Federal Opinion

Why the Secretary of Education Matters More Now Than Ever

By Diane Ravitch — November 18, 2008 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Back in the old days (i.e., pre-NCLB), it really didn’t matter to teachers, principals, and superintendents—that is, the people who actually work directly in schools and have daily interaction with children—who was Secretary of Education. I mean, really, why would anyone in a school care whether the secretary was a governor, a business leader, or a buddy of the president? Nothing that the secretary did had any immediate—or even long-range—impact on the life of schools until NCLB. The secretary of education had a bully pulpit, and from that bully pulpit he or she could be a national scold or an inspirational speaker, but that was about it. He or she could be ignored without peril, as their speeches (which they usually didn’t write) rolled on, not affecting the daily work of educators.

Now, in the NCLB era, this is no longer true. Much is expected of the Obama administration. For one thing, NCLB has created a template in which Congress and the administration can reach deeply into every classroom in the land, affecting what everyone is expected to do, setting goals and making demands. Will the next secretary add merit pay to the next iteration of federal law? Our new president says he supports merit pay. Will teachers be judged based on their students’ test scores? Or will they be paid more by doing different work, like mentoring other teachers or teaching high-needs students?

Will the next secretary embrace choice and the market model for schooling? Chances are if he/she is an entrepreneur, a hedge-fund manager, or a business leader, that is likely, as that is the metric that such people know best.

I have written extensively about the New York “miracle.” I agree with you. There is no miracle. For one thing, we know that New York City’s NAEP scores from 2003-2007 were flat, with the exception of only 4th grade math, where the proportion of students given accommodations exceeded that of any other city tested, throwing those “gains” into question. In 2007, New York City gave accommodations to 25 percent of the students tested in fourth grade math, way beyond the proportion in Los Angeles, Atlanta, or other cities. One could dissect the much-boasted graduation rate in the same way, looking for example at the number of “discharges,” students who simply are dropped from the register without being counted officially as dropouts.

My personal choice is former Governor James Hunt of North Carolina. I don’t know whether he has any interest in being a member of the cabinet, but he would be wonderful. He is deeply committed to education, to children, to teachers. He is not an ideologue. I wrote a blog about him in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper. He’s my guy.

Yes, it matters very much who is selected by President-elect Obama. It matters more than ever. Let us pray that it is not one of the hedge-fund managers or prosecutors or swing-the-axe superintendents whose names are now being floated in the press.


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