I was as surprised as anyone when Arne Duncan announced he was resigning as Secretary of Education. In retrospect, two obvious clues were staring us in the face: His family had moved back to Chicago, and he had hired John King, the former Commissioner of Education in New York and his education soulmate, to be his close advisor and assistant.  (King will succeed him, as Acting Secretary.)

Arne Duncan departs with quite a track record, clearly the most powerful Secretary of Education since the Department was created in the Carter Administration.  He took on for-profit colleges, he pushed hard for early childhood education and access to technology, and he spoke forcefully on issues that were only peripherally related–if at all–to education, such as gay marriage and gun violence.  He had the President’s ear and his trust. That, and Duncan’s remarkable basketball skills, displayed often, put education front and center.  That’s all good, a legacy to be proud of.

As CEO of the public schools in Chicago, Duncan had chafed under the directives of “No Child Left Behind” and its hundreds of pages of regulations.  I thought the lesson of NCLB was inescapably clear: Washington cannot run public education. However, Democrats, including Secretary Duncan, apparently reached a different conclusion: “Perhaps REPUBLICANS cannot run public education, but we can.”

So that’s another aspect of Arne Duncan’s legacy: Republicans and Democrats fight about everything else, but they agree that Washington is exerting too much influence over public education. The next federal legislation–if it should ever pass–will shift power back to the states, and the next Secretary of Education will arrive with wings clipped, unless Congress continues to fail to replace No Child Left Behind.

Because of Duncan, the next Secretary won’t have much money to play with either, because Congress will never again issue a blank check.  The ‘great recession’ bailout gave Duncan about $4.5 BILLION in discretionary money, dollars he used to create his “Race to the Top” program.

When that was announced, I called his Assistant Secretary for Communication, the smart and likable Peter Cunningham, to suggest that the Department allow us behind-the-scenes access, to document the process.  Cunningham grasped that this could insulate the Administration from criticism; after all, if the NewsHour reported it, how could anyone argue that it was a rigged game.  Peter said I should come to Washington to meet with the Secretary, which I did.  He signed on, and we began taping immediately.  Within hours, the project was aborted because, we were told, the Department’s top lawyer feared that opening this one unique process would set a precedent and therefore make all deliberations subject to review by the press (using the Freedom of Information laws).

I was disappointed, of course, because it would have been revealing to learn the ins and outs of Race to the Top, particularly how its criteria were decided upon.

You recall that Race to the Top established four criteria that states had to meet to qualify for the (much needed) money: better data, more charter schools, higher standards (i.e., the Common Core), and test-based accountability. That last innocuous sounding phrase means relying heavily student test scores to judge (and perhaps) fire teachers.  Dr. Terry Holland, who recently stepped down as Kentucky’s State Superintendent, calls that Duncan’s worst decision, and many agree.

The Secretary was fond of pointing out that, while most states did not get Race to the Top money, nearly all of them fell in line and changed their behavior, adopting his four criteria.  He had real power, probably more than all the previous Secretaries combined.

What if he had used that power differently?  What if the Secretary had told states that they would be evaluated on their commitment to art, music, science, and recess? Or to project-based learning?  Or social and emotional learning? Instead of today’s widespread teacher-bashing, excessive testing, test-prep, and a rash of cheating scandals, many more schools might be places of joy.

As he prepares to leave, I am struck by how much he seemed to change over the years.  When we produced a NewsHour profile of the new Secretary not long after his swearing in, he was comfortable and accessible.  Asked a question, he would answer it. No obvious list of ‘talking points’ and no obviously taboo topics.  Within a short time, however, (after some professional training, I assume), he had become accomplished at staying ‘on message.’ He knew how to dodge questions. He was skilled at taking one question and answering another, usually at great length.  In short, he became a frustrating interview, still likable, but dull.  Because he seems to be a genuinely interesting and nice person, I wonder about the price he paid for this transformation.

So rarely did he go off message that it became headline news when he slipped with a comment about white suburban moms and what he said was their unrealistic view of their children’s intelligence.

Some months ago The NewsHour approved my suggestion for a sit-down interview with the Secretary, a conversation about what he’d learned, what he saw coming down the pike with the Common Core, and so on.  Knowing his penchant for long answers, I told his PR people we’d need 45 minutes with him, and they initially agreed.  A week or so later we got the word that we’d have 30 minutes, and a few days later the time got whittled down further.   Instead we produced a feature piece about the Secretary and his influence over public education. We interviewed his critics on the left and right and an independent analyst with no skin in the game, to go along with our 15 or so minutes with Secretary Duncan.  I’m proud of the resulting piece, but we were basically frozen out by the Department from that point on.

10 thoughts on “ARNE DUNCAN’S LEGACY

  1. John: Nice piece. However, I was not surprised but anticipated it was happening. In fact, I had told several people that It would happen because an ESEA reauthorization would be a victory for him by December.


  2. Caught me by surprise, although perhaps I should have figured it out when the President basically gave up basketball for golf!!!
    What’s going to happen to ESEA now, with McCarthy’s having been eliminated? What a zoo you live in…


  3. The big question is what if they required commitment to the arts, science project based learning etc. The outcomes now demanded are about the “test” and that drives the curriculum. And those who have the most difficulty learning to the test, were forced into more test prep rather than teaching in the way they best learn.

    Now does that make any sense? To add to the “what if’s”, What if the Every Child Achieves act is passed including the Collins Sanders amendment that basically would allow selected states to use innovative assessment such as whole child assessment to drive the curriculum. With that, assessment could be built into the arts and even recess would help students once again embrace the joy of learning thus setting them free to express themselves in ongoing assessments and an active curriculum.

    This amendment has had little discussion in public arenas but could be a powerful tool only if states take advantage of it. And that remains to be seen. Of course the bill first has to pass


  4. Nice piece John. Sorry about the lawyers but the fear of politicizing a competitive grant was overwhelming and we went above and beyond to insulate the secretary and the White House from any direct involvement. There have been a lot of good memories of the past seven years and I always appreciated your candor and integrity. Keep it up.


  5. We are relieved he’s on his way back to Chicago. Keep investigating where this arrogant man lands next, we hope he will not have a position of power over the lives of people who really have had a positive impact on the lives and education of American children.


  6. Reblogged this on The Academe Blog and commented:
    Here is an interesting assessment of Arne Duncan’s tenure as Secretary of Education by the distinguished education correspondent for the PBS NewsHour.


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