School & District Management

Obama Unveils Picks for Key Ed. Dept. Jobs

By Stephen Sawchuk & Debra Viadero — April 03, 2009 4 min read
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The Obama administration last week announced two picks for major posts in the U.S. Department of Education.

John Q. Easton, the executive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, has been tapped to head the Institute of Education Sciences. And a community college administrator, Martha J. Kanter, has been named as President Barack Obama’s choice for the third-in-command position of undersecretary of education.

An Education Department official confirmed that Ms. Kanter, who has worked for more than 30 years in community colleges across the nation, will take on the higher education portfolio at the department.

Martha J. Kanter is a longtime community college administrator.

If his nomination is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Mr. Easton will be only the second administrator to head the $617 million-a-year institute, which was created in 2002 to serve as the department’s main research arm.

The research consortium that Mr. Easton currently heads was founded in 1990 and is widely known for its nonpartisan research aimed at improving Chicago’s public school system. Its pioneering model of a researcher-practitioner partnership is now being replicated in New York City, New Orleans, and other cities.

As the executive director of the group for the past six years, Mr. Easton worked closely with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan when he was Chicago’s schools chief. Before that, he also worked alongside Mr. Duncan’s predecessor in the district, Paul G. Vallas.

“John Easton gave me some good news, and he gave me some bad news,” said Mr. Vallas, who now heads New Orleans’ Recovery School District. “But the great thing about him was that he never politicized the news.”

Shift of Focus?

Some observers said Mr. Easton’s nomination signals a shift in direction for the institute, which, under its first director, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, campaigned to transform education into an “evidence based” field and expand the use of experimental studies, known as randomized controlled trials.

“Russ was an experimental psychologist who brought that model to federal research,” said Gerald E. Sroufe, the government-relations director for the Washington-based American Educational Research Association. “The [Chicago] consortium’s work has focused on evaluative research that is intended to figure out what we need to do to make the system work better, and not so much on determining whether something had demonstrated its efficacy.”

Yet Mr. Easton said he had no plans to “throw out anything.”

“I hope to build on and expand the research that’s been done—perhaps by incorporating more multi-method research—without losing any of the rigor that the department has made a priority,” he said.

Ms. Kanter now serves as the chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, in Los Altos Hills, Calif., a system that serves 44,000 students a year.

Community colleges enroll about half of the nation’s undergraduates and serve about 5 million other adults earning General Educational Development, or GED, credentials and learning job skills. But past U.S. secretaries of education have not typically recruited talent from among those institutions’ administrative ranks.

In several recent speeches, however, President Obama has highlighted community colleges’ role, which includes offering associate degrees and credits transferable to four-year institutions. (“President’s Education Aims Aired,” March 4, 2009.)

‘President’s President’

The choice of Ms. Kanter sends a signal that the Obama administration wants to make community colleges an important part of an overall strategy for delivering at least a year of postsecondary education for every student, said Gail O. Mellow, the president of La Guardia Community College in New York City.

“She is a superb choice—she’s like a community college’s president’s president,” she said of Ms. Kanter. “I think most of us in community college higher education are just delighted with her.”

In particular, Ms. Mellow underscored Ms. Kanter’s commitment not just to increasing access to community colleges, but also to improving outcomes for those who attend them.

“She has really been committed to finding ways to move students through an educational sequence that results in something—an increase in their wages, or a degree, or a certificate,” Ms. Mellow said.

Ms. Kanter appears to be less well-known inside Washington.

“I’m certainly delighted to learn of her accomplishments at her institution, but I have not run into her name on the issues that I think she’s going to be working on,” said Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Such issues will likely include overseeing implementation of policy changes to the Higher Education Act, which Congress renewed last year. That bill altered grant programs and accountability provisions for institutions that prepare teachers; the seven college-access programs known collectively as TRIO; and the federal student-lending programs, among other areas. (“Congress Approves New HEA.” Aug. 13, 2008.)

Ms. Kanter’s new job comes with new challenges, too, such as pushing forward on Mr. Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget request, which proposes to make drastic changes to federal student-lending and financial-aid programs.

The budget request would, for instance, seek to eliminate a private-lender subsidy program and to originate all student loans in the Direct Lending Program, in which students borrow from the U.S. Treasury.

A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 2009 edition of Education Week as Obama Unveils Picks for Key Ed. Dept. Jobs

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