Up the Learning Curve at E.D.

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I was one of the unlikeliest people ever to work in the federal government. First of all, I didn't want to. I am a historian of education and a writer; that is what I like to do; that is what I have done for 25 years.

So, when Lamar Alexander asked me to lunch in February 1991 and then invited me to work at the U.S. Education Department, I said no. But I liked him; I liked David Kearns, his deputy secretary of education. They said they wouldn't ask me to do things that I couldn't do and they would help me when I needed it. When Lamar said that I would have the lead role in developing national standards and new national assessments, I found the offer irresistible.

I warned them, "I have never run anything. I am used to working on my own. I wear sweats and jeans every day.'' They said, "No problem.'' Many months later, on July 21, 1991, I was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as assistant secretary for the office of educational research and improvement.

The part that frightened me most was running the agency, known as O.E.R.I. The substance was not a problem; I had been an educational researcher for many years and knew the issues. But I was worried about what I was getting into. From all accounts, this was a troubled agency. Having recently served on a panel that studied the state of educational research, I knew that the agency was persistently underfunded, had a reputation for being politicized, had no support in Congress, and was--to put it mildly--controversial.

And then I had my personal doubts: Would I be a good administrator? Would I work well with the staff? Would the bureaucracy chew me up? Could I--a registered Democrat in a Republican Administration--keep free of partisan politics? I had some sleepless nights wondering whether I should forget the whole thing.

After I took office, the question that people asked most frequently was, "Are you frustrated by the bureaucracy? Can you get anything done?'' Strangely enough, the bureaucracy was the least of my problems. Time and again, they were my staunchest allies.

My charge from Lamar Alexander was to support the National Education Goals and America 2000, particularly by advancing voluntary national standards and a new generation of assessments. The O.E.R.I. staff provided critical logistical support in my efforts to persuade Congress to provide funding for a reform strategy based on voluntary national standards, new state curriculum frameworks, new state assessments, and a research agenda that focused on performance assessments, the education of disadvantaged students, and international studies of school effectiveness.

At the very same time, I was battling to prevent passage of legislation that would have prohibited the Education Department from providing any funding for national standards or for states that wanted to revise their curriculum frameworks and assessment programs. The purpose of this legislation was to restrict the federal role in the National Education Goals process, which some in Congress viewed with suspicion because that body had not been a participant when the goals were shaped by the President and the governors in 1989.

This same piece of legislation--the O.E.R.I. reauthorization--proposed to turn control of federal research funding over to the very groups that regularly fly to the agency for money; needless to say, the interest groups thought it was a wonderful idea. It would have been easy to "go along,'' which is the way most business seems to be conducted in Washington. However, I resolved to resist this effort to politicize the research agenda, and I did so with the advice and support of the career leadership in the agency.

It took a while but I eventually learned that there are two ways to manage an agency like O.E.R.I., which hands out many millions of federal dollars. One is to cultivate and placate the interest groups and Congressional staffers, all of whom have one overriding concern: Get the money out the door to constituencies as fast as possible. The second way is to try to set priorities for the use of federal funds by asking whether they actually help children and schools and by reviewing programs and projects for quality. The second way is definitely "the road less traveled,'' for it is guaranteed to make enemies among interest groups and Congressional staffers.

I had heard a lot about politicization before I got to O.E.R.I., but much to my surprise, there were no political or ideological projects under way in the agency. The only "politicization'' I found was caused by the staff's fear of controversy. They were usually unwilling to get involved in anything that might give offense to anyone. Topics that are regularly debated in the university and the press were treated as off-limits.

I was surprised to learn how little control the executive branch exercised over the budget. Time and again, people would ask me why the Administration was "unwilling'' to spend more on R&D. Contrary to popular perception, the Bush Administration actually requested a larger educational R&D budget than Congress would permit; in response to the nearly 60 percent increase that we requested for R&D in 1992-93, Congress imposed an across-the-board cut.

Although I knew that Congress is responsible for the budget, I was astonished to discover the extent to which Congress micromanages spending. Not only does Congress decide how much money is spent, but most of the time it also directs who gets the money. If agency staff try to evaluate the quality of projects with any seriousness, the recipients complain to their protectors on Capitol Hill. This is why no project with a friend in Congress ever dies.

With the support of the agency leadership, I asserted three principles: First, that we would make quality our standard of judgment when reviewing projects or making awards, even to Congressional favorites (that got me into trouble more than once). Second, that O.E.R.I. would be run on a strictly nonpartisan basis. Third, that everyone on the agency's payroll had to work in the agency (when I arrived, nearly 10 percent of the staff were "detailed" to work for other government organizations at the same time that we were understaffed).

I learned a lot about the kind of people who make a career of government service. About 20 percent of the staff are truly outstanding. About 1 percent (four or five people out of 450) are malingerers. Their coworkers despise them. They spend their time writing grievances. Apparently there is nothing that anyone can do but tolerate them.

The most capable career people in the agency hate the political games that rob educational R&D of its value and undermine its credibility. The first-rate people are rendered impotent by Congressional directives that feed the interest groups and prevent any serious evaluation of quality.

Good things happen only with the support of the key career staff: for example, the launching of consensus projects to develop voluntary national standards in science, history, the arts, civics, geography, English, and foreign languages. The staff understood the strategic value of standards as the basis for reforming and linking state curriculum frameworks, assessments, teacher education, staff development, teacher certification, textbooks, technology, and the other parts of the educational system. As shorthand, we used the phrase "all kids learning'' to express the way that standards should link equity and excellence.

O.E.R.I. staff took leadership in developing the concept of SMARTLINE--a computer-based, interactive electronic network for information and distance learning. A team of professionals experienced in technology and dissemination worked long hours to plan SMARTLINE. The staff believes in it, but Congress did not fund it (yet).

Another O.E.R.I. team collaborated to create jargon-free publications for parents and teachers, a series of eight gorgeous booklets called "Helping Your Child Learn ... '' Instantly popular with the public, these publications were prepared by professional writers and artists, using the best research about how children learn. Most people say, when they first see them, "But these are much too beautiful to be government publications!''

Unfortunately, I lost the battle to expand the number of in-house research staff. O.E.R.I.'s office of research simply does not have enough experienced researchers to do the analysis, synthesis, and reporting that people have a right to expect from the federal government. The fact is that R&D is one of the federal government's fundamental responsibilities in education, and it has been consistently underfunded and ignored for many years.

I made a lot of mistakes, mainly in dealing with Congress and the lobbyists. I didn't know how to play their games. My political inexperience showed. I kept thinking that my job was to improve the quality of educational R&D and to communicate research findings to as many people as possible, not just to keep the interest groups and Congressional staffers happy. I wish I could have done both, but there didn't seem to be anything but lip service paid to producing useful and valuable R&D. In calls and letters from the Hill, I was told repeatedly that what really mattered was to keep the money moving, with no questions asked.

I asked questions. I encouraged the staff to ask questions. They did. When I left, it was with no regrets other than that I knew I would miss my team. My gang of 445, give or take a few.

Vol. 12, Issue 25, Page 26

Published in Print: March 17, 1993, as Up the Learning Curve at E.D.
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