Andy Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners wrote up some his key take-aways as the current Secretary of Education works through his final months in office.
It’s too soon to fully judge Duncan’s tenure. There are lots of strong opinions in Washington and around the country about Duncan. Privately, insiders’ views range from “he’s the most committed and effective secretary of education in the department’s history” to “he’s a jock who’s in way over his head on policy.”
Education is apparently on the president’s “Eff-It” list. At this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, President Obama said that he didn’t have a bucket list, but with time running out on his administration, he did have something that rhymed with it. The president’s choice of John King* to oversee the department after Duncan is a signal he’s not that concerned with education politics at this point.
The education debate is about to get nastier. John King is an accomplished African American educator who helped found a highly regarded charter school in Boston. His personal story is as compelling as any education official in the country. Most reform critics don’t want to tangle with him publicly, if for no other reason than they have sense enough to recognize the gross optics of well-heeled white people explaining to an African American man why we shouldn’t have demanding expectations for educators serving low-income minority youth. So expect the debate to get nastier behind the scenes as those tensions manifest in other ways. In particular, look for more controversy in states and local communities but don’t expect much from Washington other than more administrative action.
Hillary is in the hot seat. Teachers unions need scalps and political theater to keep their activist members happy. (That’s why you get odd spectacles like Duncan helping write the very talking pointsteachers union leaders were using to castigate him publicly.) There is no way to read King’s ascension other than as a slap in the face to teachers unions, especially the New York-centric American Federation of Teachers, which has been sharply critical of the future secretary. Look for them to ratchet up the pressure on Hillary Clinton to distance herself from reform in a visible way, particularly in a primary fight where she needs labor’s support and her political problems lie to the left.
These jobs are brutal, so whether or not you agree with Duncan, say thanks. The education world was surprised by Duncan’s announcement, but why? He’s been at this for seven years, and media reported earlier in 2015 that his family had moved back to Chicago. Working away from your family is challenging in any circumstance. In Washington’s 24/7 pressure cooker, it’s borderline untenable for most people. And even while his family was here, this job meant a lot of missed events and routine family time. If anything, it’s surprising it took this long for the relatively normal Duncan to say, “enough.” So whether or not you agree with his policies, everyone should admire Duncan’s commitment and at least quietly, if not publicly, say thanks.
*I’ve known John for years – he’s a friend as well as colleague, and his equally accomplished wife is a colleague at Bellwether.