“All our life we saw what kids could do when they were given a chance. That’s why we do this work today.” With this statement, Arne Duncan announced that he will depart from Washington, DC in December, ending his seven year service as Secretary of Education. Respect and affection were evident between Duncan and the POTUS in the press conference. After all, their friendship is long term; they were Chicago colleagues and DC basketball buddies. It is hard to believe they will not find another policy place to join forces in the future. We will see how long this former superintendent can stay away from the fray. In the meantime, Duncan will follow his family who left DC in the summer to return to Chicago.
Most in education would agree Duncan has had a transformative impact on education in America. His signature Race to the Top (RTTT) with its incentives for Common Core and accountability have touched every classroom. Undisputedly, graduation rates have risen. Nevertheless, his advocacy for charter schools has been contentious. He clashed with teacher unions and with those who wanted less of a federal role in education. Clearly, not all would agree his leadership has been for the better.
So, what happens at Department of Education for the last year of the Obama presidency? Avoiding a confirmation battle with Senate Republicans is in the best interest of the POTUS and his educational agenda. There at Duncan’s right side in the press conference was the answer. John King, Jr. will serve as Acting Secretary for the rest of the Obama term.
The new secretary is hardly a stranger. His life story is a compelling testament to public education. His parents died when he was young and he moved between homes and schools. He has said that his teachers saved his life. A Harvard graduate, he received a masters degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College, a law degree from Yale, and a doctorate in Educational Administration from Columbia University’s Teachers College. He became a charter school leader in Boston and in New York. He came to New York State as Deputy Commissioner and two years later, at the age of 36, the father of two was named NYS Commissioner of Education. He was the first African-American and Puerto Rican to hold that post.
He led the rollout of RTTT in New York with the Common Core Standards, student assessments, and teacher accountability. He was focused, determined and uncompromising in achieving his agenda. And, he became the most controversial commissioner in recent history. Animosity with teacher unions rose and led to a vote of no confidence. Enraged parents turned out in droves for a community forum series about the Common Core and testing program. His first attempt was so failed, that the following community meetings were cancelled in order for him to regroup before he tried again. He developed a reputation as one who would not listen and would not compromise. Yet, the Board of Regents remained loyal supporters as he carried forth the mission. He resigned in 2014 to become Duncan’s senior advisor.
The frustrations and pushback to his drive forward left a state in which the teaching profession felt berated, pushed ahead too quickly, with limited understanding of what they were being asked to do, all the while being evaluated on their students’ and their own progress in new ways. The value of the work he was leading is difficult to separate from the toll it took on the educational community of students, parents, and educators. That is New York’s story in a nutshell.
The Acting Secretary is not one to shrink from controversy. He is unabashed in his views and his resolve. In the swirling debates of a presidential election year we should not expect this man to simply fill space. It is unlikely that will be the definition of “acting” for him. It will be an interesting time for the country.
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