Bye-bye Arne: Why we don't need an education secretary
Arne Duncan is the latest in a splendid crop of U.S. education secretaries over the last few decades. The ones I have known best include, in alphabetical order: Bill Bennett, Rod Paige, Dick Riley and Margaret Spellings--all fine people who care about kids and understand the issues. But I wish all of them had not spent valuable time trying to deal with the painfully slow pace and often politically-addled reasoning of national education policy. Their best work for kids, in my view, happened when they were NOT education secretary. So let's abolish the office and get that talent back where it belongs, where school change really happens, in our states and cities.
Secretary Duncan is going to reject this idea immediately, and I know why. He took the job because his friend the president needed him. Both are from Chicago, and know how much that city has struggled to improve its schools. The president, I suspect, thought that Duncan, the former chief of the Chicago public schools, could use all he had learned there to raise achievement for students across the country.
It sounds great, but it was the same thought that led previous presidents to appoint those previous fine education secretaries to their posts. How much good did that do? Test scores for elementary and middle school students have come up a bit in the last couple of decades, but not enough to get excited about. High school scores are still flat. If national education policy had made a big jump forward, I would say we should continue to fill this job, but that hasn't happened either. I think the No Child Left Behind law, supported by both parties, was an improvement over previous federal policies, but it was only copying what several states had already done to make schools accountable and identify schools that needed extra help.
Duncan will never admit this, but I am betting that soon he will realize, if he hasn't already, that he had the potential to do much more for students when he was running the Chicago schools. He was able to make vital decisions like appointing principals, rather than push papers and give speeches in his new Washington gig.
The secretary's schedule for this week proves my point:
Monday---visiting an elementary school in Rhode Island and a community college in Connecticut.
Tuesday---school awards lunch in Washington.
Wednesday---accompany the president to an event in Wisconsin.
Thursday---talk to astronauts in space, military supporters of pre-school and tribal leaders in Washington.
This guy ran his own school in Chicago, every day looking for better ways to raise impoverished kids to a new level. Then he took those skills to the school district level. Former secretaries Riley and Paige did much more for schools, in my view, when they were governor of South Carolina and superintendent of schools in Houston, respectively. I think Spellings did more as a player in Texas school policy, and then as President Bush's domestic policy advisor in the White House, than she did as education secretary. Bennett has been a much greater force for change as an author and broadcaster than as a federal bureaucrat, I think.
Keep in mind I am NOT saying we should abolish the education department. That old Reagan campaign platform died a natural death long ago. We need the department to intelligently distribute federal money to the most promising schools in our cities and states. Cut back the number of people rumbling around that big building on Maryland Avenue---many of them are going crazy from boredom anyway---and put it under the control of a savvy civil service administrator who knows how to keep the checks and the useful data rolling out.
Our best schools have arisen from the ideas of creative and energetic teachers, not education secretaries. They need support, but mostly they need more talent to help their ideas grow. Duncan would be great at that. Put him back in charge of a city system. (He might even like to run an innovative set of charter schools.) Rescue him from the lecture circuit and give him time to pursue his own ideas.
He will be happier. We will be happier.The schools will be better. Duncan can give the president his cell phone number and email address, if the White House needs any advice. Otherwise, let's get Arne out of there, soon, and make sure we don't send any more of our best people to that dead-end job.
Posted by: edlharris | November 3, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: johnt4853 | November 3, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: trumeau | November 3, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Meepo | November 3, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: bsallamack | November 3, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | November 3, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: egankat | November 3, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: NoVAHockey | November 3, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: johnt4853 | November 3, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: sentheru1 | November 3, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: hyphen_va | November 3, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ellajeannichols | November 3, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: askgees | November 3, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: goziner | November 3, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: permagrin | November 3, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: fshaffer | November 3, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: PanhandleWilly | November 3, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: bsallamack | November 3, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: B2O2 | November 3, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Judy-in-TX | November 3, 2009 5:43 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: AlanMarcy | November 3, 2009 5:46 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: bsallamack | November 3, 2009 6:19 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Judy-in-TX | November 3, 2009 6:30 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: phoss1 | November 3, 2009 6:35 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ceolaf | November 5, 2009 11:01 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.