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Arne Duncan resigns as U.S. secretary of education. What is his legacy?

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is giving up his high-level and influential post in December to join his family already back home living in Chicago.

Later today, President Obama is expected to appoint Deputy Secretary John King Jr. to take Duncan's place.

After six years in Washington, Duncan's wife and two children recently already moved back to their hometown of Chicago, where the secretary grew up and where, as the leader of the Chicago public schools, he met Obama.

But Duncan had promised he would remain in Washington to finish his tenure at the U.S. Department of Education and commute home every weekend. He apparently decided to give up that plan.

In an email to his staff, Duncan said, "Serving the President in the work of expanding opportunity for students throughout this country has been the greatest honor of my life. Doing so alongside people of the brilliance, ability and moral conviction of the team here at ED has been nothing short of thrilling. We have been lucky to have an amazing team here from Day One, but I honestly believe our team today is the strongest it’s ever been. So it’s with real sadness that have come to recognize that being apart from my family has become too much of a strain, and it is time for me to step aside and give a new leader a chance. I haven’t talked with anyone about what I’ll do next, and probably won’t for a little while – I’m simply returning to Chicago to live with my family. I imagine my next steps will continue to involve the work of expanding opportunity for children, but I have no idea what that will look like yet."

His own personal drive coupled with an intense national focus on education turned Duncan into a well-known, if sometimes polarizing, figure.

Duncan oversaw the Race to the Top education reform grants, one of which was awarded to Georgia and spurred dramatic changes in how teachers and principals are evaluated.

Duncan also became a vocal supporter of Common Core State Standards, so much so that the standards were derided as a federal mandate even though the effort originated with the nation's governors, including Georgia's Sonny Perdue, and adoption was voluntary.

The peripatetic Duncan was often in Georgia and I had a chance several times over the years to chat with him. (He also did almost weekly media calls.)

Among his comments to me while in Atlanta:

On role of money in education:  "You can have all the money in the world, but it won't make a difference if teachers don't believe their students can learn."

On whether poor kids can learn to high levels: "Every child can learn and thrive despite poverty, despite problems at home, despite neighborhood violence."

On Race to the Top:  "It is not enough to make the same investment in the same programs. We are not going to reward the status quo."

On the role of the federal government in ed reform: "The great ideas in education are never going to come from Washington."

On teachers: "I think teachers are underpaid and undervalued in our country today."

On children of undocumented immigrants: "In this economy, we need everyone trained and prepared. These children were brought here by their parents, often as infants without making any choice of their own."

Working with the president, Duncan certainly put education on the front page. But what is his lasting legacy?

As I get official statements on Duncan's departure, I will post:

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities wishes Secretary Arne Duncan well as he announces his impending departure from the Department of Education. Secretary Duncan can and should be proud of the administration’s overhaul of the antiquated guaranteed student loan system and of its successful conversion to 100 percent direct lending. He also deserves credit for advocating that savings from the direct loan program should be used to expand grant funding for needy students. We would also like to commend Secretary Duncan for the attention he has brought to issues of waste, fraud and abuse; we look forward to working with the administration to ensure that the initiatives started under his tenure come to fruition.

Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) President and CEO J. Noah Brown:

"During Secretary Duncan's tenure, the nation's community colleges have faced unprecedented demand to meet the needs of more than 12 million American students each year, and have attained an unprecedented level of public esteem. Working hand in hand with President Barack Obama, Dr. Jill Biden and other community college supporters, Secretary Duncan's legacy will reflect a community college renaissance for which all community college leaders, faculty, staff, and especially students are grateful - and from which the country will benefit for generations to come. We look forward to working closely with Deputy Secretary King to continue the momentum of meeting our commitment to open-access higher education for all while continuing to raise standards of success for both our colleges and our students."


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.