Is DOE really necessary?

I have long wrestled with the idea of whether the U.S. Department of Education is good, bad, indifferent or even necessary. Most of the time the discussion has been mostly academic, but with the appointment of the utterly unqualified Betsy DeVoss as so-called Secretary of Education, I’ve had to so some serious discussing and research.

Although I’m completely in favor of free public education – and that means no vouchers for private schools – I don’t see how the DOE actually helps us provide a high-quality education. Here’s my starting point:

During the 12 years I was going to public school in a tiny town on the eastern Colorado plains, I studied Spanish, Latin, and German. I read Shakespeare in high school, memorized the Gettysburg Address, and wrote for the high school newspaper. Our U.S. government (aka “civics”) teacher had been an OSS agent during World War II, so our lessons were pretty grounded in realpolitik. I learned that verbal contracts are real, the hot stuff in chili peppers is a base so you can cool the heat with the acid in cola, that you can use vinegar as a stop bath in the darkroom, and that most of the Founding Fathers were at least agnostic if not outright atheists.  I graduated high school in 1969. My twelve years of schooling was good enough that I earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in English, both from a state university. Not bad for a simple country boy.

The U.S. Department of Education was created a decade after I graduated. In the time since then I have heard a growing litany of ills allegedly foisted upon public education by the USDOE. I have heard this litany while I covered local school districts in Colorado, Washington state, and Oregon. I have been attuned to the problems of public educators because I’m rather fond of educators, classroom teachers in particular, and again and again I hear that federal regulations issued by the USDOE are harming our public schools.

And then I ran into this gem from Peter Smagorinsky, distinguished research professor of English education at the University of Georgia. It was published in the Washington Post March 11, 2012:

Over time, the Department of Education has become increasingly bureaucratic and invasive, and has formulated its policies on questionable information that appears to emanate from hunches, anecdotes, whims, and fads, buttressed by corroborating evidence from ideologically friendly think tanks and media blowhards. Along the way, in what seems to be an increasing national trend of anti-intellectualism and cognophobic reactions to the specter of educated and knowledgeable people having opinions, it has eschewed the opportunity to consult with people who teach in or study schools.

Smagorinsky even makes the case that Barack Obama made possibly the worst Secretary of Education appointment ever in Arne Duncan, an amazing revelation considering he’s a big Obama fan.

The professor goes on to explain all that is wrong with the one-size-fits-all policies of the DOE and then offers a simple, one-sentence solution:

Instead of having a highly centralized administration powered by money contributed by textbook publishers and other entrepreneurs cashing in on the lucrative enterprise of educational materials production, I would have a highly distributed approach in which most decision-making is local and includes — and indeed, relies on — the perspective of teachers.

Understand, I’m suspicious of solutions that appear this simple, but it is something state lawmakers have been begging for for decades. I can’t speak for any other state, but in Colorado we’re trying to fund our schools under a finance scheme that seems designed to make us fail. I don’t know whether Coloradans won’t adequately fund their schools because they think the federal government does it, but remarks made at recent local school board meetings seem to indicate many of them do.

Colorado also has two of the best education-research universities in the Rocky Mountain west in the University of Colorado and my alma mater, the University of Northern Colorado. UNC began as the Colorado Normal School and has one of the largest, best-staffed education colleges anywhere. Any research that needs to be done for Colorado can be done by Ed.D and Ph.D candidates in that school, and it can be done in huge metro schools and tiny rural K-12 buildings.

Every region has a top-notch education college that can do useful, applicable research on how to teach children – University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, University of Washington, and the list goes on.

People often tell me that we need a “national standard” in order to compete in the global economy. Pardon me if I sound jingoistic, but didn’t we put several men on the moon, win World War II, invent jazz, and create post-modernist literature all before 1979? Some of the greatest art, literature, music, and technology in human history came from the United States before the Department of Education was even established.

None of that changes the fact that Elizabeth DeVoss is a terrible choice for Secretary of Education, but I think it begs the question: Can she do any worse than has already been done?

There’s still probably a place for a federal DOE, to do for local school districts what the USDA does for farmers – help them find resources to fund a job that needs to be done and done right, and help in the sharing of information among the state education schools. Like a rickety old house that nobody wants to live in, maybe the department needs to be gutted and rebuilt from the inside out. At least, if DeVoss is half the entrepreneur her supporters say she is, maybe she can manage an extreme makeover of the educational kind, scrap all of the testing, regulations, and standardization, and come up with ways to help schools actually do their jobs.

What we’re doing now just isn’t working. Almost anything would be better.



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