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Arne Duncan to step down as Education secretary after 7 years of aggressive and controversial policy
Obama's longest-serving cabinet officer drew fire from left and right, pushed Common Core, butted heads with unions, and promoted charter schools and standardized testing. - photo by Eric Schulzke
WASHINGTON, D.C. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced on Friday that he would be stepping down at the end of the year. Obama's longest-serving cabinet member will have been at the center of educational upheavals for seven years, during which he carved out an aggressively reformist and centrist policy space.

During his tenure, Duncan drew fire from left and right, pushed Common Core, butted heads with unions, and promoted charter schools and standardized testing.

Duncan was a uniquely powerful Secretary of Education because his tenure began just as the controversial No Child Left Behind law was becoming so unworkable that under federal law every single state was out of compliance and faced signficant penalties.

Using flexibility granted to the the Department of Education in the law, Duncan granted waivers to states that altered their policies to follow federal priorities. This included using standardized tests as a component in evaluating teachers, a controversial position with many parents and teachers.

The state of Washington refused to go along with the testing requirement. The local News Tribune noted that last year being out of compliance forced the state to "redirect about $38 million in federal Title I grant money toward tutoring programs ones often run by private companies instead of using that money for other district programs for low-income students."

At the Education Writer's Association meeting in Chicago this April, Duncan explained his personal passion for testing and teacher accountability with an experience he had when he had just finished college, Deseret News National reported.

Duncan said that right after he finished college he was working with an inner-city program in south Chicago when a high school basketball player he was working with asked for help with the ACT so he could go to college. The student was on the honor roll, obeyed the rules, stayed out of gangs and didnt do drugs, but he could barely read.

This was a 16-year-old young man who had no idea how far behind he was, Duncan said. No one in the system had had an honest conversation with him about his strengths and weaknesses."

Duncan's feisty personality made waves early in 2014 when he criticized parents who advocated for opting out of standardized tests, calling them "white suburban moms who all of a sudden their child isnt as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isnt quite as good as they thought they were, and thats pretty scary. Duncan later said he regretted the clumsy phrasing, as Salon notes.

But it was teachers, not parents, Duncan had the most trouble with. Last summer, the National Education Association, the nation's largest teacher union, demanded that Duncan resign, citing his support for a controversial California court decision striking down state teacher union laws.

"A tipping point for some members was Duncan's statement last month in support of a California judge's ruling that struck down tenure and other job protections for the state's public school teachers," the AP reported. "In harsh wording, the judge said such laws harm particularly low-income students by saddling them with bad teachers who are almost impossible to fire."

Earlier this year, the Deseret News National interviewed NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia, asking her about the split between the NEA and its historical allies in the Democratic party.

"We have always said that education should not be a political football," Garcia said. "Where we do have disconnects is when one side says, 'We dont want to spend money on class size, textbooks, technology.' So sometimes resources do become a partisan issue. But with the 'test and punish,' de-professionalization, standardization and privatization issues, we are finding that our best friends may show up in a surprising place. We find friends and foes in both parties."
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