Secretary of Education Duncan To Step Down; John King Jr. To Assume Duties

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Publication date: 
9 October 2015

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the longest-serving member of President Obama’s Cabinet, announced on October 2 that he will resign in December, clearing the path for new leadership for the cabinet-level department.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the longest-serving member of President Obama’s Cabinet, announced on October 2 that he will resign in December, clearing the path for new leadership for the cabinet-level department that oversees the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and a number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs, including the Math and Science Partnerships program and the Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program. John King, Jr., currently serving in an acting capacity as Deputy Secretary of Education, will assume the duties of Secretary, although Obama has said he will not formally nominate him.

Duncan’s resignation signifies the loss of a leader in the Cabinet who has been a staunch advocate for STEM education at a time when the nation has faced a major shortage of K-12 STEM teachers. In an August op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, Duncan called for a strong pipeline of teachers in STEM disciplines and new ways of approaching STEM education.  He wrote:

If we want our children to grow into the scientists, researchers, educators and entrepreneurs who will address our most pressing challenges, and if we want our nation to remain a global leader in innovation, we must ensure that all students have access to deep learning in STEM subjects and are taught by talented teachers knowledgeable in these fields.

In the op-ed, Duncan highlights a number of efforts being led by the Obama Administration, including the President’s call for 100,000 new STEM teachers over the next decade:

At the federal level, President Obama's Educate to Innovate campaign has resulted in more than $1 billion in financial and in-kind support for STEM programs from corporations, philanthropists, colleges and a host of stakeholders. And more than 230 organizations have come together through 100Kin10, answering the president's call to recruit and develop 100,000 excellent STEM teachers over the next decade.

Duncan has spoken about the importance of empowering women and girls to engage in STEM fields. Said Duncan to a group of students at NASA’s space camp in Huntsville, Ala., in 2014:

I think some of the stereotypes—I'm good at this, I'm not good at this, girls don't do that—I think we need to break through that mentality, break through that mindset. Part of the challenge is that we don't have enough teachers who love the STEM field and who are passionate about it."

President Obama intends to replace Duncan with John King, Jr., currently in the position of Senior Advisor Delegated Duties of Deputy Secretary of Education. Obama does not intend to formally nominate another education secretary during the rest of his presidency, sparing King the need to go through the sometimes lengthy and contentious Senate nominations process but also meaning King will serve in an acting capacity.  In a press announcement, Obama said of King, “He's been an educator all his life. He's the right man to lead the department.

At a September 10 event hosted by the Washington Post called “Balancing the STEM Equation,” King spoke on a panel about the Department of Education’s role in addressing inequities in access to STEM education in the U.S.  When asked by the moderator of his panel what grade the nation’s K-12 schools should be getting in STEM education, King responded:

I think the challenge is there are really two grades. There are places where we should get an A and there are places where we should get more like a D, frankly. The places where we should get an A, we have lots of schools around the country that are doing a fantastic job preparing students who go on to higher education and excel in STEM fields…. On the other hand, we have schools that don’t have that. A quarter of the schools that have the largest number of African American and Latino students don’t even offer Algebra 2. About a third of them don’t even offer chemistry.”

King continued: “The challenge for the Department [of Education] is how to go from excellence for some to excellence for all…. We need to do more…to address exactly this problem…where we have the most significant gaps in our highest needs schools.

King joined the Department of Education in January 2015, after serving beginning in 2011 as the commissioner of education for the state of New York.  In bringing him to the Department in 2015, Duncan called King "an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to improving the opportunities of our young people, as a teacher, a school leader and a leader of school systems."