Assistant Secretary Seeks An End to ‘Fragmentation’

By Peter West — April 04, 1990 6 min read

Washington--In a wide-ranging interview last week, the newly confirmed head of the Education Department’s elementary and secondary programs made a strong plea for early intervention, saying greater departmental emphasis should be placed on helping states and districts coordinate federal programs for disadvantaged children.

“We need to take what we have out there, tie it together, and target it so people can begin to see things more holistically than before,” said John T. MacDonald, who was sworn in March 26 as assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

Mr. MacDonald, who served three years as New Hampshire’s commissioner of education prior to his appointment to the federal post in November, succeeded Beryl Dorsett. In his new post, he will oversee what Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos has called the department’s “flagship program": Chapter 1.

The 25-year-old compensatory-education program represents the department’s largest area of discretionary spending, targeting some $5.3 billion in federal aid toward programs for poor, migrant, neglected, and other disadvantaged children.

But Mr. MacDonald said last week that efforts to “frontload,” or see that such children are educated well early on, are presently in a “fragmented condition.”

In many districts, he said, there is little or no coordination among Chapter 1 programs, the department’s Chapter 2 school-improvement programs, and such programs as Head Start, which is run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Although Chapter 1 programs have gained flexibility under the 1988 Hawkins-Stafford School Improvement Act, schools are still not using the aid to its fullest advantage, he argued.

“What’s really being stifled is people’s willingness to look at Chapter 1 in terms of the opportunities it provides,” said the assistant secretary.

Forging New Links

To address the problem, he has already begun to establish liaisons with other federal agencies reponsible for early-childhood education. And he indicated last week he may also commission a compilation of exemplary Chapter 1 practices from schools nationwide to make state and local officials aware of what can be achieved.

“What we really need is to concentrate the program efforts on our populations most at risk,” Mr. MacDonald maintained. “If we do not do that, particularly in our major urban areas, we’re going to have a great deal of difficulty.”

The roots of his emphasis on early-childhood intervention, he said, are in his experience as a “very young principal” in the Groton, Conn., public schools during the 1960’s.

Chapter 1 funding provided an opportunity there to offer day-care and other services, which he helped coordinate with the local Head Start program.

“The Chapter 1 program gave me an opportunity to do some things with very impoverished children and parents that wouldn’t have been done, had the town had to put up the money,” he said.

Mr. MacDonald, who was superintendent of the Dartmouth Public Schools in Massachusetts from 1978 to 1986, said he will rely heavily on his 17 years in education--and particularly his tenure as a chief state school officer--to forge new links with the education community.

“I’ve been able to build some relationships over the years that give me a different kind of ‘in,”’ he said.

Since being tapped for the federal post, he has traveled extensively, attending a series of regional meetings on the Chapter 1 program and visiting a school in the troubled Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

These types of personal interactions, he said, will set a tone for his term of office. But making the transition from state to federal responsibilities, he conceded, is not an effortless endeavor.

“The pace is different. I’m used to moving things much faster,” he said.

Experience at all levels of the education system--he has been a teacher, an elementary- and a secondary-school principal, superintendent of three school districts, and a state chief--will help him understand the programs he must administer, Mr. MacDonald maintained.

His 12-year tenure in Groton, for example, gives him insight into the likely fallout from the Bush Administration’s proposal to sharply curtail the federal “impact aid” alloted to jurisdictions based on the number of children whose parents live or work on nearby federal property, and thus may not pay local taxes. A large U.S. naval base is located in Groton.

“Part B has been a sore point for many, many years,” Mr. MacDonald said, referring to the section of the impact-aid law covering federal facilities. “It’s a no-win situation.”

He has already been approached, he said, by “former colleagues from Groton,” and he has formulated proposals of his own on the issue he hopes to include in the department’s fiscal 1992 budget. He would not, however, disclose details of those proposals.

Praise and Caveats

Those who have worked with Mr. MacDonald praise his commitment to early-intervention strategies, but some are also critical of his past support for state fiscal policies based on the argument that schools can “do well with less.”

As New Hampshire’s chief state school officer, Mr. MacDonald was a prime mover behind an omnibus dropout-prevention bill that focused heavily on early-childhood education, said Richard Goodman, executive secretary of the New Hampshire School Boards Association.

The bill passed the New Hampshire legislature in 1988, but many of its major provisions still remain unfunded.

“He was good for New Hampshire,” said state Senator George Disnard, the Democratic chairman of the Senate education committee. “He recognized the fact that one of the main areas we had to assist was early intervention, and I was sorry to see him go for that reason.”

In his capacity as a trustee of the state university system, Mr. McDonald also was responsible for establishing a doctoral program in education at the University of New Hampshire.

He backed a statewide effective-schools program and encouraged a program of advanced training for school administrators.

“In three and a half years he did a tremendous amount to improve the quality of education in this state,"8said Mr. Goodman, who met the new assistant secretary when the two were superintendents in Massachusetts.

But Marilyn Monahan, president of nea-New Hampshire, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said that while the union’s relationship with Mr. MacDonald was always open and cordial, teachers often questioned what they felt was his lack of leadership on education issues.

Because New Hampshire’s schools chief is appointed by the state board of education, she explained, “you were never sure if it was his view that was guiding the board, or the board’s guiding him.”

She said that even in the area of early-childhood education, Mr. MacDonald was not vociferous enough to force the state to consider funding kindergarten programs.

“I think he could have taken a leadership position in trying to change things,” the union leader said.

According to Ms. Monahan, the union also found itself arguing with Mr. MacDonald over school-finance issues.

New Hampshire has historically relied heavily on property taxes to support school programs, a circumstance Ms. Monahan said has taken a toll on the quality of education.

“His history here has been to advocate that New Hampshire does well with less,” she said. “And it’s not surprising that his philosophy would fit well in the Bush Administration.”

In his interview, Mr. MacDonald agreed that, even as a state superintendent, he had subscribed to the frequently repeated message of Mr. Cavazos and other Administration officials that more federal funding is not necessarily the answer to the nation’s educational problems.

In that vein, he said, he supports the emphasis the new Chapter 1 regulations place on accountability and provisions that permit audits of local programs.

“I think the audit should be based on what is being accomplished in terms of programmatic services to youngsters, not merely just trying to pin down every dollar,” he said.

“Are the dollars really reaching the children?” the assistant secretary asked. “That’s the primary question.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 1990 edition of Education Week as Assistant Secretary Seeks An End to ‘Fragmentation’