Litmus Tests for the Next Secretary of Education

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In his presidential campaign, Barack Obama indicated on a number of occasions how important he believed a good educational system is for the United States. And I don’t doubt the sincerity of that belief. Nevertheless, between now and his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009, education is bound to play a minor role in his thoughts and actions.

There are just too many other pressing problems, such as the financial crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to occupy the president-elect’s time and that of his advisers. But there is one education-related matter to which Mr. Obama must give some thought between now and the inauguration: the nomination of the next U.S. secretary of education.

I am not writing to suggest a candidate or candidates for this post. Rather, I wish to emphasize the importance of two litmus tests I think should be applied to any candidate considered. The first concerns the candidate’s view on the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. At the time of its passage, I wrote that NCLB would prove to be the law most destructive of good education in the United States ever passed by Congress. Nothing that has happened since has caused me to change that view.

Quite the contrary. Although NCLB has some valuable provisions, the testing—as opposed to learning—culture it embodies not only forces teachers to “teach to the test,” but, still worse, causes the entire education system to overemphasize mathematics and reading (important as they are) at the expense of almost all other school subjects. Even if the mathematics and reading emphases had resulted in improved education in these areas, which they have not, the overall effect on the education of American children would have been negative, if not disastrous, as many observers have noted.

If there is not wholesale revision of NCLB, the Obama administration will surely fail to make any meaningful improvements in American education.

The new secretary of education must be prepared to support not reauthorization but rewriting of the No Child Left Behind Act. Since the original legislation had the support of prominent Democrats, such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), as well as Republicans, this will be a difficult but vital task. Indeed, if there is not wholesale revision of NCLB, the Obama administration will surely fail to make any meaningful improvements in American education.

The second litmus test is to assure that any candidate realizes that, although there are many able teachers at all levels of American K-12 education, the last half-century has seen a steady decline in the overall intellectual quality of the teachers in American schools. Among the many reasons for this is the decline in salaries relative to other professions and the increasingly poor working conditions in U.S. schools. These are problems common to all subject-matter specialties, but they are particularly acute with respect to mathematics and science because people competent in those specialties have increasingly attractive job opportunities outside of teaching. Yet the United States needs significant numbers of the best and the brightest to choose teaching in its schools.

Programs like Teach For America at most scratch the surface of this immense problem, one that cannot be solved in four or even eight years of an Obama presidency. But unless a start is made promptly, the position of the United States in elementary and secondary education will decline still further from its already unenviable place. This would involve not just better salaries and improved working conditions, but also the raising of the status of teaching. The latter is something that Mr. Obama, as president, could use his bully pulpit to promote. But his secretary of education must be the one to translate exhortations into actions.

Whatever happens about the acute problems President-elect Barack Obama will face immediately when he takes office, the progress he makes on improving precollegiate education in the United States will, perhaps as much as anything else, determine his place in history.

Vol. 28

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