A Better Agenda for The United States Department of Education


By Joe Batory

Posted on batory.neti2i.net on 07/25/2006

Here’s a suggestion for the White House! The United States Secretary of Education cabinet position should be filled by someone who possesses background as an educator, someone who has had teaching experience inside a public school with children from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Additionally, is it too much to ask that this top leadership post in education should be occupied by someone who also has had some school leadership experience?

Well our incumbent United States Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, might be the nicest person in the world.  But her lack of any background as an educator or school leader leaves much to be desired.  In terms of her ability to effectively lead our nation’s quest for educational improvement, Spellings seems to be much more of a “loyal pontificator of White House propaganda” rather than a person who can bring forth meaningful ideas on education.

All of this makes sense in some perverse way. Secretary Spellings’ claim to fame is that she was a political operative for several years for then Governor George Bush in Texas. And as a protégé of Karl Rove she likely learned to manipulate and indoctrinate with the best. No wonder that Spellings became a perfect political choice to carry forward the ideological No Child Left Behind policy of the White House as Secretary of Education. However, you have to wonder if she has any grasp of the major issues surrounding public education in our country.

Most recently, Secretary Spellings has been pursuing her own unique learning curve on education. She has been traveling the world at U.S. taxpayers’ expense-----Afghanistan, England, Egypt, France, Italy, Japan, Jordan and Russia-----on some convoluted theory that this has something to do with improving education in the United States. I seriously doubt it. In less than a year and a half, Spellings has spent (conservative estimate, CNN & Associated Press) more than $36,000.00 and the likelihood is that there will be little if any benefit to our nation or its schools.

Respectfully, I request that the Secretary of Education discontinue her junkets and do some exploring in her own nation. Her role to date has been to blindly advocate the No Child Left Behind standardized testing program. But there are better ideas for a more meaningful agenda for the United States Office of Education; so here are some suggestions:


1. Start with School Funding: There are tremendous inequities in public school financing. Too many schools who attempt to educate the children of America’s poor and the majority of students of color have nowhere near the resources of schools in affluent largely white suburbs. The poorest pupils and their schools usually have the least in terms of instructional and educational assets. Many states have failed miserably to equalize school funding and so the degree of richness of school resources continues to depend on local property wealth. This simple fact of life in America has created huge inequities among America’s pubic schools. The United States Office of Education must show some leadership in acknowledging this problem and in holding state governments accountable for their responsibilities of better equalizing educational funding among schools in their jurisdictions. Likewise, the 109th Congress must also be called to account to adequately finance important federal education initiatives rather than concentrating on its many pork barrel priorities. If the United States Department of Education is not to be a staunch advocate of public schools and the students they serve, then why have this bureaucracy?


2. Poverty Matters: Paul Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, recently wrote that “talking about closing the achievement gap without talking about poverty is like planning a trip to the moon but not wanting to acknowledge gravity…creating a nation of successful learners requires that all aspects of their learning be addressed, not just the creation of a coercive assessment system…”

Poverty is a disgraceful issue for the United States where our rates of poor children are so much higher than in all other Western industrialized countries. American political leaders need to face up to this reality. America’s poverty is well described in Jonathan Kozol’s Shame of A Nation; Amazing Grace; and Savage Inequalities. These books offer the reader insight and comprehension regarding what confronts the poor and minorities in our nation.  And for an overview of the direct correlation of poverty to schooling, David Berliner’s Our Impoverished View of Educational Reform (Teachers College Record, 8/2/05) clearly makes the case for what America’s political leaders refuse to admit…Poverty Matters.

The poverty issue should be addressed as a moral priority in the national interest by the United States Department of Education. If there is no will or courage to do so, then this Department of Education should be disbanded because it has become little more than a political mechanism of an ideological White House.


3. We Need A New Prime Directive: The White House continues to forcibly shove its standardized testing program known as No Child Left behind Act (NCLB) down the throats of America’s schools but to what purpose.  NCLB is forcing widespread and unfortunate detours away from meaningful education. These days, many schools are: spending too much valuable pupil time on test preparation; teaching test taking skills; reducing classroom activities that focus on higher order skills such as creativity, analysis and synthesis.

Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch, two experts on education with very different perspectives, agree on one key point regarding the influence of NCLB (Education Week, 5/24/2006): “…Both of us are appalled by the relentless “test prep” activities that have displaced good instruction in far too many classrooms and that narrow the curriculum to nothing but math and reading…”

An editorial in The Minnesota Daily on March 8, 2006 offers perhaps the best summary of the inherent flaws in NCLB as follows: “By reducing human effectiveness in education to paper, pencil and marking ovals, we are cheapening and even destroying the fundamental inspiration that drives learning….We will not produce world class thinkers or artists or scientists through threats or fear or punishment. Education is not---and has never been---a coercive act imposed by government on its people.”

Ironically, Harvard University has just released a comprehensive study (CRP, 6/14/2006) indicating that NCLB has not improved reading and mathematics achievement or reduced achievement gaps since its inception in spite of “the tremendous amount of pressure schools have been under and the damage that a lot of high poverty racial schools have undergone by being declared as failing schools…”

Small wonder that FairTest, the national center for fair and open testing, has described NCLB as: “a punitive law that uses flawed standardized tests to label schools as failures, and then punish them with harmful sanctions.”

The United States Department of Education needs to reflect on why so many prominent educational organizations and respected leaders across America have expressed serious reservations regarding the misguided political agenda known as NCLB. Author Jonathan Kozol has characterized NCLB as a sociopathic regime of nonstop testing…pathologically repetitive high stakes exams……designed to humiliate principals and teachers.  This nation deserves better from its United States Department of Education.

In closing, the United States Department of Education needs leadership that can put aside the White House obsession with its NCLB panacea and begin to confront the real issues that affect students and schools across America. This nation needs an education agenda not a political agenda from its leadership.


(Joe Batory was superintendent of schools in Upper Darby (PA) from 1984-99). When he retired, he was honored with the Lifetime Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of School Administrators. He is the author of three books on school leadership.)


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