New Research Chief Has Unique Education Outlook
With a career forged in educational grantmaking, state education policy, and academe, Kent McGuire seems to have spent a lifetime preparing for his new role as assistant secretary of the Department of Education's office of educational research and improvement.
And there have been times over the past year when it's seemed to have taken him that long to actually land the job.
Mr. McGuire, 43, will be sworn in this month to a post he has been promised for more than a year. His confirmation had been bottled up in the Senate since he was officially nominated by President Clinton last October. But he was the front-runner to head the department's main research arm months before that.
And the office has been without a permanent leader even longer. Since former Assistant Secretary Sharon P. Robinson left for a private-sector job in December 1996, the OERI has been headed by two acting assistant secretaries.
The long delay puts Mr. McGuire in a curious spot: He is taking over an office that's essentially been on hold for 18 months, and he has only a little more than two years in which to make his mark before the current administration winds down. Like all political appointees, Mr. McGuire's job at the department presumably will end after the presidential election in 2000.
It's a challenge that many department-watchers say Mr. McGuire is well-qualified to meet.
"I think he'll be a real activist and a terrific spokesperson for research and for the agency," said Susan H. Fuhrman, the director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, based at the University of Pennsylvania here. As a faculty member at Teachers College, Columbia University, in the 1980s, she helped recruit Mr. McGuire for a master's-degree program and later became one of his professors.
A Different Take
Mr. McGuire is already well-known and well-liked in education policy and research circles for his behind-the-scenes working style and his people skills. His visibility comes in part from his job as program officer for the education portfolio at the Pew Charitable Trusts here. Grants from the foundation support dozens of school-related projects, including the publication of Education Week's annual Quality Counts report on educational progress in the 50 states.
Before his years at Pew, Mr. McGuire served for four years as program officer for the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, a foundation that, until recently, also invested heavily in national education projects.
"I can't think of any other assistant secretary that's had a foundation background," said Gerald E. Sroufe, a longtime lobbyist for the Washington-based American Educational Research Association. "But, when you think about it, that's the only training ground there can be."
Both jobs, for example, involve funding and evaluating research projects.
But foundation work also provides a unique vantage point on what's new in the field.
"Because foundations are where the money is, you stand at the center of this swirl of ideas, and that's a very good thing to bring to this position," said Joan Lipsitz, who worked with Mr. McGuire during his years at Lilly.
Mr. McGuire, who took a break last week from packing up his office here at Pew to talk, agreed.
"I probably have the kind of perspective that only money can buy," he joked.
In a more serious vein, he added, "I also think this work helps you appreciate what you don't know."
But he's also learned, he said, that "money is only one tool in the box, and in some ways it may not be the most important one."
That last perspective may be especially useful as the research office comes off its long leaderless stretch. Research advocates contend the lack of a permanent head has hurt the OERI in its funding levels and its influence within--and outside--the department.
"This notion of having your full-fledged assistant secretary at the table can make a difference," said Ms. Robinson, who is now a vice president and chief operating officer for the Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, N.J.-based testing organization.
For example, with the exception of the National Center on Education Statistics and a handful of other programs, funding for the core OERI programs that the research community looks to, such as its five research institutes and its regional education laboratories, has remained level over the past two years. Overall funding for the agency, which is currently at $430 million, has increased, however, because of projects that were added by Congress or shifted from other areas of the department.
In addition, the agency lost valuable employees after dozens of staff people accepted successive offers of early retirement from the government. The agency's staff has shrunk from 463 in 1991 to 350 now.
"I've been concerned about the toll the absence of permanent leadership has in part taken on OERI," Mr. McGuire said. "And, yes, a few years ago a good number of people did leave, but I think there are good, capable people there."
"If the last seven years in philanthropy has taught me anything, it's that you really need to identify a limited number of priorities, and you concentrate your efforts on those in hopes of having some impact," he said.
Besides foundation work, Mr. McGuire, the son and the nephew of school teachers, taught for two years as an assistant education professor on the Boulder and Denver campuses of the University of Colorado.
He also became an expert in school finance in his nine years as a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
What Mr. McGuire doesn't bring to the position is a strong ideological agenda. Critics have charged over the years that the agency allowed political considerations to taint its research efforts. Mr. McGuire said he hopes to avoid any such perceptions.
"One of my goals is making sure that people see the objectivity that's behind the research programs," he said. "I don't want our research programs to be perceived as politically motivated."
And, despite the short span of his expected tenure in office, Mr. McGuire appears to be taking a long-term view of the job.
"All of the really interesting problems take three to five years to solve," he remarked. "If I'm lucky enough, I will have mounted a handful of ideas resilient enough and broadly owned enough so that in changing political winds they're the only thing that's guaranteed."
The office, for example, underwent an overhaul in the mid-1990s that was designed to make its research programs more credible and its products more consumer-oriented. As part of that reorganization, five separate research institutes, a new office of reform and dissemination, and an independent advisory board were created.
Now, Mr. McGuire said, he wants to take a closer look at whether the changes have fulfilled the oeri's goals. Are the pieces working well together? Do practitioners find the products relevant? Does the agency's staff have the right "tools" with which to judge effective education proposals?
At least now, after all these months in waiting, he has a chance to try his hand at those questions.
"Right up to the point I was confirmed," Mr. McGuire said, "my wife would say, 'Kent, I just don't get it. Can you explain to me why you would leave a job that so many people would love to have to go to one that so few people seem to aspire to, but that you can't seem to get?'"
"I just think people should go and try to make it work," he said.
Vol. 17, Issue 40, Pages 33, 38Published in Print: June 17, 1998, as New Research Chief Has Unique Education Outlook