As the Obama teams plans a new organization and new staffing for the U.S. Department of Education, one primary thought from the field is the role of real educators — and real administrators — in the new ED. Eight years ago, Rod Paige became the first schools superintendent (he, of Houston) to take the helm as the nation’s chief schools officer. Since then, some have questioned whether the job is the right job for a superintendent, what with its political, policy, administrative, and organizational requirements.
Earlier in the week, Eduflack advocated for the need to put a governor at the top of the Education structure. Yes, I recognize that likely means appointing an individual who has not been a classroom teacher or who has personally worked in instruction or in education policy. But a governor provides the leadership, the management, and the command of the bully pulpit that is in such demand at ED. Personally, my short list would include NC’s Mike Easley, Arizona’s Janet Napolitano (though she is being mentioned for AG and Homeland Security), and Tennessee’s Phil Bredensen.
So what is the role of the superintendent in the new ED? Currently, the top practitioner is Ray Simon, the former state schools chief and superintendent from Arkansas. And if the local media reports are any indication, that seems to be the model Obama is pursuing as well. On this morning’s NYC news, the expectation is that NYC Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein will move to ED, possibly to take over the number two position. This would name Klein the de facto COO of the Department. And if the Ray Simon mold holds, he would also retain a significant policy role, particularly as it applies to K-12 policy, including NCLB, IDEA, and the offices that govern them (OESE, OII, OSERS, OELA).
Similarly, a rumor has started brewing that Peter McWalters, the outgoing education commissioner in Rhode Island, is the frontrunner to head the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. The commissioner is one of the longest serving chief state school officers in the nation, and has a long and distinguished career as a practitioner and school and district leader. Personally, I think he would be great at OESE, just the leader the office has needed for quite some time.
Over the last decade, we have seen a shift in public thinking about public schools. Issues like accountability and achievement gaps are now dominating the landscape, for good or bad. We hear it from the business community, we hear it from appropriators and authorizers at the policy level, we hear it from parents, and we even hear it from the educators themselves. So it only makes sense that someone who has “walked the walk” is involved in developing and enforcing the policies designed to improve our public schools and boost student achievement.
The bigger question is, if you are Joel Klein, do you leave NYC for anything less than the top job at ED? In NY, Klein has led a revolution in public instruction. Test scores are up. The achievement gap is smaller. The district has won the Broad Prize. And teachers, kids, and parents are more interested and more involved in the process of improving our schools. There is a greater commitment to school quality in NYC than we have seen in quite some time.
If Klein can replicate that model at the national level, and help districts across the nation do what his team did in NYC, then this is the logical choice. But if the number two job yields much of its policy-shaping responsibility to the Under Secretary, as was the model in the Clinton/Riley Department of Education, isn’t Klein better off continuing improvement in NYC and finishing what he started? Aren’t we better off as a nation, allowing him to demonstrate the long-term, longitudinal effects of his reforms in the world’s greatest city?
We need great thinkers and great leaders at ED. Klein and McWalters both fit in both categories. But if they are tapped, they need to be tapped for the right position. The worst thing we can do is bring in the right people, then put them in the wrong job, denying them the opportunity to do what they do best and stripping our nation of their ability to make a true, long-term difference.