It Is Time to Reinvent the US Department of Education

Election Day is now less than two months away. Regardless of who is occupying the White House come the third week of January, one thing is certain. Public education deserves far greater attention and appreciation from the Oval Office than it has received over the last four years.

Post-presidential election is more than just a great opportunity shape the direction of future education policy. As school districts head into phase two of our national experiment in “hybrid education,” it is becoming clearer and clearer that how schools have operated in the past is not how successful schools will need to perform in the future. In past years, we focused on how to make postsecondary education more affordable, including calling for “free college.” Now, we are discussing gap years, student healthcare, and quarantine procedures.

The “experts” often say that overhauls and reorganizations are the last thing that should happen at the start of a presidential administration. But these are far from typical times. If anything, now is exactly the time to look at a new organization for the U.S. Department of Education and to explore how the federal bully pulpit can be better used to shape a new era in teaching and learning.

The New Approaches

Office of Early Childhood Education — The past six months has driven home the importance of early childhood education and its ability to prepare all students — particularly those from at risk families — for the instructional, social, and emotional challenges of elementary school. In even the hardest-hit Covid states, preschools and childcare have been some of the essential services that have had to open swiftly to help families return to work. The creation of this office systematizes that commitment. And if you really want to be bold, move Head Start over from HHS and put it under ED, and this new office’s, purview. While early childhood has long been the official territory of HHS, ED has always had a chip in the game, and both Trump and Biden’s priorities could settle the issue once and for all whether early childhood ed is just Head Start or a broader academic preparedness scope.

Office of Elementary Education — For quite some time, we have had an Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. It is time to separate the two. The Office of Elementary Education would focus on the foundations of education success, particularly reading and math. With a K-8 focus, this office would emphasize the early building blocks of successful learning (reflecting much of the research we now know), while providing some new-found emphasis on the middle grades. While we are now two decades removed from the National Reading Panel and it’s been more than a decade since the National Math Panel’s findings were released, we still need a voice to ensure that research and best practice are part of our instructional focus. This office could do that.

Office of Secondary Education — Nationally, we have made a major investment in improving high schools, making them more rigorous, and providing all students the pathways to educational and life successes. This office would focus on high school improvement, early colleges, and the transition from secondary to postsecondary. Bolder still would be a deputy assistant secretary for STEM education, to ensure science-tech-engineering-math instruction is embedded in all our secondary school improvements. Even bolder would be emphasizing the soft skills that once anchored 21st century skills and currently embody STEM skills.

Office of Teacher Advancement — We’ve been denying it for some time, but the current Covid reality is showing clearly we are facing major teacher retirements and even more educators who are unwilling or unable to teach in today’s at-risk classrooms. ED must renew its previous efforts to recruiting, retaining, and rewarding teachers. We should focus an office on the teacher, including teacher training and pre-service education, in-service professional development, teacher incentives, alternative routes for teachers, and overall educator quality.

Office of Assessment and Accountability — Yes, I know we have an Institute of Education Sciences. We’ll address that later. ED needs an office that works directly with SEAs and LEAs on assessment issues, how we measure student achievement, how we address the issue of multiple measures, and how we ensure our schools and our government are accountable and focusing on the instruction and the supports that make a true difference. This needs to be more than just the annual summative tests we expect, and largely loathe. This effort should also focus on how we better use formative and interim assessments to improve teaching and learning for all.

Office of School Options — Ever since President Bill Clinton embraced public charter schools in the 1990s, school choice has been part of our k-12 tapestry, at least at the national policy level. More than a decade ago, President Barack Obama acknowledged charters as a piece of the education improvement puzzle. Today, school choice is one of the few education issues that Trump supporters seem to agree on. This office would seek to de-politicize the issue, focusing on effective infrastructure, supports, and accountability in school options, particularly charter schools and virtual schools. Within this office, ED should also include after-school, or out-of-school-time, programs, as such OST efforts are now a bastion for academic supports, social supports, the arts and other opportunities designed to fill the current learning gaps.

Office of Family and Community Engagement — There has long been a need and a hunger for an office focused on better involving parents and families in the education improvement process. We need to better inform families, better encourage families to pursue options, and better prepare families to be a part of the solution. And the need for parent voice in education policy is long past due.

The Conversions

In addition to these new approaches, there are also a number of current offices that could use some assistance and fresh outlook on the education landscape:

Office of Communication and Outreach — For too long, OCO has been viewed as a reactive office, one that regularly issues press releases, fields FOIA requests, and decides which media calls will be returned by whom. That has been particularly true the past four years. Moving forward, the office needs to jump on the latter part of its name, and transform into an office of public engagement. Utilize the vast social networks built by the presidential campaigns. Broaden the reach to stakeholders. Be proactive in pushing policy issues and promoting successes. Set the terms and drive the story. Doesn’t get more simple than that.

Institute of Education Sciences — IES was created to be our nation’s home for education R&D. Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done to meet that goal. IES needs to broaden its mission and become a true clearinghouse for quality research and a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for what works. More importantly, it needs to expand the dialogue beyond the researchers and effectively communicate the education sciences to practitioners, advocates, and others in the field.

Office of English Language Acquisition — OELA, and its previous personalities, has almost been a red-headed stepchild in ED for quite some time. But as our nation’s demographics continue to shift, ELL and ESL issues become more and more important to closing the achievement gap and providing opportunity to all students. Focusing on inclusiveness, partnership development, stakeholder engagement, and integration with other offices (particularly elementary ed), OELA can be the lever for improvement many want it to be.

Yes, our educational priorities and needs have shifted over the last decade. Despite these changes, though, we are still focused on important issues such as teacher development, 21st century and STEM skills, education technology, and the P-20 education continuum. How we address these issues and the outcomes we expect from them have changed dramatically, though. A new approach, with new foci, serves as a strong rhetorical tool to make clear that education, edu-investment, edu-transformation, and edu-innovation are central to the rebuilding of our nation. And such rhetoric is all the more important when current economic concerns make it difficult to fund new policy ideas straight out of the gate, a fact that is all too real today.

Father; education advocacy pro; founder of Driving Force Institute; author of Eduflack blog; VP of Coker University; education agitator

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