U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan plans to step down from his Cabinet position by the end of the year, leaving the Obama administration more than a year before the president’s term will end.

[Read Duncan’s e-mail to his staff, announcing his decision]

“He’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anyone else,” President Obama said as he announced Duncan’s resignation at the White House on Friday afternoon. “America will be better off for what he has done.”

Obama has chosen John B. King Jr., who currently acts as deputy secretary of education, to replace Duncan.

King is a Brooklyn native who often credits teachers with guiding him toward a successful path after he was orphaned at age 12. A former charter school leader in Boston and New York, he joined the Education Department in January after a turbulent tenure as commissioner of education for the state of New York. In that role, he was a key architect of new teacher evaluations tied to test scores and played a key role in pushing New York to adopt new tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards years before other states did the same.

King defended those moves, favored by Duncan and the Obama administration, even as they made him the target of public outrage. Parents saw their children’s test scores fall and teachers unions called for his ouster.

Duncan, 50, has been one of the longest-serving education secretaries and, by most accounts, the most influential.

He took an agency long considered a quiet outpost in the power landscape of Washington, D.C., and – through luck and strategy – oversaw a vigorous expansion of the federal role in the nation’s 100,000 public schools. He largely bypassed Congress to induce states to adopt landmark changes that none of his predecessors attempted – policies such as teacher evaluations and higher academic standards.

Duncan tried to straddle the deep national divide about the best way to improve public education, working between those who believe that competition, accountability and market forces are the best route and others who argue for heavier investment to address the many needs of poor children who increasingly fill public schools.

To Duncan, that has meant a rapid expansion of public charter schools, promoting a national set of K-12 academic benchmarks known as the Common Core State Standards in math and reading, holding teachers accountable for student progress as measured in part by test scores; enrolling more low-income children in preschool; and advocating investment in “wraparound services” such as medical care, mentoring and family services.

Duncan was able to cajole and convince states to adopt his favored policies by taking advantage of two powerful tools: competitive federal grants known as Race to the Top and waivers that excused states from the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, a federal law widely disliked by states. In order to compete for a grant under Race to the Top, or to receive a waiver under No Child Left Behind, states had to adopt Duncan’s favored policies. Today, more than 40 states hold such waivers, leading some critics to accuse Duncan of acting as “the national school superintendent.”

[How Duncan and Obama have changed America’s schools]

One of those critics, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), couched his disagreements in gentle terms when reacting to Duncan’s news on Friday. “Arne Duncan was one of the president’s best appointments,” he said in a statement. “When we disagree, it is usually because he believes the path to effective teaching, higher standards and real accountability is through Washington, D.C., and I believe it should be in the hands of states, communities, parents and classroom teachers.”

Duncan, who has been the longest-serving member of Obama’s Cabinet, has come under increasing criticism from both the right and the left. Congress, in pending legislation, has moved to strip his power, and in July 2014, delegates of the National Education Association called on Duncan to resign, citing policies they believed hurt teachers and unions.

In a move that made a profound difference to schools across the country but has been little noticed in the larger debates about Duncan’s legacy, his agency directed $100 billion in stimulus funds to districts small and large that were otherwise facing severe job cuts in the wake of the 2008 recession. The move preserved an estimated 350,000 teaching jobs. He also oversaw a major expansion of the department’s Office of Civil Rights as the department investigated sexual assault on college campuses, and he pushed the nation’s schools to change discipline policies that resulted in the disproportionate suspension and expulsion of minority children.

[Even as Congress moves to strip his power, Arne Duncan holds his ground]

Duncan spoke often about the importance of early childhood education and pushed unsuccessfully for a major expansion of federally funded preschool programs. On Wednesday, early childhood education advocates expressed appreciation for the attention he helped bring to their work.

“Secretary Duncan’s leadership and unwavering dedication to early childhood education has made an immeasurable difference in the lives of countless young learners,” said Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund. “He has harnessed what all of the research shows about the benefits of investing in early learning, and successfully incorporated it into the everyday mission and policy goals of the Department of Education. We are incredibly grateful.”

Progress for the nation’s K-12 students has been uneven during Duncan’s tenure. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high while dropout rates are down. But average math and reading scores for high school students have flat-lined since 2008 and only marginally improved among 9- and 13- year-old students during the same time period, according to tests administered by the federal government every two years.

In higher education, Duncan has been the point man in chasing a goal Obama set early in his presidency: for the United States to become by 2020 the world leader in the share of young adults who have a college degree. The nation has made some progress but still trails several others on that measure.

Duncan has championed several measures to widen access to college for disadvantaged students, including simpler financial aid forms and more funding for Pell grants. This year he even visited a prison in Maryland to announce an experiment that will enable some prisoners to receive Pell grants.

The Education Department under Duncan has also taken steps to tighten oversight of colleges. Some of those steps have irritated college and university leaders. There has been more regulation of for-profit colleges, as well as a heightened level of financial scrutiny that led to the collapse of the Corinthian College for-profit chain. A lengthy effort to come up with a federal plan to rate colleges on measures of value and access was derailed, but Duncan last month unveiled an alternative: a Web site called College Scorecard that publishes information about graduation rates and average salaries of alumni at thousands of schools.

Duncan’s move from Washington to Chicago — where he grew up and later was the head of the Chicago Public Schools — appears to have been in the making for some time. Duncan’s wife, Karen, and his two children, Claire and Ryan, moved back to Chicago earlier this year to restart life in the city where they lived before Obama, then president-elect, asked his old friend in 2008 to run the U.S. Education Department.

Duncan did not hide his dislike for the nation’s capital, often criticizing Washington as a den of dysfunction filled with powerful people who lacked political courage to do what he believed was right.

In an interview with The Washington Post in June, he recounted how one senator confided that he supported universal preschool — an idea Duncan had been promoting for two years — but would not publicly back any plan for the federal government to fund it.

“That’s, like, my political lesson in Washington,” Duncan said. “Are you here to make a difference? . . . Or are you here to say you’re a fancy senator?”

But Duncan said at the time that he planned to remain in Washington, serving out the Obama administration’s second term before rejoining his family in Chicago. Karen Duncan was seen at the private Lab Schools in Chicago in late January with her two children (who “shadowed” other students through a school day, which is commonly done by students preparing to attend a particular school).

When the family’s move was announced in July, Dorie Nolt, Duncan’s spokeswoman, released this statement:

After more than six years living just outside Washington, D.C., Secretary Duncan’s family moved back to Chicago recently. His wife, Karen, is ready to resume her full-time career in education and will work at her former employer, the University of Chicago Laboratory School, where their children will attend school. Secretary Duncan will continue to work and maintain a residence in D.C. but commute to spend weekends with his family, as many cabinet Secretaries have done. Secretary Duncan remains committed to his work in the Cabinet and will continue to serve at the pleasure of the President.

In the June interview with The Post, Duncan said he planned to stay put in Washington because he felt he had a long list of unfinished business and felt an urgency to keep pushing toward unmet goals. He called his job the dream of a lifetime. “I still pinch myself some days,” he said.

Duncan’s departure means President Obama is losing his closest friend in the Cabinet. The two men first met decades ago in Chicago and forged a friendship on the basketball courts through love of the game and an interest in education.

Throughout much of his presidency, Obama regularly played basketball with Duncan at various federal facilities around Washington. Duncan, who had a brief stint in Australia as a professional player after college, still plays, while Obama has switched to golf.

Duncan’s announcement came as a surprise even to some people who are close to him. Just two days ago, after a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, Duncan artfully declined to answer when he was asked whether he planned to stay until the end of the administration’s second term.

“We’re working hard every day, and we have an amazing team,” Duncan said. “There is so much work we need to do.”

Duncan at the time gave the impression that he would stay until the Obama administration ends in 14 months, talking about the importance of the work ahead “in the fourth quarter.”

Asked what he planned to do after leaving office, he demurred.

“I have no idea,” Duncan said, adding that he felt he had a great deal more work to do in his current job and felt great pressure to get as much done as he could in the remaining months. “I’ve always been very tunnel-visioned. … It’s absolutely the wrong thing to do to start thinking about other things right now.”

Then he waited a beat.

“But if anybody has any ideas, let me know,” he said to laughter.

The following is a text of an internal e-mail Duncan sent to his staff today, according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post:

Subject line: An inspiring new leader for our extraordinary team
Dear colleagues,
I’m writing to tell you two things. First, what is for me some bittersweet news: after several months of commuting between my family in Chicago and my job here in DC, I have made the decision to step down in December.

Second, and very happily, President Obama has asked our delegated Deputy Secretary John King Jr. to step into my role when I leave. An announcement to that effect went out from the White House a few minutes ago.

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 a 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.

What gives me peace with this decision, and I hope comes as a reassurance to everyone here, is the extraordinary talent of John and our leadership team. John comes to this role with a record of exceptional accomplishment as a lifelong educator – a teacher, a school leader, and a leader of school systems, most recently as Commissioner of Education in New York State before he joined our team. Over the years that I have known him, and especially in the months we have worked together here, I’ve come to recognize John as one of the most passionate, courageous, clear-headed leaders in our field. His talent is such that he will become one of the youngest Cabinet members in American history. (I encourage you to read his remarkable personal story, which he laid out in a Huffington Post article a few years ago.)

The team here is extraordinary. Each of our offices is headed by a genuine national leader from whom I’ve learned enormously, and at the center of that team is a senior leadership I’ve depended upon daily – in addition to John, our Under Secretary Ted Mitchell, a visionary whose ideas and moral force are helping to change the landscape of opportunity in higher education; and my Chief of Staff, Emma Vadehra, who understands how to accomplish change in education as well as anyone else in this country. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to announce a replacement for John to carry out the duties of Deputy Secretary soon, and I owe this team enormous thanks for their dedication and sacrifice.

I owe a similarly profound thanks to each of you. The work of this Department is exceptionally ambitious – to ensure that every student in this country enjoys genuine opportunity to learn, to grow, to excel. As a comparatively small team, often under challenging conditions and timelines, our staff has continued to offer example after example of dedication beyond the call of duty. I’m honored to have led you, and delighted by what good hands this Department will be in. I ask each of you that you offer John and his team the same commitment I’ve witnessed from you.

As I think about our shared work here, and about what it has meant to spend seven years serving the President and the country, I think about two students I’ve met in recent years. The first is Brandon, a young man I met at a round table discussion in Denver as part of My Brother’s Keeper. Brandon told a story I will never forget, about how his life had slipped off the tracks in elementary school. He had scrawled graffiti in a bathroom stall when he was 11 years old. His school, which had zero tolerance discipline policies, called the police, and he ended up being sentenced to pick up trash along the highway alongside adult criminals. He also ended up with a criminal record, and years later, when he tried to become a police officer, the department turned him away because of that record. For me, Brandon will always be a reminder of the distance we have to go as adults, to do right by our young people.

The second person is Russhaun Johnson. Russhaun had the deck stacked against him growing up in Des Moines, Iowa. His dad wasn’t around; he lived with his mom, who was a drug addict, until she was incarcerated for more than four years while he was in middle and high school. No one in his family was there for him, and many nights, he slept on park benches. He described himself as “two steps behind” from the start in school. What got Russhaun on a track to success, he says, was his teachers and counselors, who helped him see himself as the brilliant young man he is. He’s now an accomplished poet, and the president of his senior class. A few weeks ago, the whole country had the opportunity to witness his brilliance, as he introduced President Obama to a cheering crowd on the first day of our bus tour. Russhaun told the audience he is planning to go to college to become a teacher, because he wants to offer a next generation of young people the possibility that the caring educators
around him helped him see in himself. He is an example, to me, of what can go right for our children when our schools understand who they can become – and act on that knowledge.

When I think about the life paths of these two young people, I know that no one will fight harder for students like them than John King and the team he will lead here. I thank you for being part of that team, and promise you that you are in good hands.
–Arne

 

Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported that Duncan is the longest-serving education secretary. In fact, Clinton administration Education Secretary Richard Riley served longer.