What’s a Superintendent to Do in the New ED?

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.

UPDATE — WCBS in NYC asked Klein directly about his interest in the EdSec position itself, and he provided the standard “I am very happy in my current position” response.  

6 thoughts on “What’s a Superintendent to Do in the New ED?

  1. Yeah… I do get tired of the business community running our schools. In the next iteration of accountability, I hope that there is, at the least, some amount of education input. Otherwise, the country will end up like Texas, just layering one test upon another, instead of assessing and using the data we’ve been collecting.

  2. Could you quantify your observation that “teachers, kids, and parents are more interested and more involved in the process of improving our schools.” I am an NYC public school parent, and the parents and teachers I know are all enraged by Klein’s so-called reforms. His department is corrupt; his “accountability” system is statistical hogwash; and everything he centralizes (enrollments, G&T, district management, special ed) he turns to ruins. His one great success, from where we sit, is PR. How did he convince everyone these reforms are a success? The data don’t back him up, but no one bothers to read it. People like his model because it flatters the “corporate is good” mentality of our (now discredited) boom years. The other candidates under consideration for an Obama education department suggest the return of a more balanced vision of civic governance, which would be all to the good for the public schools.

  3. From my work in NYC and my experiences with those who have been engaged with the NYC Schools, there is indeed far greater interest in the reforms, and positive interest, than there have been in previous administrations.  As a district that is run by site-based decisionmaking, Klein administration decisions fall on principals and central office personnel to implement and implement with fidelity.  But take a close look at the data, and there is improvement happening.  Test scores have been rising.  The achievement gap has narrowed.  And teachers are getting more support than they used to.  Yes, PR is an important part of selling a new program, particularly a new accountability system.  But we look at other urban districts across the nation. They have taken a close look at the NYC data, scrutinized every number, and have found a great deal on which to model their own reforms.  Last year, the Broad Foundation looked at NYC’s reforms, and its successes to date, and found it success story — the real data — was among the very best in the nation.Here in Washington, DC, the schools chancellor is looking to model her approach to improving education on what has happened in NYC.  For the sake of all of those DC students who have struggled to find quality, effective education for decades, I hope NYC is more than just PR.

  4. To put it simply, Klein is a master at using data incorrectly to show gains. NYS tests cannot be compared from one grade to the next – but this is precisely what Klein does. NYS reading and math tests can only be compared within a grade from one year to the next. Comparing scores within each grade over time reveals that there have been almost no gains in reading or math. Also, the results on NYS reading and math tests for NYC do not correlate with nationwide tests (NAEP) administered to NYC students in these areas. How can the NYS scores for NYC show tremendous growth and the nationwide tests for NYC show no growth at all? Only Klein and his group can tell you the answer to that?Please read Diane Ravitch’s in-depth articles in response to Klein’s claims. Klein also talks about accountability and transparency, however, his administration does not evidence these characteristics.

  5. eduflack – Just an important point of information here – based on an analysis of both the state test score data and the NAEP data, the achievement gap separating black and Hispanic students from their white and Asian peers is either unchanged or widening on both tests over the Bloomberg/Klein tenure.

  6. I am not too big a person to admit that I am incorrect.  On this, I’m guessing the story may have gotten ahead of the data.  In my work in NYC over the last year, I saw the achievement gap narrow in a number of schools, most of them in the Bronx.  (This is measuring them based on the state test score data.)  At the time, I was told that this was what NYC was experiencing across the city, and I took it at face value.  But I also know that few understand the NYC performance data better that eduwonkette.  If she is telling us the achievement gap is unchanged or widening, then I accept that as strongly as any proven data point. So I’ll stand corrected.Does this change the possibility of Klein joining an Obama administration?  I think not.  The Klein story is still one that is well known and one that is well respected (well, maybe not as respected by UFT).  In ed reform, believing you have done something is almost as important as actually doing it. And most believe we have improved NYC public schools.

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