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If I Were Secretary of Education

On November 17, 2004, President George W. Bush nominated Margaret Spellings to replace Rod Paige as U.S. Secretary of Education. The personnel change made us curious about what Spelling's priorities as secretary of education will be. More than that, it made us curious about the priorities of our readers -- those most likely to be affected by the policies and actions of the Department of Education. To find out what "teachers in the trenches" are thinking, we invited members of the newly formed Education World Teacher Team to share with us their thoughts about U.S. education today. We asked, "If you were U.S. Secretary of Education, what would be your priorities for the next four years?" Included: Comments on accountability, funding, class size, curriculum, control, NCLB, and more.

"If I were U.S. Secretary of Education," Nancy Flanagan told Education World, "job number one would be to surround myself with the best advisors possible -- outstanding classroom teachers -- and then strive to put their expertise to good use in the policy arena. I would acknowledge what regular people everywhere already know: It is the teacher who makes the difference. High standards and get-tough policies never will succeed until every classroom is staffed with a skilled and caring educator. Every dime would go toward putting the right people in the places they're most needed -- and keeping them there.

"Under my leadership," Flanagan added, "the U.S. Department of Education would become a resource bank for high-quality induction and mentoring programs, new models of collegial school leadership, and an idea engine for sharing best practices and problem-solving strategies. I would show my respect for the difficult and complex work of teaching; honoring teachers by inviting them to lead committees, consulting with them on critical issues of practice, and showcasing their innovation and creativity. I would speak often about the great mission of American public schools, as well as the pressing need for an equally ambitious vision for their future."


Many Teacher Team members agreed that classroom teachers are the key to the future of education -- and that helping teachers do their jobs successfully should be the first priority of the new secretary of education.

"If I were Secretary of Education, my first act would be to make it education policy to stop blaming teachers for society's ills; to stop confusing symptoms and causes," said Mary Jackson. "A president who chose me to be Secretary of Education would share my views and would campaign to raise teachers' salaries to a level that would demonstrate respect for teachers and make teaching attractive to top college students. A career in teaching should not include an oath of poverty. There also would be teacher aids and clerical help for required paperwork, so teachers could focus exclusively on teaching."

"As Secretary of Education, I would make sure teachers had time to prepare for the incredible tasks they face daily -- and received pay commensurate with their education and work performance," agreed Carol Midgett.

"This is my 17th year in education," noted Kathleen Cave, "and in that time, I have seen many things added to the curriculum -- and very little taken out. Consequently, teachers have more to prepare for and less time to reflect on what they're doing. We so often have to immediately move on to the next thing that we don't have time to ask: 'What went wrong? What went right?' and 'How could it be better?' I think education would be greatly improved if we built in reflection time for all teachers. Reflection is something we think our students should do regularly, whether through journals or summaries of activities, but, because our professional development doesn't require reflection, many teachers don't know how to do it themselves. If we could reflect on and identify that which is most important, education might achieve a depth that we haven't seen before."

"Professional development needs to be provided for teachers," according to Robin Smith, "and the U.S. Department of Education can't leave it up to schools to decide what is needed. They need to provide it free of charge to all educators, so everyone is on the same page, regardless of the state or district they work in.

"Changes need to be made in the law, as well," Smith added. "All students can learn and be successful, but not every student can be 100 percent successful or achieve success at the same time as everyone else. Teachers need time to be teachers and to do fun and exciting things in their classrooms, not just prep for tests."

"Through my work in the Teacher Leaders Network, I've had the opportunity to discuss how we might enhance and modify teacher education programs to better equip pre-service teachers," Marsha Ratzel told Education World. "While many universities and colleges already have adopted measures that are moving in that direction, as Secretary of Education, I would facilitate programs that utilize mentors from the field during pre-service classes, promote understanding of students from all types of classrooms, and teach reflective practices.

"Given the unfortunate comments about the NEA (National Education Association) made by the previous education secretary," Ratzel added, "I also would think it critical to work particularly hard to heal the rift that has developed between the Department of Education and the NEA. Not that the NEA is the only group that represents the voice of teachers, but it is important to hear all perspectives and be open to all views."

"I like President Bush's idea of accountability for teachers," said Dan Swadley, "and I think that should continue. For some teachers, intrinsic motivation will be enough. For others, the fear of being evaluated, analyzed, and improved will be more motivational. The vast majority of students succeed when their teachers feel successful: Success breeds success! Show me an excited teacher, who enjoys the job, respects the position, and believes he or she is making a difference, and I will show you successful and motivated students."


What If You Were Secretary of Education?
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Some Teacher Team members believe the new Secretary of Education should focus on adapting today's curriculum to meet the needs of tomorrow's world.

"I would help schools implement programs that focus on the whole child and create productive members of society, by addressing components of education that cannot be measured on standardized tests," said Cossondra George. "Schools need to teach children responsibility, creativity, and the ability to problem solve independently and in a group setting. Students need to be prepared to enter the work force, with such skills as getting to work on time, showing up every day, following instructions, and using their own unique perspectives to plan, design, and implement complex solutions to everyday problems. These all are skills that cannot be measured on a multiple choice test, but are critical to success in life. Schools must be given the time, and means, to implement programs that address those issues. "

"I would want to make sure that we taught world languages from pre-school on, so our children could become globally competitive in the future," noted Linda Villadoniga. "We are one of the few -- perhaps the only -- industrialized, developed nations in the world that do not include a second or third language as part of the curriculum for all school-aged children. That would be my priority, not just because I am a Spanish teacher, but also because of the importance that being fluent in more than one language has in today's world. Tomorrow's generation will be even further behind if they cannot communicate in at least two languages, preferably three or more!"

"I would continue to implement standards of technology use in schools," added Dan Swadley. "All teachers would have to incorporate technology, Web tools, and cutting edge technology into their curriculum and classroom. Students will continue to need to be challenged technologically as well as mentally. Whether we like it or not, whether we embrace it or not, our students thrive on everything technological. We have to get to where they are and adapt to their learning system."


Some of our Teacher Team members, however, feel that the problems in education lie beyond the schoolyard -- and that the new Secretary of Education will need to go there as well.

As Secretary of Education, Mary Jackson would "help the president recognize that learning doesn't end at the school door. Together, we would help make sure students have adequate health care, clothing, and a decent place to live, and meet any other social welfare needs they and their family might have. My president would take measures to create full employment so fewer families would be living in poverty. Children with happily employed parents have more success in learning. Finally, I would create a panel of wise people who care about education, an equal number of educators and non-classroom-based researchers who would convene biweekly to discuss, plan, and advise."

"I would acknowledge," said Midge Liggan, "that schools are reflections of society, and that the change that needs to be made -- accepting responsibility for one's actions -- is in society. Parents must accept, or be made to accept, their responsibilities to their children. It is clear that schools that have involved and supportive parents tend to excel. Those schools provide a safe and creative environment in which to learn. I would acknowledge that, in general, public schools do a great job of educating students, and that America's teachers are doing their jobs and doing them well. Stop making excuses for parents who refuse to accept their responsibilities, and the continued focus on higher expectations will be maintained."

"I would seek to market to parents an understanding of and commitment to education, by helping them understand the standards and expectations set for students at all grade levels," said Carol Midgett. "I would help them understand the educational process and recognize the significance of their involvement in it."


Several Team members also had thoughts on what they might do about the administration's No Child Left Behind initiative.

As Secretary of Education, Carol Midgett would "conduct a working conditions survey to identify the requirements of effective instruction (including instructional leadership, administrative support, the services, and professional development), the obstacles to effective instruction, and the resources needed to overcome those obstacles. Then I would re-write NCLB to address the reality of those in the classroom, instead of the perceived notions of those outside the classroom. The rewrite would include provisions for local decisions about best practices, rather than a 'one-size-fits-all' approach. Of course, it also would be necessary to include the funding for school systems to implement the changes appropriate for their area.

"In order to measure the effectiveness of changes," Midgett added, "I then would incorporate ongoing assessment methods to guide instructional decision making (at all levels), as well as summative evaluation of student performance. (That would most likely require major professional development for administrators as well as teachers.) It might sound simple, but it would require major reform in thinking and practice, commitment at all levels of policy making, and the investment of practicing teachers and teacher educators working collaboratively."

"Given that No Child Left Behind will be reauthorized," said Marsha Ratzel, "I would work to remove the parts of it that are unrealistic and that have proven impossible to implement. Parts of this legislation are financially unrealistic and will break a state's bank, further aggravating state funding problems. I would bring together a study group and review the initial phases of NCBL to see if there has been any benefit to the legislation -- nationally or regionally. Given that the 'highly qualified teacher' provision is so out of touch, I would convene a panel of expert teachers to review it. I would then make recommendations to the president based on the findings of that panel, so that NCBL legislation could be revised to better reflect what is best for students and for learning."

"The U.S. Department of Education should have a goal of reducing teacher-pupil ratio in all classes to no more than 1:15," noted Bernie Poole. "Today, the average nationwide teacher-pupil ratio is 1:17, which hides the fact that a lot of schools struggle to maintain a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:25 or worse. Size = Complexity. Make NCLB possible by simplifying the teacher's job."

Robert Sharp, on the other hand, "wouldn't change NCLB. As a classroom teacher, I am beginning to see a reason for the legislation. However, I would demand much more training of each district and more publicity about the Parent/Teacher/Child Compact for Learning. Some training for parents also would be beneficial. That would require more funding at the federal level than is currently being offered."


"Since the federal government has a definite agenda, they need to fund it, particularly the social issues that have little to do with education," Sharp continued. "After 30 years of teaching, I find that the feds are demanding more and funding less, dating all the way back to the Reagan era. Many of the demands for meeting the 'special needs of children' are not being funded by anyone."

Many Teacher Team members agreed with Sharp, pointing out that the future of education is threatened most not by a lack of initiatives, but by a lack of funding for those initiatives.

"As Secretary of Education, I would insist that new mandates be fully funded, and that existing mandates be funded or scrapped," said Mary Jackson. "Innovations that work most often come from a grassroots level, and so I would further work for true school-based decision making -- including important decisions. Need I add that there would not be any programs that included taking money from struggling schools, making their work even more difficult?"

"It seems to me," Linda Villadoniga told Education World, "that the most critical issue before us still is accountability, which I believe most teachers support. Things get hairy, however, when there is an unfunded mandate. One of the first things I would do as Secretary of Education would be to get NCLB legislation funded. If that were not possible (although since this mandate came from the Republicans and with a Republican majority in Congress, I am at a loss as to why NCLB hasn't been fully funded already!), I would look at NCLB more closely and cut out the parts that require the expenditure of state funds rather than federal funds. In Florida, we passed the class size amendment several years ago, (It has to be fully implemented for all core academic courses K-12 in the next couple of years.), but again no extra funding went along with it. We need accountability, but we also need funding to go along with any mandated legislation. Perhaps we should ask ourselves the following question: 'Are we spending too much money on other things while the future (our children) is going down the drain?'"

"I think my most important task as Secretary of Education would be to demand funding to make the mandates possible," agreed Robin Smith. "Funding should be provided for all schools that need to make improvements, not just those below the poverty level. It is unfair to expect individual schools to find funds to pay for all the mandates the federal government is requiring."

"Because I'm from Kansas and have seen the ravages of a state funding problem, my first priority would be to help state governments figure out how to solve their financing problems," noted Marsha Ratzel. "I know Kansas is not alone in that problem. Somehow the federal government should play a role in bringing together officials from all states to pool their collective wisdom and find ways to generate adequate revenue for school finance. Our children deserve a fully funded education, and I think the U.S. Secretary of Education should help states figure out how to accomplish that goal."

"If I were Secretary of Education," said Cossondra George, "I would work to make education more equitable across the country. Funding inequities, which allow some districts to have state of the art facilities and programs, complete with new computers for all students, quality free athletic programs, and comparatively high teacher salaries, while other districts are forced to cut teachers, increase class sizes, institute pay-to-play athletics, and do away with busing and art programs, need to be addressed. Students should have the same educational opportunities regardless of their location."

"Shortly after President Bush took office in 2000, the government passed his NCLB Act," noted Bernie Poole. "The national budget was in surplus and in a position to afford a massive, long-term increase in funding for education -- more schools, more classrooms, more teachers, more likelihood that NCLB might be a realistic goal. But investment in education only can yield a return over the long haul; there's never likely to be an immediate gain. Instead, Bush chose to give away $2 trillion in tax rebates (mostly to the wealthy). The events of 9-11 didn't help, in that they demanded an understandable, but expensive, U.S. military response to terrorism. But it is questionable whether that response need have involved an incursion into Iraq. At the moment, we're spending (wasting?) approximately $1 billion a week on that war alone. The surplus that Bush inherited is now a growing and burdensome deficit. Any hope for NCLB in particular, and for education in general, is being inexorably frittered away. As Secretary of Education, I'd tell President Bush to spend the money on NCLB. The money is there; it just needs to be prioritized toward education."


Many Teacher Team members pledged that their tenure as Secretary of Education would emphasize local control of education. Bernie Poole disagreed, saying:

"Right now, K-12 education in the United States is all at sea, with islands of excellence surrounded by choppy waters where free-floating school districts flounder for lack of a unified (national) plan.

"Local control, a bedrock of the American way of life, was a good idea up until about 50 years ago. In 1954, about the only electrical gizmo in a school building, other than lights, was the occasional wall outlet, and it was used to plug in a vacuum sweeper (maybe)! In 1954, electronic digital technology was in its infancy, having been invented by John Vincent Atanasoff only 15 years before. Even the first fully working digital computer, Eckert and Mauchley's ENIAC, didn't arrive on the scene until 1946!

"Today, however, electronic digital technology is all-pervasive. Soon, every child will come to school with a fully integrated wireless networked computer in his or her backpack. The technology (hand-held wireless computer and communication devices) is already there, so it's just a matter of time.

"For that reason -- because education is becoming a global, 24/7 affair -- the United States is (and should be) painfully and painstakingly moving away from the notion of local control.

"NCLB is but the tip of this iceberg. Underpinning NCLB is a centuries old philosophy that all children can learn; indeed, all children can, and should, learn for a lifetime.

"For quite a while now, states within the United States have been muscling in on the prerogative of local control. The standards movement is symptomatic of that. Most states have made a lot of headway in the implementation of standards in the disciplines of reading, writing, arithmetic, and science. But standards in education -- more importantly common standards that enable us to compete globally -- must be defined and standardized nationwide."

Who Are They?
The Education World Teacher Team includes more than 30 dedicated and knowledgeable education professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. The following educators contributed to this article:

* Kathleen Cave, technology integration teacher, Sparks Elementary School, Baltimore, Maryland
* Nancy Flanagan, K-4 music teacher, Round Elementary School, Hartland, Michigan
* Cossondra George, math and technology teacher, Newberry Middle School Newberry, Michigan
Mary Jackson, teacher, Tyrone Elementary Gifted Center, St. Petersburg, Florida
* Midge Liggan, library media and technology specialist/teacher trainer, Mary Munford Model Elementary School, Richmond, Virginia
* Carol Midgett, teacher in residence, University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW), Wilmington, North Carolina
* Bernard John Poole, associate professor of education and instructional technology, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania
* Marsha Ratzel, district coordinating teacher, Blue Valley School District, Overland Park, Kansas
* Robert Sharp, science teacher, Mountain View Middle School, Bremerton, Washington
* Robin Smith, educational technology specialist, Hollidaysburg Area School District, Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania
* Dan L Swadley, technology integration specialist, Republic R3 School, Republic, Missouri
* Linda Villadoniga, CIE Program Coordinator, Spanish teacher, St. Augustine High School, St. Augustine, Florida

Article by Linda Starr
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