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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.




By Jay Mathews  | November 3, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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Comments

I agree,
but fold the department back into HHR
(This coming from a "union apologist/bad teacher supporter/Not kids first per my criticism of Mrs. Rhee and her press coverage
(heavy sarcasm))

Posted by: edlharris | November 3, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, bring back the old Health, Education, and Welfare.

I'm mostly joking, of course. But putting education and health and the welfare of the poor into separate silos makes no sense.

But I doubt Duncan had as much potential in Chicago as you think. Look as the research of the Chicago School Consortium. Schools alone are an awfully impotent tool. And mostly, charters only work better when creaming.

So, I don't know how do do it, but we need governance that embraces the truth that people issues are holistic.

And that keeps getting me back to the question of how do you talk realism to data-driven "reformers," without sounding negative, because if I saw things negatively I wouldn't still be in the classroom. I'm thinking more and more that we need to go back to the imperfect and primitive old grassroots political ways of running school systems.

Had we just dumped bales of money on schools which I don't support - we would have done more good for less money than the bush league social engineering of NCLB-type accountability. But here's the real reason to go back to more modest systems. Human beings are human beings. You can't disaggregate us into measurable pieces and create some sort of utopian technocratic system. Remember the concept of a meritocracy was satire, not something that was seen as a rational possiblity like Rhee supporters seem to believe. To many young "reformers" don't understand that the Brave New World was meant as a dystopia not a utopia.

We need more education reformers who embrace the whole of human beings. After all, isn't that what a teacher is? Aren't we "happy warriors" who embrace the people politics that is teaching. What are our interactions with teenagers, for instance, other than a political process where arrogance is severely punished?

So, I agree with the aspiration of just distributing the money intelligently, especially with the recognition that there are many types of intelligence. Stop the pseudo-science of the RttT. Open the doors of education for everyone and every ideology. And if the "reformers" have merit they'll be more than a flash in the pan. But the surviovrs, for sure, will include people who listen, who love the liberal arts, who don't want to micro-manage others, and who have a sense of humor.

Posted by: johnt4853 | November 3, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, when a federal government agency is created, you better believe that it stays the same, grow but rarely decrease.

Posted by: trumeau | November 3, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

The reason Duncan (and Spellings, Riley, Bennett et al.) can do so little to improve schools is that we load up entirely too many issues for one secretary of an education system to deal with.

The time each kid spends in school is generally 1/3 of half a year -- about 15 percent of a child's yearly life is spent in an instructional environment.

However, we have charged the education secretary, and education in general with reforming or bettering these children's lives.

Certainly, the secretary of education (or a non-cabinet level equivalent) should administrate schools, learning strategies, in-school activities and the like. However, a school's betterment can only go so far without assistance from families, family groups, charities, community help, reasonable taxes, and the like.

Even if every single one of our schools were immaculate, filled with up-to-date programs, applications and books, and filled with qualified, excited teachers, our students may still be lacking. There seems to me way too many outside influences on students. Among these, two parents who work round-the clock; a soaring cost of living, communities that aren't as close-knit as they once were.

I just don't think the education system is very much to blame. I think all of us have to shoulder some blame, either for letting things go or for not going all out to support the communities within the school.

I don't know. There are so many questions about what we can do as parents and teachers. Regarding the Dept. of education, we're looking at a gallon bucket into which we want to pour two gallons of water.

Posted by: Meepo | November 3, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

A Department of Education where the only valid tests of education are the national tests held every two years for 4th and 8th grade student and a Department of Education that will not release the 2009 results for Reading until 2010.

No intention of the Department of Education to make these tests yearly and put in computer systems to be able to release results in two weeks to school systems and make the results public.

No intention of adding a national tests on reading and math for the 12th grade.

Instead billions will be spent for local meaningless tests and local computer systems.

There is no intention of valid national tests since these tests would only show too quickly the invalidity of the head of the Department of Education educational initiative of "test them until they drop" and "teach them to the test".

Posted by: bsallamack | November 3, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Great "think piece" Johnt4853. Great "thought provoking" paragraphs. But what does it have to do with teaching kids to read and write?

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | November 3, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps the problem lies in determining success soley by test scores.

Posted by: egankat | November 3, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

"Keep in mind I am NOT saying we should abolish the education department. That old Reagan campaign platform died a natural death long ago."

That's too bad. Dept. of Ed is the top of my list of federal agenicies that need to go. Its budget keeps increasing, but the results aren't there. Maybe it's time the Dept. "died a natural death."

Posted by: NoVAHockey | November 3, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Curmudgeon,

Are thinking and the teaching of reading and writing mutually exclusive?

Posted by: johnt4853 | November 3, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse

The ED department needs excellent leadership. Duncan provides it. And he never refers to teachers as "terrorists" as another secretary did.

While it is true that most states provide about 90 cents for every dollar spent on education and the federal government makes up the other 10 cents, it does not follow that there should not be a strong leader guiding the manner in which the remaining 10% is handled.

The role of Education secretary is crucial to a sensible national debate on schools policy. That is why the claims in this article make no sense.

Posted by: sentheru1 | November 3, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I don't agree with what you have said Mr. Mathews. My opinion is based on my spouse having taught high school kids in two states and her response in that standards do vary across state lines. For example, she doesn't believe the approach to No Kids Left Behind has been legitimate. School system administrators push “numbers” for test results as they manipulate statistics (omitting some students) to improve scores as she has noted that state systems don't teach or instruct in the same manner as others. We've just moved back to Alabama and she has noticed there are teaching methods, that have proven success rates, that are not being put into practice here. The entire state has been utilizing ineffective teaching methods for some time (now that's state bureaucracy). Interestingly enough she brought it to the attention of administrator’s and all they could do was blink their eyes and say that’s not how we do things here. Another case in point, instead of building a new school to decrease the population of a vastly over crowded local high school, the city built a prison. Yes, another government funded prison. The city knows they need a school, but said the prison takes precedence so the children will be okay, they can endure. The kids are suffering today, but society will suffer tomorrow from this type of neglect. So Mr. Mathews getting rid of the Secretary won't eliminate state problems. There has to be a fundamental change in how we as a society view an education. It can't always be the first thing cut in a budget. Learning is diverse and not always pre-packaged. An education is a long term fix to address future short term problems in society. If anything perhaps the Secretary should be allowed to address states on an individual basis to get to the root of that states needs and concerns when it comes to an education for all of its students.

Posted by: hyphen_va | November 3, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

We need to return to the three legged stool that supports the lives and education of our children - the family, the community and the school. One alone will never do it. Each needs to recognize the value of the other and each must assume the responsibilities of their place in the equation. If we work together and emphasize the value of education to our children, all will benefit.
There is too much - "not my job", "not my responsibility", "not my fault".
We are all responsible.

Posted by: ellajeannichols | November 3, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

I totally agree. The states should be the ones deciding not the Feds. This has created another issue. PROGRAMMING. People do not appear to be educated as much as they appear to be programmed. Give the states back their power to over see their programs. No child left behind has simply lowered the over all.

Posted by: askgees | November 3, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

It would be easier for women to grow a third t!t before you will see the ed sec go bye-bye!

Posted by: goziner | November 3, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse

what we need to do is convene a congressional study to determine if a committee should be assigned to assess whether a Dept of Education is even necessary. What on Earth would we do without a department of education? Think about it, what on earth would we do without a gigantic middleman funneling money back to where it came from? The horror.

Posted by: permagrin | November 3, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse

just abolish the dept of education. i know, i know, the fed gives lots of money to us local districts. but the intervention and invasion by the fed is destroying the true work of public education: teaching. and, the obama-rahma is on board with nclb. for shame.

Posted by: fshaffer | November 3, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

"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."

Funny! You say you're not for killing the Department and then in the next breath describe the most logical thing to do...which is to kill the department and remake it as a directorate under HHR. I agree...kill the department. It adds little to no value to education in this country.

Posted by: PanhandleWilly | November 3, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

The ED department needs excellent leadership. Duncan provides it. And he never refers to teachers as "terrorists" as another secretary did.

The role of Education secretary is crucial to a sensible national debate on schools policy. That is why the claims in this article make no sense.

Posted by: sentheru1
.................................
The head of the Department of Education educational initiative of "test them until they drop" and "teach them to the test" is really just part of the "slash and burn teachers" theory of education.

The Department of Education should use national tests to evaluate education in the United States and where possible formulate plans where the resources of the federal government can lessen the cost of education in the United States.

Currently we have a system where individual school systems simply spend a great deal of money reinventing the wheel, instead of the federal government offering assistance. Does every school system have to spend money to determine which computer system should be used by schools?

As far as No Child Left Behind the federal government should provide yearly report cards on national test and let the states and local government deal with the results.

And please no billions for local worthless "standardized" tests and computer systems to analyze the tests in order to beat teachers over the tests.

In a country with so many failed schools not one person has come forth with the idea that this might be the fault of the politicians, the heads of school system, or principals, but everyone appears to agree that it is the fault of teachers.

Posted by: bsallamack | November 3, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

There is such brilliant logic embedded in this article. Why not extend it to other issues?

Crime rate going up? Abolish the police department in your town. Those officers were doing far more for keeping the peace when they were busy with, well, whatever they were doing before they put on a uniform.

Banks having problems? Let's just do away with them. Those mattresses worked fine in the thirties, and I'm sure they would do the trick now.

Health care a mess? First kill all the doctors. They've been intimately connected to this mess, after all.

Baby crying as you give her a bath? Throw her out, along with all that murky water. No more baby, no more crying, no more problem!

Thanks Mr. Matthews. Next.

Posted by: B2O2 | November 3, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

"I think all of us have to shoulder some blame, either for letting things go or for not going all out to support the communities within the school."
Posted by: Meepo | November 3, 2009 3:24 PM
==
Well said, Meepo.
My husband is a school teacher.
He's fortunate to work in a suburban school district which supports its teachers.
He tells me that "No Child Left Behind" as administered under Bush was a Joke.
It was an onorous unfunded mandate that the state defaulted on funding.
He tells me the kids are bright and smart.
They need lots of support to plunge into decisions about higher education, including paying for it.
He says parents need some information to participate in motivation, which he tries to provide through phone calls, e-mails and parent/teacher conferences.
Together, they all communicate to help each child.
He's grateful for the Cabinet-level Dept. of Education because it keeps the emphasis on every level of government helping to train our children for the future.
He would oppose deconstructing this vital Cabinet seat.

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | November 3, 2009 5:43 PM | Report abuse

I think too much, and, I know. We know too little.

Not just the underachievers in Kindergarden classes, where the finest pre-school is no longer optional! But, all the way up to the President of the College, or, more often, these days, the Hypertext Multi-Modal University. Sigh. Here in Texas, one private University president made over a million bucks, well, some time ago, due to slow disclosures, etc. But, good grief! That is approaching what the football coach makes! And has made, for a bit longer.

Teachers all love to teach, or did, or hoped to.... Not every student loves to learn, from every teacher, but if we gather our data into a big enough stack, don't such imperfections simply vanish? Some of us, and I am being kind here, just know that they absolutely must.

It was not so very long ago one could tell by the architecture and plumbing fixtures which schools were as perfect as possible.

As America stumbles around in the darkness of endless enlightenment, perhaps Mom and/or Dad teaching the kids at home is no longer the worst of all possible ideas. At least they would get their recreational pharmaceuticals from someone who might care. Instead of a stranger who was disallowed, by State or Federal law, from such wanton ego tripping...

Sorry, good folks, I am heading for my second martini and must shut my big mouth, now. Thank you for your time ;)

(Yes, smartypants, I am going to cry, yet again.)


Posted by: AlanMarcy | November 3, 2009 5:46 PM | Report abuse

There is such brilliant logic embedded in this article. Why not extend it to other issues?

Crime rate going up? Abolish the police department in your town. Those officers were doing far more for keeping the peace when they were busy with, well, whatever they were doing before they put on a uniform.
Posted by: B2O2
.....................................
No, based upon the logic of No Child Left Behind, the fault of high crimes in areas is totally the fault of the police officers and it only necessary to measure the crime rate and fire ineffective police officers. Crime occurring in a specific area indicates that the ineffective police officer that is responsible for that area should be fired. No more additional police officers are needed.

The Department of Justice even has a Race To The Top program where billions will be given to police departments for tests and computer systems to indicate which police officer should be fired.

This is all part of the new No Criminal Left Behind program.

Government by the mediocre at it's best.

Posted by: bsallamack | November 3, 2009 6:19 PM | Report abuse

Oh my goodness, B2O2.
Your response is perfect.
Here in Texas, some of the radicals put a Bible-thumping home-schooler in charge of our Texas State Board of Education.
They select the textbooks.
Immediately, mention of evolution was declared anathema.
And on, and on ...
The final idiotic act:
They had to choose 100 people in history to include in a middle-school text.
This year, they decided to exclude Neil Armstrong in favor of several people no one ever heard of (probably home-schooling champions).
So it's that kind of stupidity that people with agendas will waste your tax money on.
Locally, the school boards can't seem to get a bond issue passed.
In the past, while they promised to get rid of temporary buildings with investment in well-built classrooms, once voted, the bond issue money went instead to fancy scoreboards, new uniforms for cheerleaders, bigger stadiums, etc., instead.
Now the school board just can't understand why the voters don't trust them.
Meanwhile, the needs of the classrooms go wanting, if it weren't for targeted federal funds for things like computers, lab equipment, etc.
So think twice before you knock your children's educational needs in the head.
I agree with you, B202.
Thanks

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | November 3, 2009 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

Duncan/Obama have already proven their value with the development of their Race To The Top initiative. Lift the cap on charter schools and do not block student tests results from being incorporated into teacher evaluations are both good examples of why the feds need to have the bulk of control in our schools. States alone could never make these kinds of reforms happen. Oh sure, Massachusetts would probably be first on board as they are with everything when it comes to improving their schools but do you honestly believe Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia would go for anything so pragmatic? I DON"T THINK SO!

Federal standards, assessments and thresholds for proficient all need to be adopted.

The states proved their worth, or lack thereof, by all the shenanigans they pulled in attempting to game NCLB; from test scores to thresholds for proficiency, for cohorts of students they never included when calculating AYP, etc., etc.

Posted by: phoss1 | November 3, 2009 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Matthews,

This is a silly argument.

Move teacher to a principalship and his/her impact on each student will be less, but s/he will have a much broader impact.

Move a principal to a superintendency and his/her impact on each student or classroom will be less, but s/he will have a much broader impact.

Move a superintendent to be Secretary of Education and his/her impact on each student, classroom or school will be less, but s/he will have a much broader impact.

I'm sorry, but duh. Duh!

And you think that superintendents don't spend time doing things that don't have strong impacts on children? Really? Oh, come on! You know better than that!

Duncan might be having a faction of the impact on each student than he had before, but he is having it on whole order of magnitude more students.

(I don't like his agenda, but I have to admit that he has an impact. Spellings had an impact, too, as did Paige.)

Posted by: ceolaf | November 5, 2009 11:01 PM | Report abuse

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