Secretaries’ Day: Agency Heads Mull State of Education

By Erik W. Robelen — February 27, 2002 5 min read
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What would happen if all the living U.S. secretaries of education were put in a room together?

Last week, former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr.—who, incidentally, was rumored to be a good bet to join that exclusive group had Vice President Al Gore carried the 2000 election—and an audience here found out.

Well, almost. The very first secretary, Shirley M. Hufstedler, who served from 1979 to 1981, was sick with the flu and had to cancel. So instead, most of the former secretaries, plus Rod Paige, currently occupying that post, came together on the campus of Duke University in Durham Feb. 20 to hash over the state of education.

The event was co-sponsored by Duke and the recently formed James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, part of the University of North Carolina system. The crowd of more than 500 included teachers, school administrators, university faculty and students, and even some political figures.

“Folks, this is pretty momentous,” said Mr. Hunt, the moderator, describing the assembled panel. “They are leaders who will share with us ... what they have learned about how to improve the schools and to educate all children.”

And share they did. The wide-ranging discussion delved into standardized testing, school choice, character education, and the apparent shortage of highly qualified teachers, to name a few topics. Not surprisingly, the conversation veered repeatedly back to the newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act that President Bush signed into law last month.

Of course, the five guests did not always agree, and their views did not necessarily break down neatly along party lines.

For example, Lauro F. Cavazos, who was appointed by President Reagan in 1988 and continued as secretary nearly halfway into the administration of the first President Bush, expressed worries about the emphasis on standardized testing, a hallmark of the current President Bush’s education agenda.

“I just am so concerned,” the Republican appointee said. “I don’t want testing to become the single measure of student achievement in this nation. ... Sure, OK, let’s do some testing. But let’s think about what courses did they take, what grades did they receive, what was the graduation rate, how many went on to college.”

A central provision of the new education law requires annual testing in reading and mathematics each year in grades 3-8, with consequences tied to student performance.

Standards, Standardization

But Richard W. Riley, who served throughout President Clinton’s eight-year tenure, said the new law builds on the changes to the ESEA that administration shepherded through in 1994.

“At the end of our term,” Mr. Riley declared, standards-based reform “was an irreversible nationwide movement.”

Among the future challenges cited by Mr. Riley, the lone Democrat on the panel of secretaries, was “having a sustained drive to maintain standards-based education reform, not looking back, not getting diverted off.”

He added a word of caution, though. “I believe in standards, but I do not believe in standardization,” said Mr. Riley. He also echoed Mr. Cavazos’ concern about a singular focus on standardized tests.

For his part, Secretary Paige insisted that annual tests are critical to knowing where students are academically. He sought to emphasize that the current Bush administration is serious about the slogan that has been attached to the new education law, the “No Child Left Behind” Act.

“Now, we mean that quite literally,” Mr. Paige said. “We’re talking about all the children. ... This is a powerful concept.”

The event last week was not the first time that current and former secretaries all gathered to talk about education. A similar event took place in 1991. (“Four Former Secretaries Each Put Own Spin on What Ails Schools,” Nov. 20, 1991.)

There have been seven secretaries of education since the creation of a separate federal Department of Education in 1979, done at the urging of President Carter. In addition to Ms. Hufstedler and the five secretaries in attendance here, the late Terrel H. Bell served in the Cabinet position. Mr. Bell, who died in 1996, was President Reagan’s first education secretary, from 1981 to 1985.

Mr. Hunt last week helped primarily to steer the conversation, but he also threw in his several cents worth at various points. He noted, for instance, the new education law’s requirement that all teachers be “highly qualified” within four years.

“Think about that,” Mr. Hunt said. “There are many people who say it can’t be done. ... Let me tell you something, folks, I believe it can be done, and the Congress and the people of the United States say it should be done. So we better get with it.”

Fixing Teaching

To meet that challenge, Mr. Riley said, teaching must become a “respected profession.” One idea: “Make teaching a year-round profession,” he said.

Secretary Paige offered up another approach: merit-based pay for teachers. And former Secretary William J. Bennett, who served under President Reagan from 1985 to 1988, pointed to “great success” from home schooling to argue that traditional paths to teaching are not always the best.

“Isn’t it interesting that ... amateurs can do a very good job,” he said, suggesting that alternative certification is a promising avenue to a highly capable teaching force.

Lamar Alexander, who served as secretary from 1991 to 1993, during the first Bush administration, talked up a decade-old proposal from his time in office, dubbed the GI Bill for Kids. Modeled on the Pell Grant program for higher education, it would provide extra money to students from low-income families that they could use either at their current public schools or to help pay private school tuition.

“The GI Bill itself has been called our most successful federal legislation,” Mr. Alexander said. But he conceded it would take some real work to “extend that consensus” to a K-12 version. “I know,” he said, “because when I was education secretary, I tried to do it. ... Unfortunately, the only light of day the GI Bill for Kids ever saw was during the spring afternoon on the White House lawn when the president announced it.”

Mr. Bennett described how he visited many schools early in his tenure, once declaring after a visit to several Chicago public schools that the city’s schools were the worst in the country. Chicago officials then persuaded Mr. Bennett to return and visit one of the city’s best public schools, the LaSalle Language Academy. He was impressed by this school, and particularly its principal, Amy Weiss Narea.

A proponent of government-financed vouchers, Mr. Bennett said he is deeply troubled by the discrepancies in the quality of schools around the country.

“If you were lucky enough to be born wealthy, your parents will find a good neighborhood to go to a good school, or they will put you in a private school,” he said. “If you are born poor, you better hope you run into an Amy Weiss Narea; otherwise, it’s the luck of the draw.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Secretaries’ Day: Agency Heads Mull State of Education


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