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Leadership and Activism

Is it Time to Say Goodbye to the Dept of Ed?

This article on The Answer Sheet by principal George Wood recently crossed my Twitter stream. It makes the argument that it may be time for the Department of Education to ‘go away.’

I was, of course, intrigued and prepared to be highly critical of such a suggestion.

To my surprise, I found myself nodding in agreement. Here’s why:

  • the farther policy makers are from the community the less likely their policies will meet the true needs of the community
  • as the author states: “whenever you create a large bureaucracy, it will find something to do, even if that something is less than helpful.”
  • NCLB has wreaked havoc on our education system and the current administration has only expanded the policies of testing and competition that breed cheating and watered-down teaching to ‘cover’ the material on the tests

Much of my reflection is based on first-hand experience.  The School District of Philadelphia was taken over by the State in 2001 and the School Reform Commission was created to run the district. Ever since, we have been at the mercy of an unelected group of non-educators making policy for over 270 schools.  For a few years the district had Small Learning Communities–called SLCs–which were comprised of clusters of schools within the same geographic location. My colleagues who were in the district at that time spoke highly of them because of their ability to address issues and concerns of their smaller community.

So is it time to return the control of schools back to the state? Is it time to release our schools from the bureaucracy of big government?

It feels odd for me, who votes mostly Democratic, to advocate for leaner government, but I’m beginning to believe that the time for Federal control of education is coming to an end.

As my own devil’s advocate, I do understand the importance of accountability and I do understand that right now there are huge discrepancies in how effective individual states are at maintaining high-quality educational standards and practices.

Still, deep down I believe that the more control local communities have over their schools the better.

What do you think?


18 thoughts on “Is it Time to Say Goodbye to the Dept of Ed?

  1. I just want to point out in this discussion that Canada, which has no Department of Education at the federal level, just a committee of provincial ministers, is doing quite well in terms of education…

    You don’t need some boss from Washington telling you how your school in Wyoming is going to work. The issues are similar but different in the different communities across the United States, and having some higher authority trying to manage all of these different learning communities with some common directives is insane.

    Distribute the management to the local communities, centralize what would benefit from centralization. Anything which is repeated over and over again in each school should conceivably be centralized. Hello? What is the Department of Education doing to create a community of educators across the United States to share resources? Oh right, nothing…

    Posted by dwees | November 15, 2010, 10:39 pm
  2. Excellent Monday Night Posting, Mary Beth –

    I like the question and I like a smaller organization focused on access and equity.

    Take away the fed, what do you think happens to common core? What about Canada (help me here, Canadian friends) makes the education system work with a loose federation of ministers? Even without the fed, would American governors be able to coöperate as the Canadian ministers do? What in the aims of our educational systems and cultures would make dissolving our fed desirable or moot?

    At this point I’m rooting for stop-gap bills to take the teeth out of 2014, the appointment of Karen Cator to Secretary of Education, and the adoption of the National Ed Tech Plan as ESEA 2.0, in addition to our revolution of practice and teacher advocacy. I like Pam Moran’s reflections on the ed tech plan.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 15, 2010, 10:55 pm
    • Better late than never in responding to you, Chad.

      I just recently have been learning more and more about the Common Core. While I have directly experienced the slow transformation of a ‘Core Curriculum’ into a scripted mess geared only toward filling the pockets of Houghton-Mifflin/Harcourt, I also find that some of the verbiage, should the Core be adopted, will force school leaders to rethink some of their approaches toward teaching and learning and assessment. I still don’t know how I feel about a national set of standards, much for the reasons above. That said, I wonder, as you say, how states and district leaders can come together w/out the Dept of Ed. I’m thinking along the lines of the the US Conferences of Mayors ( where educational leaders come together to fight for what’s right for their people.

      I actually find that the National Ed Tech Plan and the Common Core attempt similar things, though I’m still not convince that they will a) make a difference or b) not become watered down, or c) become another way for textbook companies to make money.

      Posted by marybethhertz | December 12, 2011, 8:29 pm
  3. It is interesting, I just spent the weekend with George Wood at the CES Conference in San Fransisco….There was a panel of Linda Darling-Hammond, George Wood, Deb Meier, and Pedro Noguera and this subject was addressed. I also engaged in a conversation today about this very thing, with a like mind friend, who asked me if I was liberation…now…..

    here the thing that is most important….. and I am currently writing a post about it….

    First off, today’s liberation are not the liberation educators of the 60’s or 70’s…. Today liberation are what I would call individualist… they are interested in removing themselves from society not about a balance between personal and communal well-being….

    Human-scale community organization know the limits of government and organization in general and that is when people know longer are the purpose of the organization…. IE Testing is no longer about helping students learn…but to prove something…. or DATA… or some abstract idea of accountability….which actually does not hold anyone accountable….because you can’t actually have a voice in it….teachers are removed from talking to parents….students from talking about what they are learning…. schools to communities…I am not talking about removing safety or equity measures….but are we really served as a whole by either the Race to the Top….or Mayoral control…..

    This is complex issue….but I think we are served by actually talking about it…. my dream would be strong teacher and community control of school, with a level of autonomy given to charters schools. Smaller districts, more local governance….ie school boards ….none of these is a quick fix….but i believe if we truly believe in democracy we should actually start practicing it….not just by voting….but actually being the PEOPLE that govern….

    Deb Meier has two great piece about this very subject…. here and here….

    and this great Keynote from the CES Conference by Pedro Noguera!

    this is a great discussion… not easy one….but growth happens from working on the hard issues…


    Posted by dloitz | November 16, 2010, 1:37 am
    • Thanks, David, for the links. I think you bring up an interesting point about the difference between individualists and those out for the greater good. I almost think about how the States suceded from the US. Sometimes it feels that some people are not interested in working at all with those within the system and there are others that think they know how to do things ‘better’ and refuse to negotiate.

      It sounds like CES was an amazing experience!

      Posted by marybethhertz | December 12, 2011, 8:49 pm
    • Dear David, these are very relevant points. One important early champion of radical decentralization of schools was – only a few will perhaps remember – Paul Goodman, whose proposal for the creation of one-per-block schools in NYC of only 25 students each, which he believed could be run by just 4 people: one licensed teacher, a housewife, a university student and a high-school graduate (see Jonathan Lee’s documentary Paul Goodman Changed My Life for his interview by a CBS reporter on this) was met with skepticism by most.
      According to Goodman this revolutionary new model wouldn’t cost a penny more than the existing centralized system. For him, however, the proposal made total sense pedagogically and economically, but was politically made impossible by opposition from the Board of Education and the Teachers Union.
      How much the mood of the players has changed since then is an important question.
      Thank you for the good links. Deb Meir too makes an unforgettable appearance in Paul Goodman Changed My Life.

      Posted by Paul Goodman (@paulgoodmanfilm) | December 13, 2011, 6:08 pm
  4. I agree that local control is important, the question is “how local”? Individual school districts, which in Indiana can range from a few hundred students to “donut” areas surrounding large cities such as Indianapolis where the districts run around 10,000 students to urban districts, which in Indianapolis’ case is around 30,000. Our legislors want to control all of Indiana, which pretty much so eliminates local control, because as you mention, the people in charge really do not have a solid idea of what it is like to teach children. Accountability is important, but when testing organizations are “wagging the tail of the dog” and professionals, i.e. teachers are not creating curriculum and making professional decisions based on their data, then local communities cease to exist and other entities take the reins which does not benefit the primary focus of this whole agenda, the children and their learning.

    Posted by Lonni Gill | November 16, 2010, 8:52 am
  5. Thought provoking. some solid points regarding assessment, data, accountability….all with merit.

    I work for the Federal Government–Department of Defense and the schools that serve the children of miltary personnel on a limited basis here in the US and in overseas areas. We have a headquarters in Washington who make policy, balance the wants and needs of the Pentagon and provide us metered funding. Our budget actually comes out of the Defense budget–the war de-escalates and funding gets better. 🙂 We can get just as frustrated as the public schools.

    The point about returning the schools to the states is a little tilted in that there is generally much local control. Funding schools at a decent level cannot happen at the state or local level without a serious change in teh way they are funded. Without federal funds, the funding for schools drops radically. The accountability piece is that schools perform (and no, I don’t think some fooks in DC clearly understand the idiosychrasies of school) or lose funding or get taken over by a state to assist in bring up performance. Not saying I agree, just sayin’.

    Balancing the liberty (autonomy) of local control with the global world we work and compete in is a tough deal. We are compared with the world (albeit smaller countries by population) as the United States Vs. China not as Massachussettes vs. Germany; Minnesota vs. Sweden. Should we? How do we reconcile that?

    I think we should also consider the influence of Federal policy makers (perhaps at a smaller level) to guide us in direction but unfunded mandates do need to go.

    Posted by mstarrett | November 16, 2010, 11:08 am
    • Thank you for your insight. I don’t doubt that those who are running the reform measures in DC have their hearts in the wrong places. I also wish that population did make more of a difference when comparing the US school system with others. Our system is the equivalent of Europe trying to centralize its schools. As a result, our states do have more local control than other countriesI would like to see less comparison of students’ scores on tests or where they are and more about the kinds of citizens they end up being or how they contribute to their communities (a girl can dream, right?)

      I also know that many schools (include my own) would not survive without Federal grants, Title I, etc…, but I wonder how schools were funded before 1979. (guess I’ve got my research cut out for me!) I think the influence of “Federal policy makers” only goes so far. If more “in the trenches” teachers had the power of traditional lobbyists then maybe I’d be more comfortable with the idea.

      Thanks for your thought-provoking response!

      Posted by marybethhertz | December 12, 2011, 9:15 pm
  6. i think it’s time to say good-bye to a lot of things.

    we need to respectfully question everything. we’re spending too much time and energy on the – that’s the way it’s always been.

    same is true within a school, within a classroom, within ourselves…

    Posted by monika hardy | November 22, 2010, 3:18 am
  7. Bring on the learning revolution!!

    Posted by Sandra | November 27, 2010, 11:45 am
  8. Thanks for the post Mary Beth,
    I have debated this point, within my head for a long time now. I do not think the dep. of Ed. as a entity needs to be said, “goodbye” too. Instead, I am about pragmatic reform to it. Understanding it, for what it was originally intended to do, protect the interests and rights of those being educated.

    As you rightly pointed out, the problem is that the Dept. of Ed. tries to get involved in activities that localized solutions to educational problems that they have no interest in getting involved in. The department of education has to be transformed into being an advocate, for the voice of the student. I would argue, only for the voice of the student, not for the unions or the parents, but for allowing the students to have a voice in their own learning.

    The dept. of education DOES need to be stripped down of its beauracracies, so that things like NCLB do not happen or Race to the Top. However, it does not need to be completely devoid of a national presence, instead, it should be a leader, who says, that we are going to represent the students of the nation, and protect them from descrimination, bullying, inequality funding, ect. So, much like the public school system, so much needs to be stripped away, but it does not mean that these institutions and democratic ideas are not without a merit, philosophy or purpose, only that the driving foce behind them, needs to get back to the roots of why they were first put in place, then work off that model to reconstruct “a more perfect union.”

    Posted by educationalrevolutionist | December 29, 2010, 7:20 pm
    • I love the idea of the Dept of Ed being an ‘advocate.’ Do you think maybe it already thinks that it is? I also would say that its leaders would say that they are representing students. I would like to see the student voice actually involved in what the Dept of Ed does. I’m also not sure exactly why the Dept of Ed was separated from Health and Human Services or what its original reason for being put in place really was at the time. There must have been some kind of impetus. When I learn how to clone myself, this would be some fascinating research for me!

      Posted by marybethhertz | December 12, 2011, 9:21 pm
  9. Mary Beth,
    I, like you, think it is a radical idea. One I’ve never seriously considered before recently. I’m also thinking streamlining education would be a good thing.

    When I was a Title I reading teacher, my salary and many incidentals were paid through the federal government. My school and I definitely benefited from the federal involvement in education. However, some of the the money we had to spend had such rules attached to it. For instance, we had to spend a certain percentage on engaging families, so, with those funds, I could have a pizza party but I couldn’t buy books for the classrooms. In spite of the benefits we received, I do agree that local decisions are better.

    In addition, the U.S. Constitution does not suggest that the federal government have any control over education. Therefore, according to Amendment X, it should be a state issue. I think the time has come for us to turn it back over to the states.


    Posted by Denise Krebs | December 12, 2011, 2:17 pm
    • Denise, I think you’re onto something. Not only are you limited to how money is spent, you also have to spend all of it! How crazy it seems that schools have to spend it or lose it. This leads to thoughtless, spur-of-the-moment purchases without the ability to bank funds for when they might most need it. I know that most grants have this kind of stipulation, but with the way schools run only 10 months out of the year, it leads to hectic spending in June and July before the next school year starts.

      Posted by marybethhertz | December 12, 2011, 9:24 pm


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