess — October 05, 2015 4 min read
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Rather than once again address Arne Duncan’s tenure as Secretary of Education, today I’m inclined to offer a couple of more personal musings. After all, while I’ve often been disappointed by Duncan’s Department (and been a thorn in its side), there have been more rewarding moments. I remember Duncan coming to AEI in 2010, a couple weeks after the elections, to give a terrific speech on the “new normal” in education and the need for schools to find ways to do more with less. I recall when Peter Cunningham, Duncan’s whip-smart comms chief, was kind enough to invite Andrew Kelly and me over to the Department of Education for a town hall to discuss the lessons about the federal role in education that we took from our 2012 book Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit. I recall fiercely defending Duncan against the inane, childish protest he faced a couple years ago at the American Educational Research Association annual conference . . . and he and I having a good go on the Common Core a couple years ago at the University of Chicago, and a fruitful exchange after.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t know Duncan well. But I first met him more than a decade ago in Chicago, and he has always struck me as wholly committed to serving the nation’s students the best way he knows how. I believe that he has always sought to do the right thing for our nation’s students. That acknowledgment is important because I’m afraid we’ve largely lost the ability— in education as elsewhere— to disagree about important questions without doubting one another’s integrity and goodwill.

I know that the actions that struck me as counterproductive or even destructive— like federal efforts to push the Common Core or offer “free” community college— struck Duncan as no-brainers. I understand that he thought it would be a betrayal if he didn’t do everything he could to push states to do this stuff, and that he saw my concerns about the appropriate federal role, the perils of bureaucratization, or the consequences of rushing half-baked policies into practice as a distraction or an excuse for inaction. I grant his sincerity, even as I profoundly disagree with much that he did. (I do wish Duncan had been equally inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to those who differed with him on questions like pre-K, Title I portability, or Common Core and less prone to denounce them as a morally bankrupt lunatic fringe.)

In fact, there’s a larger question here about mutual goodwill. The other week, POLITICO ran an enthusiastic profile of Duncan. I was struck by how many in Duncan’s circle truly seemed to believe that he possessed an unprecedented concern for the nation’s children. As I observed, “The danger with becoming convinced of one’s unique goodness is that it becomes only natural to dismiss those who disagree as insufficiently compassionate and concerned. In that way, self-righteousness morphs into close-mindedness, insularity, and disdain for those who might not see things the same way.” In the ensuing back-and-forth over Twitter and email, various Duncan admirers and allies insisted that he was indeed unique in putting the students first “100%" of the time. When asked if they really thought that previous education secretaries like Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings didn’t put the children first, they stood their ground. I find that remarkable and remarkably arrogant (and flat-out ridiculous).

The maddening part is that I don’t believe Duncan and his team started out that way. Obama’s Education Department has featured a roster of talented, smart, and passionate people. But there’s a natural tendency in government in general, and in the federal government in particular, for the passage of time to bring about the circling of wagons and the closing of minds. No matter how open-minded you are when you settle in behind your desk at the U.S. Department of Education, it’s damn hard to come through years of frustration and bureaucracy without catching the disease— especially when almost every external interaction is with someone who’s either sucking up to or berating you. It’s not about personal shortcomings— it’s the nature of the role.

Anyway, running the U.S. Department of Education is a tough job. It requires oodles of meetings, punishing travel, lots of suit-wearing, and immense patience with bureaucracy and interagency memos. I have plenty of differences with Arne Duncan. But he strikes me as a good man who took on a demanding job and did it in the best way he knew how. By all accounts, he was good to his colleagues and subordinates, and a beacon of personal integrity. That counts for a lot. I admire him for wanting to get back to Chicago to be with his wife and children, who had headed home for the new school year. As Duncan moves on, I honor his service and wish the very best for him and his family.

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