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The Education Secretary's Greatest Hits

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan takes the stage at North High School in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 14 to discuss college access and affordability.
Andrew Harnik
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan takes the stage at North High School in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 14 to discuss college access and affordability.

It has been decades since an education secretary had as high a national political profile as the long-serving Arne Duncan, who famously accompanied President Obama from Chicago and even more famously likes to shoot hoops with the president.

Supporters note that Duncan has advocated passionately for narrowing the opportunity and achievement gaps in America's public schools, ending the "school to prison pipeline" and boosting pay for teachers who serve in high-poverty schools.

He has spoken eloquently about the inequities in the system of funding of the nation's schools based on property taxes. As Duncan put it this week at the National Press Club:

"In far too many places the children of the wealthy get dramatically more spent on them than the children of the poor."

But the former pro ball player (in Australia) has also presided over one of the most contentious, partisan periods in education policy of the last several decades, and critics say his own personality has never placed him far above the fray.

"Some of Duncan's battles he can wear proudly because he was fighting hard fights," says Rick Hess of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. "But some, I think, were the product of his own tendency to dismiss those who had good-faith disagreements."

Here's a look at some of Duncan's wins, scores and losses over the past seven years.

Digging In On High-Stakes Testing

The push for standardized tests predated Duncan. President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind in 2002, creating a system of federal consequences for states, districts and schools whose students failed to make "adequate yearly progress" on annual tests. The law stated that all students everywhere must score "proficient" by 2014.

Duncan's Race To The Top initiative in 2009 provided incentives to states for tying test scores to teacher evaluations, further raising the stakes on high-stakes tests in a way that was destined to offend teachers unions.

It wasn't just unions. Education experts argued that the federal push for using controversial "value added methods" for assessing teacher effectiveness were misguided and often failed to help teachers improve or students learn.

At the same time, beginning in 2011, with the No Child law well overdue for reauthorization, the administration began granting individual waivers to states to provide flexibility on testing targets that were proving impossible to reach.

High-stakes testing coincided with modest gains on math scores, and relative gains by some minority groups. In combination with the Common Core, testing has also become a focal point of teacher and parent protests nationwide, with some students, notably in New York State, "opting out."

Duncan called the law "tired" and "prescriptive" and stated in 2014 that testing issues were "sucking the oxygen out of the room"in schools.

But he defended annual testing, even as some critics were blaming tests for a wide range of unintended consequences, ranging from narrowing of the curriculum to the en masse closure of urban neighborhood schools to cheating scandals as seen in Atlanta.

The law is now (finally) up for reauthorization and both the House and Senate versions of the bill keep the annual testing requirements in place.

'White Suburban Moms' And The Common Core

Race To The Top, signed into law as part of the federal stimulus package after the 2008 financial crash, was structured cleverly as a competitive grant.

States got points for, among other things, adopting new, higher academic standards. In this way, Duncan and Obama were able to push 45 states initially to adopt what became the Common Core State Standards — before they were even written and without making them an explicit federal policy.

But despite initial bipartisanship, Duncan's advocacy of the Common Core crashed into Washington's current atmosphere of bitter partisanship and the long-standing distrust of a strong federal role in local education.

One of several anti-Duncan Facebook groups popped up: MAD, Mothers Against Duncan. And Duncan was sometimes his own worst enemy, PR-wise.

He famously said that opposition to Common Core and mastering standards in core areas of reading and math had become "a rallying cry for fringe groups."

At an otherwise sleepy state school superintendents meeting in 2013, Duncan suggested that opposition to the new reading and math guidelines was mostly from white mothers whose kids are facing tougher standards and tougher tests.

"And it's fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from sort of white suburban moms," Duncan was quoted as saying in The Washington Post, "who, all of a sudden, their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were, their schools aren't quite as good as they thought they were. And that's pretty scary."

Duncan apologized for his "clumsy" remarks, but for some it underscored what they saw as Washington's dismissive, arrogant approach to critics of the state standards.

Opponents, including Republican presidential hopefuls, began referring to the Common Core as "Obamacore" in a fledgling effort to link the standards debate with the fight over the president's controversial health-care legislation.

That was the moment, "when I knew that the debate was shifting into the larger context in Washington that was all about seeking partisan advantage," says Stanford University professor Thomas Dee, who heads the school's

The charged rhetoric often drowned out teachers' legitimate concerns about how to put Common Core into action inside the classroom, Dee says. "It is such a heavy lift to ask the nation's teachers to reinvent their teaching practices around these standards."

The ongoing debate over the standards, in many ways, shows the limitations of the federal role reform in America's highly decentralized education system.

Teacher Evaluations

The nation's largest teachers union, the National Education Association, called on Duncan to resign in 2014, charging that he had undermined educators by linking teacher evaluations and school ratings to student test scores.

States that received federal waivers for No Child Left Behind provisions had to include teacher evaluations as part of the deal. Duncan had access to some federal stimulus money that he shifted to school district consortia to expand performance-based evaluations. Did it help improve learning and teaching? The results, so far, are a mixed bag.

Research by Stanford's Thomas Dee suggests that one place it is working is in the Washington, D.C., public schools. "Their teacher-evaluation system has helped drive an entire district turnaround," he argues.

But some districts cashed the federal check and made largely cosmetic changes. Many districts had to return millions in federal funds for not meeting the requirement that they get union buy-in for teacher evaluations.

"I'm not sure Duncan could have done much more on this than he did from his perch," he says. Bottom line for Dee: "Arne has been one of the most influential secretaries in the nation's history. In general his policy prescriptions have been sound ... But it's hard to drive change from a seat in Washington."


Secretary Duncan has complained that he's not given enough credit for advocating for expanded early childhood education. He pushed to roll out quality rating systems for early childhood centers — still a work in progress. So far, it seems that implementation is going a lot better than Common Core, and reaction has been far less partisan and controversial.

He also advocated boosting salaries for teachers in high poverty schools and worked to expand and improve pre-K pay and training.

"Secretary Duncan advanced a vision of preschool for our nation which rightly makes the link between high quality early learning experiences for children and the compensation and qualifications of their teachers," says Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.

She notes that Duncan pushed to have federal Preschool Development Grants pay preschool teachers comparably to K-12 teachers. "Now even with college degrees they earn only 60 percent on average of a kindergarten teacher's salary," Whitebook says. But she laments that, like many of the education initiatives championed by Duncan and the White House, his pre-K "vision was not fully funded during his tenure."

Higher Ed

Duncan's profile in the world of higher education policy is lower than it is in the world of K-12. "I think [Obama and Duncan] don't get credit for it, but he and they have a huge higher-ed legacy," says Michael Dannenberg, a director of strategic initiatives at a group called Education Reform Now, and a former Duncan policy adviser.

That legacy, Dannenberg has written, includes increased aid to students and families, reform of the student-loan program, significant crackdowns on for-profit colleges and a new focus on accessibility, equity, value for money and college performance that mirrors the accountability focus on the K-12 side.

Cutting The Middleman Out Of Student Loans

In 2009, President Obama signed a law that ended the Federal Family Education Loan Program. That meant banks would no longer be able to profit by making federally subsidized loans to college students. Instead, the Department of Education would make these loans directly. That move made $40 billion available to the Pell Grant program.

Student loan borrowing continues to grow, surpassing $1.2 trillion this year, and student debt has become an increasing issue of economic concern. Since 2009, the Department of Education has added several different loan repayment and forgiveness plans. All have slightly different terms and qualifications.

For-Profit College Crackdown

The Department of Education has called abusive practices in the for-profit education sector "one of the biggest problems in higher education."

"There are too many [institutions that] have been morally unconscionable with what they've done ... Too many of these guys took advantage," Duncan has said.

After six years of political battles, suits and countersuits, a new requirement called the "gainful employment" rule went into place earlier this year. Under it, for-profit and other certificate programs where students can't pay back their loans stand to lose eligibility for federal student aid.

The Education Department, alongside the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, pursued action against many for-profit colleges for predatory lending and fraud, leading to the high-profile shutdown of Corinthian Colleges.

For-profit enrollment has dipped significantly from its high of almost 2 million in 2010. At the same time, graduation rates at these institutions have risen.

Introducing The College Scorecard

Obama and Duncan tried and failed various times to get states to increase funding to colleges and to get colleges to raise graduation rates and lower tuition.

President Obama announced in the 2012 "Let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down."

Not surprisingly, that led to protests from college and university presidents and professional associations.

That proposal morphed into the recently announced College Scorecard, which combines public data from the Education Department, Treasury and the IRS to make it easier than ever to see which colleges are affordable, accessible and likely to pay off.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.