Picking Obama’s Secretary of Education

I seriously doubt that Secretary of Education will be one of the cabinet positions chosen in the next couple of weeks. That’s good, because I hope that Obama’s advisors take the matter very seriously. The tendency will be to pluck an aggressive K-12 reformer out of the field–someone like Michelle Rhee from DC, or Joel Klein in NYC. This would be a terrible mistake.

As Rick Hess argued persuasively in his book Spinning Wheels, one of the most important reasons why urban schools rarely improve is constant cycling of leadership. This cycling means that leaders of school districts are rarely in place long enough to transform their ambitious plans of reform into durable, institutionalized change. What is worse, this cycle of reform makes teachers cynical and causes them to withhold commitment to change, since they expect the superintendent to leave town in a couple of years, and a whole new set of plans to be put in place. Better to just keep your head down and do just enough not to draw attention to yourself. While Klein has been in place considerably longer than Rhee, both of them took over deeply troubled school systems that need deep, comprehensive reform. This is the kind of task that takes a decade to achieve. Obama should leave these talented people in the field, where they can do some good for their cities’ schools, and set an example for leaders elsewhere.

In addition, much of what the Department of Education actually does concerns higher education. The federal governments programs in higher education are incredibly complex, overlapping, contradictory, badly run, and politically embedded. Fixing them will require a Secretary with an intimate knowledge of their workings.

If the US is to maintain its status as a great power in this century, there is simply no question that we need to get more of our students into math, science and engineering. Despite programs throughout the federal government, fewer students today receive undergraduate degrees in math, science and engineering than they did forty years ago. The Secretary of Education needs to be familiar with the problem and have a high degree of sophistication about strategies for remedying it.

Finally, a substantial portion of the national education agenda, both at the K-12 and higher education levels, concerns closing the achievement gap between African-Americans and whites (especially African-American males). The Secretary of Education only has a relatively small number of levers to pull where this is concerned, but he does have a very powerful bully pulpit, which can help him legitimate unpopular ideas, shine a light on things that work, and in the process help clear a path for reformers at the local level.

There may be a number of people who fit these criteria, but at least one person I can think of is Freeman Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Hrabowski has been president of the university for fifteen years, in which he dramatically increased the quality and reputation of the school–and turned down offers to be the president of much more prestigious institutions. He’s been especially successful in producing African-American students who go on to receive advanced degrees in the sciences, and he has published two books on the subject (separating out the issues by gender). He is a really effective communicator, and he has a great story to tell–he’s a black man from Alabama who marched for civil rights as a small child, and got a PhD at the age of 24. His life embodies the slogan of educational reformers, which is that education is the civil rights issue of our time.

Is Hrabowski the right guy for the job? I don’t know him well enough to be sure. What I can say is that he certainly should be on the administration’s list, since he satisfies more of the important criteria for Secretary of Education than anyone else I’ve heard mooted for the position–and choosing him won’t take a soldier for reform off the K-12 battlefield.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.