Re-Prioritizing the U.S. Department of Education

As President-Elect Obama and his Administration-in-waiting begin working through the transition, they have a terrific opportunity to shape the direction of future policy and future successes.  With each new administration, particularly with a change in party leadership, there is the opportunity to reorganize Cabinet departments, the chance to emphasize new priorities and to turn back the efforts of previous administrations.  While Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution cautions against overhauls and reorganizations at the start of an Administration, now is definitely the time to look at a new organization for the U.S. Department of Education.

In the coming weeks, the Obama transition team will begin reading through the ED transition notebooks, interview staff (particularly the career staff), and quickly making staffing decisions, from EdSec down to a slew of congressionally-approved assistant secretaries.  This is a lot of work, and it will be happening simultaneously in all agencies.  But the amount of work should not keep us from thinking about education — and education improvement — a little differently.
For the most part, the Bush Administration took on the structure that Clinton EdSec Richard Riley left behind.  But if recent years and new thinking are any indication, an Obama Administration may need a very different framework to focus on the issues emphasized on the stump, in policy platforms, and by its strongest advocates.
So how do we do it?  Never shy about such things, Eduflack has a few ideas for the new Obama Administration:
The New Approaches
* Office of Early Childhood Education — Obama has really driven home the importance of early childhood education and its ability to prepare all students — particularly those from at risk families — for the instructional, social, and emotional challenges of elementary school.  The creation of this office systematizes that commitment.  And if you really want to be bold, move Head Start over from HHS and put it under ED, and this new office’s, purview.  While early childhood has long been the official territory of HHS, ED has always had a chip in the game, and Obama’s priorities could settle the issue once and for all whether early childhood ed is just Head Start or a broader academic preparedness scope.
* Office of Elementary Education — For quite some time, we have had an Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.  It is time to separate the two.  The Office of Elementary Education would focus on the foundations of education success, particularly reading and math.  With a K-8 focus, this office would emphasize the early building blocks of successful learning (reflecting much of the research we now know), while providing some new-found emphasis on the middle grades.  We at least need someone who will continue to promote the National Math Panel findings, particularly if we expect STEM to drive secondary ed policy.
* Office of Secondary Education and 21st Century Skills — Nationally, we have made a major investment in improving high schools, making them more rigorous, and providing all students the pathways to educational and life successes.  This office would focus on high school improvement, early colleges, and the transition from secondary to postsecondary.  Bolder still would be a deputy assistant secretary for STEM education, to ensure science-tech-engineering-math instruction is embedded in all our secondary school improvements.
* Office of Teacher Advancement — Obama has made a major commitment to recruiting, retaining, and rewarding teachers.  We should focus an office on the teacher, including teacher training and pre-service education, in-service professional development, teacher incentives, alternative routes for teachers, and overall educator quality.
* Office of Assessment and Accountability — Yes, I know we have an Institute of Education Sciences.  We’ll address that later.  ED needs an office that works directly with SEAs and LEAs on assessment issues, how we measure student achievement, how we address the issue of multiple measures, and how we ensure our schools and our government are accountable and focusing on the instruction and the supports that make a true difference.  And I wouldn’t mind if this office took a close look at the notion of national education standards.
* Office of School Options — During Obama’s time in Chicago, he was involved in the charter school movement.  He has also acknowledged charters as a piece of the education improvement puzzle.  This office would seek to de-politicize the issue, focusing on effective infrastructure, supports, and accountability in school options, particularly charter schools and virtual schools.  Within this office, ED should also include after-school, or out-of-school-time, programs, as such OST efforts are now a bastion for academic supports, social supports, the arts and other opportunities designed to fill the current learning gaps.
* Office of Family and Community Engagement — As I detailed in my open letter to the President-Elect earlier this week, there is a need and a hunger for an office focused on better involving parents and families in the education improvement process.  We need to better inform families, better encourage families to pursue options, and better prepare families to be a part of the solution. (http://blog.eduflack.com/2008/11/05/an-open-letter-to-presidentelect-barack-obama.aspx)
* Office of Educational Entrepreneurship and Innovation — I’ll admit it, I’ll buy into Andy Rotherham’s vision for converting OII into an incubator for new ideas and new opportunities.  Call it entrepreneurship, call it venture capitalism, even call it pubic/private partnerships if it feels easier, but it is a needed component to education improvement in the 21st century.
Not all of these may be (or should be) assistant secretary-level offices, but they should merit consideration somewhere in the grid.
The Conversions  
In addition to these new approaches, there are also a number of current offices that could use some assistance and  fresh outlook on the education landscape:
* Office of Communication and Outreach — This is obviously an office near and dear to Eduflack’s heart.  For too long, OCO has been viewed as a reactive office, one that regularly issues press releases, fields FOIA requests, and decides which media calls will be returned by whom.  Moving forward, the office needs to jump on the latter part of its name, and transform into an office of public engagement.  Utilize the vast social network built by the Obama campaign.  Broaden the reach to stakeholders.  Be proactive in pushing policy issues and promoting successes.  Set the terms and drive the story.  Doesn’t get more simple than that.
* Institute of Education Sciences — IES was created to be our nation’s home for education R&D.  Unfortunately,
there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done to meet that goal.  IES needs to broaden its mission beyond the WWC and become a true clearinghouse for quality research and a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for what works.  More importantly, it needs to expand the dialogue beyond the researchers and effectively communicate the education sciences to practitioners, advocates, and others in the field.
* Office of English Language Acquisition — OELA, and its previous personalities, has almost been a red-headed stepchild in ED for quite some time.  But as our nation’s demographics continue to shift, ELL and ESL issues become more and more important to closing the achievement gap and providing opportunity to all students.  Focusing on inclusiveness, partnership development, stakeholder engagement, and integration with other offices (particularly elementary ed), OELA can be the lever for improvement many want it to be.
* Office of Federal Student Aid — I’ll admit, I am a little out of my element here.  But with the economic issues we are facing as a nation, ED is going to have to spend more time and intellectual capital on helping students and their families better understand the funding options for postsecondary education.  Simplifying the FASA, ensuring students understand accreditation, articulation of credits between institutions (and between high schools and colleges), and other issues that factor into our ability to pay for college.
I can go on, but I will leave it at that.  Obviously, many core offices will likely remain in place — General Counsel, Inspector General, Civil Rights, Leg Affairs, etc.  Some will say the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development — could be folded into the core responsibilities of a top three ED official.  And offices like Vocational and Adult Education may be past rescuing and just need to be left alone.  Regardless, there are clearly a lot of options for those thinking the big thoughts in the transition.
Yes, the Obama campaign was based on hope and change.  When it comes to the U.S. Department of Education, it may also be a time for similar hope and change.  Clearly, our educational priorities and needs have shifted over the last decade, as we focus on teacher development, 21st century skills, STEM, and the P-20 education continuum.  A new approach, with new foci, serves as a strong rhetorical tool to make clear what the Obama Administration will hold dear.  And such rhetoric is all the more important when current economic concerns make it difficult to fund new policy ideas straight out of the gate.  

One thought on “Re-Prioritizing the U.S. Department of Education

  1. Thank you for bringing up the opportunity of the new administration to reorganize Cabinet departments to reflect new priorities. Early childhood education has proven to be a winning investment for the states – both brain research and economic studies demonstrate the effectiveness of early education in helping all children succeed. While a number of states have made a concerted effort to provide pre-kindergarten programs for their children, early education has not received due attention from the federal government.You point out, quite correctly, that early childhood education programs have been divided between HHS and DoE. In our opinion, this arrangement has failed – Head Start has been chronically underfunded, Child Care and Development Block Grants have not adequately addressed quality, Title I funds have proven difficult to use for pre-k and the benefits of pre-k for all children have been largely ignored. High-quality pre-k can be found in many settings: schools, faith-based centers, Head Start Programs, and public and private childcare centers. Yet, the current system has created a patchwork of services and made collaboration among the programs difficult. Without a federal commitment to building and supporting high-quality, research-based early learning, families will continue to struggle to find well-designed programs for their children.As candidate, Barack Obama raised the profile of early childhood education on the federal level. As President, he will have a unique opportunity to maximize the benefits of voluntary early education for all of America’s children. We urge him to appoint a strong leader – an “early education Czar” if you will – and place that position within the White House to signal its importance and advance the agenda of early childhood education across the government.

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