On Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced he will step down in December. The announcement drew nearly as much attention as unveilings of previous policy initiatives: Twitter mentions spiked and more people searched for his name, according to Google Trends, than at any point during his tenure.
But the announcement also rapidly became a public temperature-taking on America’s opinion of President Barack Obama’s education agenda.
At a White House event, President Obama lavished praise on Duncan, saying, "He's done more to bring our education system — sometimes kicking and screaming — into the 21st century more than anybody else. America is going to be better off for what he's done."
Likewise, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Senate education committee leaders Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA), praised his commitment to equity and high standards while acknowledging a tenure marked by high-profile disagreements and tensions around the direction American public education should take.
But anti-testing advocates and critics of his accountability reforms took joy in the news — while decrying his replacement, former New York schools chancellor John King Jr.: "At the same time we rejoice the resignation of a man who has done more destruction to public education than any other sitting Secretary, we are horrified that President Obama has chosen to replace him with John King," the Badass Teachers Association, a controversial education activist organization, responded.
As news of Duncan's departure sinks in, pressing questions remain: With just 18 months of President Barack Obama's tenure to go, what does the future hold for his education agenda without his top deputy? What will remain of Duncan's aggressive reform agenda? Does his departure jeopardize or help the passage of a possible No Child Left Behind rewrite? And what will King bring to the table?
What Duncan will leave behind
Duncan's assumption of the role of education secretary came at a pivotal moment. NCLB had recently expired and the Obama administration took advantage of the opening to advance its own reforms outside of Congressional gridlock. The resulting infamous waivers from the Bush-era ed law's stringent requirements prompted a sea change in the way schools’ successes and failures were measured — and the consequences thereof. Since his appointment in 2009, states have rolled out complex, test-based accountability systems for teachers and schools, often at the behest of the federal government via requirements for those waivers and Race to the Top funding.
As Duncan leaves, the success of those initiatives remains very much an open question. Quantitative measures, such as test scores and graduation rates, remain hard to pin down and track, while success in closing the achievement gap and significantly improving outcomes for minority students remains far in the future. Civil rights groups, however, have applauded the greater accountability for how schools serve black and Latino students, as well as other subgroups. Unions and conservative lawmakers have decried the federal government's involvement in accountability structures and testing (which they have also often highlighted an overabundance of).
What is clear is that the reforms have sparked a far more wide-ranging and public dialogue about what a high-quality school looks like and what the role of public schools should be.
On the higher education side, Duncan expanded the role of the federal government in holding colleges accountable, including cracking down on for-profit colleges, and also pumping money into encouraging college enrollment. But, as the Huffington Post reports, he'll also leave behind a heated debate over how to resolve the student debt crisis.
Will his departure hurt or help the NCLB rewrite?
Earlier this summer, education leaders were overtaken by an unusual sense of hope about the prospects of finally passing an update to the long-outdated federal education law, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. For a brief, fleeting moment, a compromise seemed possible and imminent. But as House and Senate leaders entered the often lengthy and laborious Congressional conferencing process to reconcile the two chambers' proposals, that sense of hope was quickly tempered by the reality that a thorny road of political chess still lies ahead.
Now, the resignations of Duncan and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), on top of the impending retirement of House education committee leader Rep. John Kline (R-MN), have sent the political dynamics topsy-turvy. It was a touchy process before, but with many key players leaving or on their way out, it could complicate negotiations even further.
Some, however, are finding a silver lining. One Senate GOP aide told Education Week that the announcement could precipitate shifts that result in a compromise by the end of the year: "There's always been this fear that no matter what we did Arne would just ignore it and subvert the law, and now he's not going to be there."
Others took a more tempered approach, saying Duncan's departure will simply light a fire under lawmakers’ chairs to get their work done before a new, untested influencer enters the dialogue.
What will John King bring to the role?
It bears saying that King will only have a short period in which to roll out or oversee policy objectives. He’ll take the reins in December, just ten months before the next presidential election. Even moreso than Duncan’s, King’s education credentials are hefty and controversial. He lost his parents (who were both teachers) at an early age and attributes much of his success to the efforts of his Brooklyn teachers. At 24, he founded Uncommon Schools, a charter network that demonstrated results but proved a flashpoint in the debate over the role of charters in public education. The organization also runs the well-regarded Relay training program for charter school leaders.
King was appointed New York education commissioner in 2011 and oversaw the state's rollout of the Common Core State Standards, as well as the associated tests and accountability systems — all of which prompted severe outcry from teachers and some parent groups. Even as his former boss, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has done some backtracking on the commitment to the new standards and systems, King has publicly stood by the moves.
In his short tenure, he's unlikely to back down from the administration's commitment to the Common Core standards, of which he is a staunch supporter. Interestingly, he has also expressed interest in integrated classrooms, an idea that has been gaining more public attention in recent months.
Still, news of his appointment prompted concerned and outright vitriolic responses from some parties, including leaders of major teacher unions.
"We can only hope that John King has learned something since his tenure in New York — that testing isn't an educational strategy and shouldn't be the be-all and end-all for educating our kids. His test-driven education policies in New York produced a vigorous public backlash," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement.
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