A National Spotlight on the Next EdSec

Over the past few days, Cabinet posts in the new Obama Administration have been assigned with great speed and zeal.  It seems we now have a heads for Treasury, State, Justice, Homeland Security, and Commerce.  A new Chief of Staff has been named, and the National Security Advisor seems close at hand.  But the likely question for those who read Eduflack is, wither the U.S. Department of Education?

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano was considered a possibility, until she got Homeland Security.  New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was running a darkhorse campaign for ED, until he was tapped for Commerce.  So what’s next for ED?  Personally, I still think one of the strongest choices is outgoing North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley.  He gets education, he has been willing to reform and innovate, and he has invested in ideas like high school reform, even taking the arrows that came with adopting the national graduation rate and seeing his personal numbers fall.  But no one is calling me for referrals.
If you read the blogs, you hear a number of other names — SC Education Commissioner Inez Tannenbaum, NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and Chicago Schools Superintendent Arne Duncan chief among them.  The Fordham Foundation has even been pushing United Negro College Fund chief Michael Lomax as a darkhorse candidate.  Lots of choices, all bringing different experiences and different points of view.
It should be no surprise that this morning’s Washington Post weighed in on the Obama cabinet announcements in its lead editorial.  Jobs like State, Treasury, and AG can generate some real excitement.  What has particularly interesting, though, was that WaPo dedicated the final paragraph (and the subhead of the editorial) to the selection of an EdSec.  No, we aren’t focusing our attentions on Defense or EPA or Labor or Veterans Affairs.  We aren’t looking at key diplomatic postings.  Instead, WaPo is recognizing the value of Education in this perfect storm of economic uncertainty, a shifting workforce, and a unprecedented demands for new skills among new workers.
What did the Post say?  Here it is, word for word:

Another selection that will merit scrutiny is Mr. Obama’s education secretary: Will the choice reflect his stated commitment to reform? Will it be someone with hands-on experience in education and a proven willingness to experiment? While the new president’s attention is understandably focused on the economy, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s critical to have someone who comes to the education post with those credentials.   

In one paragraph, the Washington Post has done what Ed in 08 and countless other organizations tried to do — it has raised the profile of the federal role in education and has highlighted the importance of an EdSec in times of economic uncertainty.  And it did so without bemoaning the NCLB regime or the problems and roadblocks education has faced these past eight years.  It did so by focusing on the future and what may be possible.

WaPo is absolutely right.  The next U.S. Secretary of Education needs to reflect the Obama Administration’s commitment to reform.  He or she needs to be an EdSec willing to experiment and innovate.  An EdSec willing to effectively use the bully pulpit and proclaim that some actions and programs of the past simply don’t work, and we need to build a better mousetrap.  The EdSec needs to reconfirm our national belief that every student can succeed, when provided with proven instruction, effective and well-supported teachers, and a school system invested in their success.  The EdSec needs to become the educational motivator in chief, reminding us that education improvement affects all, and positive changes lift all learning boats.  That an education focus today impacts health, justice, jobs, and the economy tomorrow.  That education does not happen in a vacuum; it is the lifeblood of our nation and its future.
Does the new EdSec need hands-on experience in education?  That’s a question that many a policy expert has been debating since November 4 (or before).  The larger question is what is hands-on experience in education?  Does that mean they once taught, either at the K-12 or postsecondary level?  Does that mean the EdSec needs to be a former superintendent (remembering we have only had one of those previously, and many were resistant of it from the start)?  Does it mean they’ve led education reforms, be at the local, state, or federal level?  Yes, an EdSec needs education experience, but it is all a matter of what your definition of experience is.
Personally, Eduflack would broaden the search criteria for the new EdSec.  Experience and a willingness to experiment are important.  So are the following:
* A visionary who can see where 21st century education should take us, rather than be bound by the confines of the 20th century status quo
* A leader who can build bridges and strengthen relationships, establishing a network of support for federal education policy with teachers, parents, business leaders, community leaders, higher education, education organizations, the community at large, and even the media
* A thinker who views education through a P-20 lens, recognizing the equal importance of early childhood education, K-12 education (and the differences between elementary, middle,and secondary schools and their needs), and higher education
* A CEO who brings in the right people to lead the right efforts, including prioritizing teacher recruitment and quality, early childhood education, STEM, and college preparedness (all parts of the Obama change agenda)
* A rhetorical leader, one who can build stakeholder and national buy-in for major education improvements, even if we don’t have the funds to pay for it yet.  A true master of ED’s bully pulpit (and this is a character trait way overdo at ED).
* An individual committed to education improvement.  More importantly, an individual committed to the notion that every child in this nation can succeed when provided the proper support, instruction, and attention, both at school and at home.
On top of that, we need an EdSec who is going to better engage parents in the process, including families as part of the reform and improvement transformation.  We need an EdSec who better engages the business community as well, seeing them as more than just a funding source, but as a partner for identifying skills gaps and supplementing instruction with expertise that aligns with future needs.  And, yes, we need an EdSec who can effectively work with the teachers unions, partnering with them on school improvements and finding ways to work together, rather than work around or work against each other.
Does such a person exist?  Sure, I could name a few.  At the start of this parlor game, I believed a governor was the strongest choice, particularly if it was one who could blend an understanding of education policy, a track record of improvements, and an ability to master the bully pulpit and the relationship-building game.  But the Obama cabinet is already looking heavy with governors.  At the end of the day, the name of the new EdSec isn’t as important as the qualities he or she brings to the job.  Education experience and a commitment to reform.  Track record of relationship building and partnership development.  World view that education is a P-20 continuum and impacts the student and the community well after the schoolhouse door is exited for the last time.  We
need a leader to inspire, innovate, and motivate.  And we need it now.

One thought on “A National Spotlight on the Next EdSec

  1. As an observation from an orthogonal point of view I think Easley would be an excellent choice. In the work I do with companies on where to launch new education products one of the exercises we always do is assess which states have the best infrastructure to support a new education technology solution. North Carolina wins almost every time. They are leaders in putting in the resources for teachers and students to take advantage of 21st Century technologies. Lots of people blather on an on about 21 Century Skills – but when the rubber hits the road and they need to fund an implement the tools that develop the skills there is usually a big gap between the rhetoric and the reality.To me this speaks to a clear vision for the future and an ability to engineer the environment to support the vision. It is about whole school readiness not just individual student readiness.There are plenty of districts around the country that are doing this well but very few states.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s