Examining the US Dept. of Ed, Part 2

A few days ago I blogged about why it behooves a public school teacher or a US citizen to get some clarity on why the US Dept. of Education exists anymore. And just yesterday, Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum claimed that he saw the DofEd as “anachronistic,” by which I think he meant “out of its proper historical time.”  So let me take this idea as a prompt to exploring just when the DofEd became its modern self, and whether its proper historical moment has passed or not. I do so not in any effort to justify Santorum’s words to my fellow citizens, but as a useful exercise in educational research.

In 1979, Congress laid out these goals when it established the DofEd as a cabinet-level department. Congress charged the new department with the following missions [my comments follow in brackets]:

  1. to strengthen the Federal commitment to ensuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual;
    1. [Can anyone argue that the “civil rights” issue of our day, equal access for all to a high-quality public education,” has been advanced since 1980? If you are a Special Education proponent, then the answer must be Yes, but when more than 20% of our students are coming to us deprived because of poverty, how could you claim that DoEd has made things better? Of course, addressing poverty’s causes would go beyond the authority of DofEd. But to ignore the basis of the inequities is just foolish. Instead of addressing the source of the problems, DofEd doctors have taken blunt instruments and micrometers to the wound–I refer to NCLB and its aspirational goals. Under the Obama administration’s furtherance of test-based school assessment, RTTT, American public school families mostly see the “Federal commitment” expressed through extorted “school turnarounds,” which to the members of communities affected, do not seem to be very just. So I don’t think the DofEd is fulfilling this one yet.]
    2. [If the DoEd actually wanted to ensure equal access, it could use its intrumentalities to supplement districts and/or re-structure the funding of school districts so that the “Savage Inequalities” that have plagued our schools since at least the 1980s through local property tax funding were addressed. Yo, DofEd: how “just” is it that the haves get more and the have-nots get worse? Put your incentives around equal funding, Arne, and watch schools really change for the less-fortunate.]
  2. to supplement and complement the efforts of States, the local school systems and other instrumentalities of the States, the private sector, public and private educational institutions, public and private nonprofit educational research institutions, community-based organizations, parents, and students to improve the quality of education;
    1. [According to the International measurements of US schools, there has been no significant increase in our students’ performance on things like the bi-annual PISA tests since the DoEd starting it “supplement and complement” process. So nope, another missed mandate.]
    2. [When reform does happen, it’s usually bold local leaders–big city mayors like Daley and Bloomberg–who drive the change–although whether the changes “improve the quality of education” is another question. The point here is that the DofEd has not led the change.]
    3. [More recently, we’ve seen non-DofEd movements toward educational quality and justice led by brave local school leaders, such as the New York Principals who are standing up to the testing regimes. Again, it’s Principals, not the DoEd, who are driving the changes.]
  3. to encourage the increased involvement of the public, parents, and students in Federal education programs;
    1. [When parents come out to protest “turn-around” plans from the DoEd that turn neighborhood schools into politically-connected charter schools, that’s “involvement,” isn’t it?. So score one for the DofEd.]
  4. to promote improvements in the quality and usefulness of education through federally supported research, evaluation, and sharing of information;
    1. [Here is a role that can help. The DoEd’s requiring assessment of all sub-groups in NCLB has increased awareness of forgotten constituencies in our schools. But unfortunately, awareness of the problems has not been coupled with data-driven solution vetting. Instead cronyism and convenience have driven the “improvements” DoEd has pushed since the second Bush took office, which means that President Obama’s administration has been of a piece with his predecesor’s in its incompetent response to urgent, identified school problems.]
    2. [If it were able to do more of the “sharing of information” in the form of disaggregated “report cards” for each public school and provide accurate, up-to-date, “just-in-time” information to voters, we might have much better school boards and administrations. This is an area DofEd that is useful and non-directive (read non-destructive.) More of this, please, DofEd.]
  5. to improve the coordination of Federal education programs;
    1. [Here in its charter, you see some faulty DNA for the DofEd. Circular logic takes over when you make mandates like this, because you only need a federal coordinator of federal ed programs because who else can coordinate a federal ed program but a federal coordinator? And what federal ed programs can not be best coordinated federally? In other words, this is a BS function designed to create and justify un-necessary federal programs.]
  6. to improve the management and efficiency of Federal education activities, especially with respect to the process, procedures, and administrative structures for the dispersal of Federal funds, as well as the reduction of unnecessary and duplicative burdens and constraints, including unnecessary paperwork, on the recipients of Federal funds;
    1. [see 5a, above, but think of all the bureaucratic jobs at state boards and in Washington that have grown out of this mandate!]
  7. to increase the accountability of Federal education programs to the President, the Congress and the public. (Section 102, Public Law 96-88)
    1. [And yet, accountable or not, are those Federal ed programs necessary and useful in the first place? Alas, here is another DofEd function that begs the question and has lead to much mischief.]

Meanwhile, as the DofEd carries out its dubious mandate (with 13% more funding in 2010 than in 2009–$46.7 billion pass to Arne in the low post)  kids in inner cities are getting equally bad, or worse educations than their parents did. And curricula from coast-to-coast are being stream-lined and stupified for the NCLB and RTTT tests that will measure how well curricula have been stream-lined and stupified. The only winners in its processes are the for-profit education businesses and test-makers of the Education Industrial Complex. And this goes on while excellent models of public ed in places like Finland are ready for the emulating. It’s maddening.

So to Santorum’s charge that the federal or state government’s role in public ed is “anachronistic,” I’d have to say that there has been and continues to be a role for the fed in advancing public education–and it’s mostly to support and oversee the states in doing their job with schools. 

But the DofEd is not anachronistic in doing its mandated work, Rick, because it really hasn’t happened yet.

One response to “Examining the US Dept. of Ed, Part 2”

  1. Thank you for laying out Congress' mandate for the D of E. As you point out, 2-6 are circular or else float above a foundation-less federal role. As for 1, I see no reason states cannot do that work. What I find odd, though, is your apt skewering of 5 and 6 is followed by your conclusion that there is s a role. None is established by the Congressional mandate or your post. Let us save some money and bring this aspect of government closer to the people.


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