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Change at the U.S. Department of Education: Arne Duncan's Departure

Change at the U.S. Department of Education: Arne Duncan's Departure

Aggressively powerful and controversial U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that he will be stepping down in December to spend more time with his family. President Obama has asked Deputy Secretary of Education Dr, John B. King, Jr., former New York State education commissioner, to be acting secretary through the end of his term and will not be putting him through the nominating process and Senate approval.

I thought I’d take this time of change as an opportunity to reflect on some of the key Duncan initiatives (both successes and failures), try to put some perspective around the Duncan administration, and look forward to what’s next. So, this will be a two-part post with this first installment reflecting on the Duncan legacy and next week’s installment looking forward to the King administration.

Timing is Everything

Much of Secretary Duncan’s early power within the Obama administration came from the unique timing at which he stepped up to lead the U.S. Department of Education. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) accountability policies were teetering on the verge of collapse with no solution in sight. Literally, every state was out of compliance with federal law and facing the possibility of severe sanctions. In this environment, Duncan implemented the $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) program and leveraged flexibility within NCLB legislation to create a waiver process that rewarded states for getting on board with his policy priorities. This process included:

  • Adopting tougher academic standards (Duncan is a stanch supporter of the Common Core)
  • Adopting more rigorous standardized tests
  • Performance-based job evaluations for teachers, including using student growth to measure teacher performance
  • Promoting school turnaround and charter schools as solutions for “chronically failing schools”

Fire from the Right and the Left

Throughout his tenure, Duncan has drawn applause, support, criticism, and resistance to his policies and position from both sides of the political aisle. 

The Right fought him on Common Core, assessment, and accountability on the grounds of exerting too much federal control, accusing him of stomping on state’s rights and undermining local control of education. However, the Right applauded his support of charter schools.

The Left, along with teacher unions, fought Duncan on a series of policies, most notably use of student test scores in teacher evaluations and his support for charter schools. The Left largely supported his efforts to raise standards, including his backing of Common Core.

Policies can’t actually be both too far left and too far right. When policies and politicians are drawing fire from both directions, it’s most likely an indication that they are operating in the center and doing something truly difficult—like implementing reform. 

What will Duncan’s Legacy Mean for the future of Education?

Despite an almost completely dysfunctional Congress that has been unable to pass a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) or even a budget, Duncan has succeeded in making progress in moving education reform further into the 21st century. Here are few of my thoughts on some of Duncan’s policies and legacy.

Rigorous Standards

While the beginnings of the Common Core State Standards predate the Obama administration, Secretary Duncan put the full support of the Department of Education behind the standards despite all of the partisan noise. While some educators and subject matter experts disagree on details of specific standards, most agree that moving toward more challenging standards is critical for U.S. education reform and global competitiveness. 

Looking to the future, tougher standards are here to stay, even in states with standards called something other than “Common Core.” States are taking on the challenge of higher levels of rigor. This means that curriculum, instruction, and accountability systems need to continue making more progress toward aligning to these standards in the future.

Next-Generation Assessments

Duncan continued the NCLB focus on standardized testing and supported efforts to evolve state tests to meet the needs of the tougher standards. This evolution included

  • New item types beyond simple multiple-choice questions
  • Extended response and essay test questions
  • Higher depth of knowledge
  • Technology-based online tests

Looking to the future, many of these next-generation features will persist, while some are still in question. Although more challenging tests delivered online will likely be the future of assessment, there is less clarity around the NCLB format of a single, end-of-year standardized state test. Congress is exploring legislation that would allow states (and even districts) more flexibility to allow a wider variety of measures driven by both the opt-out movement and general concerns around over testing. If more flexibility is allowed in the future, it will likely undermine Duncan’s goal of producing achievement data that is consistent and can be compared across states.


Accountability—measuring the performance of schools, administrators, and teachers—has been one of the most controversial initiatives of Duncan’s policy tenure. His administration has upped some of the punitive aspects of accountability, including the labeling of persistently low-performing schools for turnaround, closure, or conversion to charter schools. Using student test data to evaluate teachers and schools has drawn harsh criticism from the start, and it is looking more and more like Duncan may have failed to garner the support needed to sustain this policy. 

Looking to the future, school systems are still operating within the vagueness of waivers, which will likely continue through the end of the Obama administration and beyond the 2016 elections. One of the accountability features that will likely continue into the future is the shift away from reporting simple proficiency percentages toward reporting longitudinal growth.

Charter Schools

Currently, charter school policies are applauded by some as a competitive market-based approach that encourages innovation and efficiency. Others worry about their negative impact on public schools, like loss of funding and the risk that disadvantaged populations could be left behind.

Looking to the future, both public and private charters, while still evolving, are likely here to stay. It’s important to understand that there are examples of charters that are both highly successful and complete failures. Most data today indicate that, on the average, charters are no better or worse than public schools. The long-term positive or negative impact of charters on education is not yet known.

21st Century Technology

Many educators, especially technology reformers, would argue that Duncan could have done more to provide funding in support of technology initiatives to modernize and enhance technical infrastructure for schools. However, it is undeniable that, during the past seven years, schools have taken significant steps forward to expand technology systems used by students, teachers, and administrators. 

Looking to the future, one thing is certain—technology will continue to evolve. Curriculum and assessment will continue to move toward digital, online formats with increasing velocity. Schools will need to continue improving infrastructure and bandwidth, and 1:1 devices will become more common. Some additional support for these initiatives comes from the E-rate Modernization Order of 2014, which is still being distributed to districts and schools. Hopefully, the digital divide will continue to narrow, and technology will become an increasingly ubiquitous part of teaching and learning.

Connecting the Dots

Duncan’s tenure as Secretary of Education has drawn plenty of controversy and has seen both successes and failures. In addition to being remembered as an aggressive advocate for reforming education toward a system competitive in the 21st century global economy, Secretary Duncan will be remembered for his role in increasing the rigor and depth of state standards and assessments. This is much the same as how Bill Clinton’s secretary of education, Richard Riley, will be remembered for pushing states to develop grade-level academic standards in core subject areas and George W. Bush’s secretary of education, Rod Paige, will be remembered for requiring all states to assess students based on those standards. With Dr. John B. King, Jr., at the helm, the final year of the Obama administration looks likely to continue the current initiatives and focus from the Duncan policies through the 2016 elections. However, the outgoing and incoming secretaries are certainly not without their differences. 

Those differences will be the focus in the second part of this post next week. We’ll be looking closely at both the background and past policy initiatives of new acting Secretary of Education King and discuss what changes he might enact within our country’s education landscape. Stay tuned!