Susan B. Neuman, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, has resigned her post, effective Jan. 31.
She said she wanted to return to her research on reading.
Her resignation came as no surprise to some in Washington who deal with federal education policy. Indeed, there was considerable speculation that other reasons may have played a significant part in her decision, and that she likely was encouraged to leave by the department.
Ms. Neuman was not available for interviews, said Melinda Malico, a department spokeswoman.
“It is a pleasure and an honor to have been a part of the administration, and the implementation of [the] No Child Left Behind [Act],” Ms. Neuman said in a department press release issued Jan. 14. “However, it is now time for me to return to the academy and resume my research in reading.”
Ms. Neuman has had a distinguished career in reading research. Before joining the federal agency in 2001 as a Bush appointee, she was a professor at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, and the director of the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement. She previously taught at several other universities.
At the department, she has played a key role in the implementation of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.
Several observers suggested that while Ms. Neuman is a skilled academic, she was not up to the political challenges of running the department’s office of elementary and secondary education, and of dealing with the sensitive issues around the far-reaching education law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“It’s been clear for a long time that her colleagues didn’t think she was doing a good job,” said one person familiar with the department’s inner workings, who asked not to be named. “It’s seemed for months that her days were numbered. … She’s not a good public administrator, not politically very deft. … She’s a good researcher, but was the wrong choice in that role.”
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that she was in over her head,” said Jack Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. “In my opinion, she did not have the background for that position.”
Mr. Jennings suggested that she sometimes sent signals about department policy that were out of synch with what other leaders were saying, and what was in the law.
“She was a source of some of the confusion about the law,” said Mr. Jennings, a former longtime aide to House Democrats. “States took delegations in to see her, and they came away confused.”
That said, Mr. Jennings pointed out that the length of her tenure was not unusual for Washington: Most assistant secretaries, he said, last only about 18 months. Ms. Neuman was nominated by President Bush in March 2001, and was confirmed by the Senate in July of that year.
‘Part of a Team’
Some in the Washington education community, however, offered a different view.
“I think that at the very beginning, some of the messages that came out of her office were confusing to states, but the longer we worked with them, and they with us, that experience changed,” said Patricia Sullivan, a deputy executive director at the Council of Chief State School Officers. “I think that she did a very good job of jumping in and implementing a very complicated bill.”
“We were very satisfied with how she conducted the office,” said Jeff Simering, the legislative director of the Council of the Great City Schools. He praised, for example, her efforts in heading up the negotiated rulemaking process last year on Title I regulations.
“We do have some problems with the last set of regulations, but I think that was a joint effort by a variety of offices,” Mr. Simering said. In a press release, Secretary of Education Rod Paige thanked Ms. Neuman for her work at the department.
“Susan Neuman has been part of a team that’s worked hard to make sure we have a swift and smooth implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act,” he said. “It has been a very busy and intense two years, and I thank Susan for [her] efforts and for her service to the American people. I wish her well in her future pursuits.”
The assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education manages the office of that name and serves as a principal adviser to the secretary on all related matters.
Ms. Neuman is perhaps best known for her work as a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she taught for 10 years. In several studies, she showed that children in poor neighborhoods have much less access to books, magazines, and newspapers in places like barbershops and day-care centers than do middle- class children.
In an interview after she was first named assistant secretary, she said she was most proud of her research showing that giving children more books and reading to them frequently had a “dramatic” effect on boosting their academic achievement.