What the White House Press Corp Didn’t Ask About Arne Duncan’s Resignation

The 3:30pm ET press conference on October 2 was billed as “President Obama Makes a Personnel Announcement and Answers Questions.” The questions raised by the press, however, were not pertinent to the big news.

By then, everyone knew that Arne Duncan would be stepping down as U.S. Secretary of Education and that John B. King Jr. had been called to fill his shoes.

Obama opened the press conference with praise for Duncan, saying he has done “more to bring our education system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anybody else.”

Fighting tears, Duncan expressed thanks for the work his crew has accomplished. “I think our team at the Department of Education is the strongest it’s ever been...I’m deeply sad to be leaving, but I’m so happy to be a part of this department….Six and a half year later, my admiration [for Obama] has only grown. He always asked, 'What is right for kids?'”

King promised to carry forward “an ambitious agenda from strengthening early childhood education….to raising standards for teaching and learning in K through 12, to ensuring that more Americans have access to higher-quality higher education….to ensuring that we support our teachers and that we invest in our teachers and provide the best preparation and support and leadership opportunities for them.”

“One thing about education is that it does not show results immediately,” said Obama. “It goes in fits and starts. This is a decade-long process. We watch the next class come up and hope what we did is working.”

As the President duly noted, there has certainly been plenty of kicking and screaming during Duncan’s tenure. But the media in attendance seemed preoccupied over other—and equally painful—fights over the budget, gun control, Syria and Hillary Clinton. We decided to consult our network of educators, thought leaders, policy wonks and academics for their thoughts on Duncan’s legacy—and what the future may hold for some of the contentious efforts he has overseen.

Voices from the Education Field

Several individuals expressed support and admiration for Duncan, citing his efforts to invest in technology, empower students of color, and more.

  • Wendy Kopp, Founder of Teach for America and Teach for All: “Arne brought personal passion and deep commitment to ensuring that all of our kids – particularly low-income kids and kids of color – have an equal shot through education. His conviction won many hearts and souls to this cause.”
  • Dallas Dance, Superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools: “Our relationship blossomed in the early months of my tenure when we had an unfortunate tragedy at one of our campuses, and the Secretary personally called and visited to offer his support as well as federal resources. In my capacity as Commissioner on the White House Commission on Educational Excellence for African-Americans, I have appreciated the Secretary's willingness to tackle tough issues and provide practical solutions to ensuring all students reach their full potential.”
  • Stacey Childress, CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund: “I got to know Arne back in 2003 when he was leading the Chicago Public Schools with courage and conviction and was thrilled when he was appointed Secretary. He made bold moves during his time as Secretary, which will always mobilize champions and critics alike.”
  • Alex Hernandez, Partner at Charter School Growth Fund: “Arne Duncan has fought his whole career for students of color, students in poverty, students who we promised could access the American dream through public education. Great expectations are controversial.”

Arne’s push to incorporate technology and data into teaching, learning and evaluations were also lauded.

  • Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise and Former Head of the Office of Education Technology: “From the development of the 2010 National Education Technology Plan to the creation of Digital Promise, he has recognized the importance of technology for supporting this generation of students.”
  • David DeSchryver, Senior Vice President and Co-Director of Whiteboard Advisors: “We’re becoming more sophisticated about asking what learning looks like for students and teachers. We’ve entered a period of having access to rich information that creates a more complicated reality based on data, information and technology. Now the department and the country is trying to figure out what all the data means. I often use the analogy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; the answer is 42, but what is the question?

While Duncan had successes, some constituents called out the difficulties of his particular position given the Congressional climate, and noted that his departure from the DOE would likely be remembered with mixed sentiments.

  • Terry Grier, Superintendent of Houston Independent School District: “It was tough for Duncan. I just don’t see the same level of leadership from Congress that we’ve been accustomed to… We started testing, and all of a sudden, we ticked off soccer moms--and you can’t tick off soccer moms, and you can’t tick off special education parents.”
  • Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart: “The unfortunate thing for Arne is that if he does go out on a less popular note, I think he gets tagged with the pushback that’s really characterized the last few years of standards-based reform. Everyone wanted higher standards and better tests, and we got them, and then people didn’t like them.”

There are also those who wonder how Duncan’s step-down is related to the recent Elementary and Secondary Education Act (essentially No Child Left Behind) reauthorization bill.

  • Tom Murray, Digital Learning Director at the Alliance for Excellent Education: “What I respect most about Secretary Duncan is the amount of time he spent with students and teachers in schools; virtually every week. He has been a champion for ALL students, particularly those that are traditionally underserved, as well as an advocate to accelerate learning through technology. Some have pushed back, for example with Race to the Top as the premise was to push districts to innovate to do things differently and personalize, but some of the reasons it gained negative connotations as some have viewed it as hyper-focused in some areas while others haven’t received as much funding. Secretary Duncan has shown how leadership can push the needle to bring about change for kids. However, with proposed revisions in both the House and Senate for ESEA reauthorization, it’s quite possible that the US Department of Education loses some of that power moving forward.”
  • Michael Horn, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation: “Here’s one big question mark: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (essentially No Child Left Behind) reauthorization. Duncan didn’t show really any enthusiasm for that, and I don’t think we know what King will do on that either.”
  • Michael Petrilli, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute: “I actually think Arne leaving creates an opportunity to get ESEA done. He’s been the major barrier to getting a great deal passed. He hasn’t been sincere that he wants to pass a bill because it would strip him of a lot of his authority and give it back to the states. Supposedly everybody says they’re frustrated, that we can’t get anything done but this bill passed in the senate with 70% majority. Now that he’s on his way out, he won’t be there to stop.” (For more from Petrilli, read his vitriolic op-ed on the disaster that is ESEA regulation.)

Both friends and foes of Duncan agreed on one point: He always led with his heart and his desire to give all children a better start. Noted Cator: “Although every decision may not have had the intended consequences, Arne was always kind, deliberate and inclusive during deliberations and I am tremendously appreciative of his leadership and dedication.”

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