Whoever is tapped to be the next secretary of education will have a tough act to follow. Richard Riley, the former South Carolina governor who’s held the position since 1993, is respected by both politicos and regular folks for his integrity and down-home style. In September, Riley met with contributing writer Joetta L. Sack to discuss his legacy—and to make one last pitch to teachers to get involved in policy reform. Secretary hopefuls, listen and learn.
Q: You’re by far the longest-serving secretary of education in the department’s history. Tell us about the job. What sort of skills does an education secretary need?
A: Well, the job has changed since I’ve been here. Education was not a top priority for everybody eight years ago, and it is today. I had a period where Newt Gingrich came in and wanted to eliminate [the Department of] Education and the federal role, and we had to battle through that. Now, Republicans and Democrats have gotten to the place where they’re very into the subject of education.
[The job] calls for being able to have . . . a basic knowledge of all the different parts of education. If you’re looking at education from this seat, you see a multitude of things—president, congress, governors and state legislatures, school boards and teachers and principals and parents. You really have to understand all that.
Secretary of Education Richard Riley.
Q: Looking back, what do you consider your proudest accomplishments? Do you have any disappointments?
A: Getting Goals 2000 passed, school-to-work, the reauthorization of [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] in 1994—all of that really set a framework for the standards movement in all 50 states. The identification of low-performing schools [and] corrective action required—you could not do that until you had the standards movement in place and fair assessment [systems]. Then to have the reauthorization of Title I that made it much more flexible—now you can use it for after-school [programs], professional development. I am very proud with what happened with the E-rate. We think we’ve handled [civil rights] in a good way. I’m pleased with our area of disability—we’ve worked hard for the inclusion of disabled people in the classrooms. I think that that’s a good litany of exciting things that are out there.
The school construction measure is one that we’ve fought hard for. If you want to talk about disappointments, that would be a disappointment up to this point, but I have every hope that we can get that in a final package at the end of the session. It’s the third year we’ve been to Congress with it, but I think we have the best chance yet.
Q: You’ve made sure you have easy access to educators’ perspectives by appointing world history teacher Terry Dozier to be your special adviser on teaching and creating teacher-in-residence and principal-in-residence positions. How does their input affect your agency’s work?
A: It’s just common sense to have a teacher and a principal on my staff so people here can bounce ideas off of them and ask the simple question, “How would this work in a real classroom and school?” More importantly, “How would this impact the learning of kids?” Teachers and principals are very pleased when they learn that they have colleagues who work in the department every day—educators who carry their message directly to policymakers. Having an active teacher and principal in the Department of Education is a constant reminder to the rest of us as to why we are here—to provide quality teaching and learning to all students.
Q: Should teachers get involved in education policy reform?
A: If teachers don’t get involved, policies will be determined without their input. Educators are in the trenches every day. They know the students and challenges and have suggestions for solutions to some of the most difficult problems facing schools today.
Q: How can teachers voice their opinions on public policy issues?
A: Some of the best newspaper commentaries I have read have been written by teachers. These teachers not only wanted to have a voice; they had real solutions to offer. That is one important way to impact policy. Lots of folks read the papers, but voicing an opinion can take many forms—from calling or e-mailing a legislator to writing opinion editorials to working in a political campaign. We receive many good suggestions here in the department, as well; some by letter, some by e-mail, and others by telephone.
When [teacher-in-residence Sharon Nelson] was a chemistry teacher in Waunakee, Wisconsin, . . . one of the things she found out from a state legislator was as few as nine phone calls to his office could make a difference on matters.
Teachers may not always realize this, but they really are the experts on working with children and understanding how they learn. They need to build relationships with policymakers to create a dialogue—understand each other’s perspectives and develop a strong product resulting from that dialogue.
Q: Do you have any idea what you’ll be doing after your job ends?
A: I am carefully not getting into my future because it would interfere with what I’m doing, and I want to work hard up to the last day. After being here a while, you can accomplish more in a month than in the six months when you first came, so I’m really going to try to work hard until January.