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What the next Education secretary must do

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It has been 40 years since the U.S. Department of Education was created and in that time only four former teachers have become the secretary of Education, which has recently become a topic of interest by presidential candidates. 

Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) promised that if elected she would appoint a former public school teacher to the position of secretary of Education because the appointee should have firsthand knowledge of “how low pay, tattered textbooks and crumbling classrooms hurt students and educators.” Several other Democratic candidates have made similar claims.

While a popular idea, appointing a current or former public school teacher is not a magic bullet solution to the many challenges confronting public education. The current Secretary, Betsy DeVos, lacks teaching or public leadership experience all together. 

She also lacks a clear commitment to public education as she has promoted vouchers, which takes money away from public schools in support of private schools. The next secretary of Education requires not only an understanding of what teachers confront in their daily experiences, but also a set of values and skills.

First, the next secretary needs to have the administrative experience to ensure the department is run efficiently and effectively, which is no simple task with more than 4,000 employees and a $68 billion budget.

The sheer size of the department requires an individual with significant public leadership experience. Former Secretary John King, for example, was a teacher, charter school founder and New York commissioner of Education overseeing more than 7,000 public schools.

King allowed up to 12,000 prison inmates the ability to apply for federal Pell Grants to take college courses and focused Department resources on improving teacher and principal quality.

Second, the department is charged with prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal access to education. While the next Secretary must work to eliminate school-to-prison-pipelines, racial achievement gaps, and high levels of student dropouts, they must also ensure schools are transformed to meet the diverse needs of students of color, students with disabilities, English learner students, and first-generation college students.

While DeVos has sought to collect additional data related to sexual violence committed by school staff as well as data about bullying and harassment, she has also wanted to change data collection procedures to make it more difficult to calculate racial disparities in student discipline. Consequently, the next secretary may have to undo some of DeVos’ problematic policies.

Third, the department invests millions of dollars collecting data on school outcomes. Teaching experience alone will not provide the next secretary with the skillset to interrogate data and set the department’s agenda. The next secretary must understand educational research and utilize data effectively to identify and focus national attention and resources on key issues, such as racial disparities in student achievement and suspension.

Fourth, the department distributes billions of dollars that support school improvement and federal financial aid. Secretary Betsy DeVos has recently found herself in trouble after violating a court order for continuing to collect student loan debts from the now defunct Corinthian College.

The next secretary must understand how financial resources can be leveraged to improve student outcomes, address pressing education equity issues and ensure schools and universities are complying with federal mandates. 

Finally, the department works within a highly political space where special interest groups seek to influence policy. Former Secretary Arne Duncan lacked teaching experience, but served as the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. He struggled to build positive relationships with teachers unions partly because of his agenda to use state assessments to evaluate teachers and schools. The next secretary must navigate this political space, cultivate allies and a sense of shared commitment and work collaboratively.

While it is critically important that the next secretary be someone with teaching experience, it is of equal importance that this individual is not just serve as a “teacher-figurehead.”

The next 40 years of the U.S. Department of Education is vitally important for the education of our nation and whoever leads it must have a deep commitment to continuous improvement, eliminating inequities, and working collaboratively to ensure we are prepared to educate the next generation of students. 

David DeMatthews is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Joshua Childs is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin.

Tags Arne Duncan Betsy DeVos Elizabeth Warren

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