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Rethinking the U.S. Department of Education

By Peter W. Cookson Jr. — March 13, 2012 6 min read
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A perfect storm is engulfing public education: Failure to perform to expectations, tightening resources, and an impatient public are testing the limits of business as usual. Learning barriers are being broken at an exponential rate, yet our out-of-date school system plods along one hesitant step at a time. In the great algorithm of progress, one slow step forward is in reality a step backward. Excellence and innovation require that we step forward with confidence.

We need real change and we need real leadership if we are not to find public education washed away on the outgoing tides of history.

There was a time when the nation looked to the U.S. Department of Education for thought leadership about how to fix our broken public schools, but those days appear to have come and gone. Today, the department lacks a transcendent ideal of learning or a clear vision for public education. The department’s current diffuse outlook represents more than mission creep; it indicates a deep confusion of purpose. Understandably, calls for abolishing the Education Department are a recurring topic of national conversation.

It need not be this way. With a little boldness and shrewdness, the department could play a pivotal role in leading the United States back from the brink of becoming the world’s richest also-ran. Without a national educational vision, we are destined to become a permanent mediocre player in the sweepstakes for global political and economic leadership.

The department is in desperate need of rethinking, reorganizing, and repurposing with one single objective—to become the world’s leading research-and-development center for the creation and dissemination of 21st-century learning.

Why a single compelling goal? In a world of limited resources, no public institution can hope to succeed if it does not focus its human and material resources on the pursuit of a defined goal in the public interest. We don’t need smaller government; we need smarter government.

The Founders understood this. In 1810, James Madison, in his State of the Union message, called for the establishment of a “seminary of learning” in Washington so that it might “strengthen the foundations ... of our free and happy system of government.” His rationale for a national institution for learning rings profoundly true today. He wrote:

“Such an institution, though local in its legal character, would be universal in its effects. By enlightening the opinions, by expanding the patriotism, and by assimilating the principles, the sentiments, and the manners of those who might resort to this temple of science, to be redistributed in due time through every part of the community, sources of jealousy and prejudice would be diminished, the features of national character would be multiplied, and the greater extent given to social harmony.”

Without a national educational vision, we are destined to become a permanent mediocre player in the sweepstakes for global political and economic leadership."

It is time to embrace Madison’s vision; here is one version of what a 21st-century seminary of learning might look like.

The bureaucratic organization of the current Education Department is scrapped in favor of a flat, functional, and future-oriented organizational structure, consisting of four interconnected and mission-driven centers: the Center for 21st Century Learning and Classrooms, the Center for the Dissemination of Best Practices, the Center for Innovation and Investment, and the Center for International Education and Cooperation. These four centers would share a single goal: the creation and dissemination of 21st-century learning based on the best science, research, and practice.

Here is a brief description of each center:

• The Center for 21st Century Learning and Classrooms. We are living in the greatest revolution in learning of all time, yet our schools continue teaching with outdated materials. As a consequence, many students are bored to tears. This center would bring together the country’s best thinkers and innovators to invent new ways of learning, to uncover the dynamic curricula currently buried under the weight of inert tradition, and to demonstrate how new communication technologies can raise levels of learning for all children. The results of this research and development would be made available free to all schools online.

• The Center for the Dissemination of Best Practices. We are fortunate that doctors and medical researchers don’t keep their successful innovations to themselves; otherwise, a lot of us would be without the best medical treatment. In education, we do not have a consistent method for establishing standards that distinguish between opinion and real results. The mission of this center would be to aggregate suggested best practices and subject them to fundamental tests of validity and reliability. Once best practices were authenticated, they would be listed in a virtual library of best practices accessible to all. The center would be more comprehensive than the department’s existing What Works Clearinghouse.

• The Center for Innovation and Investment. Today, federal dollars are largely wasted on poorly thought-out “reform” initiatives, uncoordinated projects, and politically motivated reports that include only some of the information on a particular subject. But, with a new vision, the department could position itself as an investor in the future, with clear criteria for distributing federal funds to jump-start long-term, self-sustaining innovations. This is a wholly different approach to offering grants. One-time or even multiyear grants are not investments that build enduring capacity, and they often inadvertently finance the status quo with little long-lasting benefit. The department would grant money with an expectation of clear, measurable results, whether through funding the physical improvement of schools; scholarships for lifelong learning; research that matters; or supporting states, school districts, and schools in economic distress.

Such a strategy would build infrastructure and human capital that in turn generate more resources where they are badly needed. Without a level playing field, learning benefits the few instead of the many, and in doing so makes a mockery of Madison’s dream.

• The Center for International Education and Cooperation. The United States is still the world’s best hope for a safe and just world. Our greatest asset is not our weapons, but our wisdom. When the United States invests in education, it exercises lasting global leadership. By disseminating best practices internationally, by building 21st-century schools around the world in collaboration with other nations and nonprofit organizations, and by leading in research and development, the United States will become the gateway to a prosperous and peaceful global society.

When the Founders dedicated themselves to the great American experiment more than 200 years ago, they were in it for the long haul. We must be, too. If we lose public education, our society will be diminished and our chances of realizing Madison’s vision virtually nil.

A new, innovative, and responsive federal Department of Education is one step toward realizing the Founders’ dream of a system of public schools that serve all the people. This is not the time to abandon a vision of enlightenment; rather, it is time to double down and ensure that the Education Department becomes a beacon for the passionate pursuit of knowledge in the public service.

The Founders believed in the power of education to innovate and create community. So must we—for real.

A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2012 edition of Education Week as Rethinking the U.S. Education Department

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