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Rethinking the Department of Education

I was challenged last weekend to come up with an idea on how to improve government and I immediately considered the area of education. To follow was my recommendation.

The Department of Education was established by President Carter in 1979 and the first Secretary of Education, Shirley Hufstedler, was an attorney and judge. Since then we have had eight Secretaries of Education and only three of those eight individuals had a degree in education or experience in the classroom. All were political appointees. Many of these individuals came with personal philosophies and points of view in terms of education. Some of these ideas were  grounded in the reality of public education experience but others were not. Many of these ideas were imposed on students throughout the country. The basic philosophy of how to approach public education would then change with every administration or appointment leaving ideas in education unexplored and millions of dollars wasted because the next administration would come along and impose their ideas on how children should be educated.

Now in 2012, there are 5,000 employees who work within the Department of Education in Washington, DC and within that department there are 29 separate offices. Many of these people are political appointees or hires who will leave with the changing of the administration not allowing for any continuity in terms of programs that are set into place and with no opportunity for development or serious evaluation of those programs. Is this what we want for our children? Is this how are tax dollars should be used?

I have heard many educators say to just wait if you don’t like the latest fad in education because it will soon change and that is what happens. Unfortunately each “fad”, each idea on the best way to educate our children, is hoisted onto teachers and principals with little regard to what was in place and whether it was successful or not. We have seen that with NCLB and now with Race to the Top. Previous Secretaries of Education were proponents of religious education in our public schools, school vouchers and even dismantling the Department of Education altogether.

There needs to be oversight of the educational system in our country so I am not proposing to abolish the Department of Education but I believe that this governmental agency needs to be reconsidered in terms of its structure and its role within the framework of public education in the United States. The Department of Education also needs to be de-politicized.

The primary role of the Department of Education should be as follows:

To ensure that there is equity in education for all students no matter what their color, race, religion, political or sexual orientation.

To provide unbiased results on research in different aspects of education.

To provide unbiased information on programs around the country and the world that are successful in terms of those communities and school districts.

To be advocates for students, teachers and parents and provide support and information for students and their families in terms of special needs and situations, be a go-to source for teachers in terms of resources and ideas and offer an annual nationwide conference for teachers and principals where they can share ideas on best practices.

To provide funding in educational research in terms of best practices.

The structure of the DOE then becomes less a top-down managerial style politicized bureaucracy and more a clearing house of information and ideas that are available to students, parents, educators and concerned citizens. This framework would provide continuity and stability for our public school system and yet would stretch beyond itself in terms of supporting research on varied subjects in education.

Will this new structure save money? In the long term I believe that it would. Continual upheaval is costly on many levels, financially and psychically. We have seen Presidential administrations come and go over the last 30 years with little to no positive effect on public education. It’s time to review and overhaul the most prominent and monolithic structure in the public school system and that is the Department of Education.


All thoughts and opinions would be appreciated.

6 comments on “Rethinking the Department of Education

  1. What and how did we do in education before the Department? Let’s get rid of the Department, send some of the money made by all the employees in the Department back to the states and elect representatives at the state level who will do the right thing. Oh to dream!

    • Anonymous
      April 16, 2012

      According to the DOE website:

      “The original Department of Education was created in 1867 to collect information on schools and teaching that would help the States establish effective school systems. While the agency’s name and location within the Executive Branch have changed over the past 130 years, this early emphasis on getting information on what works in education to teachers and education policymakers continues down to the present day.” (Ha!)

      Unfortunately Duncan has done the complete opposite and has continually proselytized everything that doesn’t work.

      We really need to get rid of him and put in an educator…like Darling-Hammond.


  2. James Boutin
    April 12, 2012

    Unfortunately, I sort of think Arne Duncan would say that that’s mostly what the DOE already is. Partisan bureaucrats will always argue their actions are unbiased and informed by the best research of the day.

    • seattleducation2011
      April 12, 2012

      You begin with the head of the department being an educator.

      Arne came with a lot of political and big money baggage from Chicago with Broad and then Gates soon followed. Arne was a basketball player and later a dupe for Chicago developers who wanted to gentrify urban neighborhoods by placing charter schools in African American neighborhoods.

      The thought came to me that the Pentagon is led by the military. Why shouldn’t the Department of Educaiton be led by educators?

      Many times I think that it boils down to the general belief that anyone can teach but as I have learned over the years, that’s not the case. It takes a certain skill, a strong desire, an understanding abot how humans develop, an excellent working knowloedge of the subject that you are going to teach and I would say a talent, to be a teacher.

      An educator knows peer reviewed studies when they see them, someone like Arne doesn’t have a clue.


  3. seattleducation2011
    April 11, 2012

    I can see the state having general oversight in termss of statewide policies but I believe it’s up to each district to develop programs that work for those neighorhoods and communities.


  4. Katie A.
    April 10, 2012

    This looks great to me. Thanks for the insightful thoughts. Do you envision the State government having more of a say in public education or do you think it’s up to the community?

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This entry was posted on April 10, 2012 by in A Better Way and tagged .
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