Late last week, Arne Duncan announced that he would resign as Education Secretary in December of this year. Duncan’s reign as Secretary has been anything but quiet, as he’s drawn significant criticism during his tenure for leading an active agenda for the Department of Education. In Duncan’s first year on the job, his department received billions of dollars through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which helped push through some big changes in education on a national level and funded Duncan’s signature program, the Race to the Top grant program, a $4 billion competitive grant program intended to promote innovation and reform in states and school districts.
Duncan has been a powerful education secretary, partly due to the unprecedented billions his department received during his administration, and partly due to his close personal ties to President Obama. Duncan’s top-down approach to education reform, however, has been met with disapproval from many who believe he overstepped his authority. And criticism of Duncan hasn’t just come from one side of the isle. Republicans despise Duncan’s promotion of universal college- and career-ready academic standards and assessments, such as the Common Core State Standards (though I must be clear that the U.S. Department of Education did not create, nor require, the use of CCSS), while many Democrats disagree with his support of charter schools. Some of Duncan’s biggest critics, however, have been the teacher unions. Duncan has strongly advocated linking student assessment outcomes to teacher evaluations and making it easier to fire poor-performing teachers, and this has been met with staunch disapproval from many teachers who enjoy tenure and other due process laws that protect their jobs.
Duncan promoted the use of these reforms not only through his Race to the Top competitive grant program, but also through the use of conditional waivers from the strict, and often unreachable, mandates of No Child Left Behind. Congress has failed to reauthorize NCLB repeatedly, and states have sought relief from many of its burdensome provisions. States were required to comply with certain policies and reforms in order to receive those waivers, and this too was criticized as federal overreach. Many will tout Duncan’s administration as having advanced the educational opportunities for students everywhere, while others will argue that he abused his power to promote his policies. Either way, he may be remembered as one of the most powerful and influential education secretaries in modern history.