A Nation at Greater Risk: 7 Education Secretaries Reflect on 35 Years of Students and Stumbles, With Regret and Hope
It may have been the first time they were all in one place: Seven of the 11 secretaries of the U.S. Department of Education, including all but two of those still living. The department, relatively young for a cabinet agency, dates only to 1979.
They have aged. Some move more slowly. They have gone on to the second and third acts in their professional lives. One runs a major university; another leads the Senate education committee. One shuns the limelight; another is a regular fixture on Twitter, lobbing rhetorical grenades at President Trump and the National Rifle Association.
On Thursday, they assembled at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., to mark the 35th anniversary of the landmark “A Nation at Risk” report.
It is a testament to the galvanic impact of the disarmingly slim document — at 36 pages, it is shorter than the appendices to many Education Department research reports — that they showed up at all. Democrat and Republican, they came to honor the now-famous Reagan-era call to combat “the rising tide of mediocrity” that gave rise to the school reform movement, and to measure the progress made since 1983.
The news was grim. As if to remind a distracted nation of the report’s continued relevance, test scores released Tuesday from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress continued a decade-long lull, with only marginal improvement in eighth-grade reading.
“Overall, we are still a nation at risk, and I would say even greater risk today,” said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
But a number of her predecessors were more emphatic, lamenting a current lack of collective will to tackle the nation’s pressing problems in education.
“We lack of a sense of urgency,” said Margaret Spellings, who served as George W. Bush’s second education secretary. “We all served at a time when we had presidents that were really using that national bully pulpit to drive closing the achievement gap. People are exhausted with education reform or feel like it’s not possible to close the achievement gap. The boulder is drifting back down the hill.”
Arne Duncan, secretary for most of Barack Obama’s tenure, was even more pointed. “If you ask anyone in the current administration what their education goal is, I don’t think you’ll get a coherent answer,” he said. “That worries me.”
It was a reminder that “A Nation at Risk” resonates with vastly different constituencies. Like many things in education, the politics don’t line up neatly, blue versus red. They split more along the lines of interventionists — represented by the Bush administration and its mammoth No Child Left Behind law, and Obama, with his billion-dollar investments in Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants — and those favoring local control, for whom DeVos is the current champion. It may have been no accident that the interventionists, including Rod Paige and John King, participated in one panel, while DeVos and Reagan-era secretary William Bennett — a link to an earlier era of relative austerity and laissez-faire — sat on another. Maybe they don’t play well together.
Lamar Alexander, who served as education secretary under George H.W. Bush, is often the man in the middle in the world of education politics. He described the past 40 years of federal education policy as “The Rise and Fall of the National School Board,” which began with the federal Education Department acting as a “bully pulpit” under Reagan, then grew under George W. Bush and Obama, and now, after the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, is returning to something of a bully pulpit under DeVos.
“ESSA restores to state and local government the responsibility” of responding to school problems, said Alexander, now a senator from Tennessee and chair of the Senate education committee.
But what if states take the easy way out? What if they seize upon their newfound flexibility to disregard low-performing populations of students or even, as DeVos herself recently suggested, simply offer plans that are uninspired and maybe a bit dull? For all their noted excesses, the education departments under Bush and Obama were unafraid to wield a punitive stick when necessary.
Asked about the issue, Spellings let out a deep sigh.
“Oh, Lord,” she drawled. “I’m a big card-carrying Republican, and what I’m going to say — and I think it’s a very Republican principle — is that if we invest billions that we have in poor and minority kids, special education students, etc., we ought to get something for our money, and we do that by focusing on accountability for their performance.”
States can use jargon-laden “wonkery” to game the system and “leave kids out,” she said. At the same time, some well-meaning local officials like the political cover the feds offer when unpopular decisions are needed.
“If I had a nickel for every superintendent and every chief state school officer that said, ‘Thank you, federal government, for keeping that push, that wind in your back,’ ” she said. “The pressure to relent at the local level is fierce.”
A bygone era
They speak more freely now, this select group of alumni who witnessed history in the making firsthand. Asked about his most indelible memory as secretary, Paige mentioned the early morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when he accompanied President George W. Bush to Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota County, Florida. The president was reading The Pet Goat with a group of urban first-graders when news came that a plane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. Soon, Bush was quickly whisked off to Air Force One, leaving Paige and the education entourage behind.
“Later, I said, ‘Mr. President, I go all over the nation promoting No Child Left Behind for you, but you left me in Florida,’ ” Paige recalled.
Given the fractious nature of today’s politics, there was a wistful tone when some spoke of the bygone era of bipartisanship that ushered in that law. Spellings recalled that the legislation — the most expansive increase of federal power in department history — was approved by a Senate vote of 87–10. On a wall in her office at the University of North Carolina, Spellings keeps the trappings of that momentous day — the voting pen and a copy of the bill — as a reminder of what’s possible.
“Hard to believe you could get 87–10 on a motion to adjourn these days,” she quipped.
It was a day of such laments. “Our biggest problem is that no one votes along education anymore,” Duncan said, and it “broke my heart” to see that neither candidate mentioned education much in the 2016 presidential debates. Earlier in the day, Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state and provost at Stanford University, used almost identical language to describe her misgivings.
Although the teacher walkouts in states like West Virginia and Oklahoma may hint at an edu-centric midterm election this fall, some are not so hopeful. John White, Louisiana’s superintendent of education, said that while people care deeply about the quality of their schools, politicians are not paying attention.
“Do I think it will be a leading election item this fall?” he asked during a session earlier in the day. “Probably not, in most places. Politicians are running from education compared to where they were a decade ago.”
Even a decade ago, however, the role of the education secretary was limited. Only on television does the secretary wield real power — and only then, after Earth has been destroyed by evil robots. In real life, the president sets the tone. And though Trump was rarely invoked by name Thursday, his presence, just blocks away, was deeply felt.
King, Obama’s second education secretary, noted that many schools are becoming more segregated. The recent NAEP results, he added, show huge gaps for African-American, Latino, and low-income students. The lack of urgency is reflected not only in education, he said, but “for a society that is just for all people.”
Duncan, who makes little secret on Twitter of his disdain for the Trump administration, added, “If we’re going to wait for this administration to take civil rights protections seriously, we’re going to be waiting a long time.”
In her “fireside chat” with Bennett, DeVos sounded much like her Reagan-era counterpart, emphasizing a restrained federal role and deep skepticism toward solutions that emanate from what she referred to repeatedly as “this town.”
“If you look at per-pupil spending, it’s gone up since ‘A Nation at Risk’ was reported,” DeVos said. “Scores continue to muddle along. This is not something we’re going to spend our way out of, and this is not something we’re going to mandate or regulate our way out of.”
But even in Washington, there’s the power of example. She and Bennett struck a note of Reaganesque optimism when highlighting the performance of Florida — in particular, districts like Miami-Dade — which DeVos attributed to a series of reforms ushered in by former governor Jeb Bush in the 1990s, including school choice, school-level flexibility, and A–F school grades. In the late 1990s, Florida students ranked 47th to 49th among the states, but this year’s fourth-graders are achieving in the top 10.
Playing on a line from the song “New York, New York,” Bennett quipped: “If Miami goes up, you can go up anywhere.”
He encouraged DeVos to think expansively about her own tenure — of maybe meeting up again in 20 years to find the NAEP trend line “is not flat anymore. After DeVos, it just went up and up.”
“I’m very hopeful,” DeVos said.
“Maybe in 30 years, there will be a book called ‘Not at Risk Anymore.’ ”
“That would be wonderful,” DeVos replied.
“You and I can blurb it,” Bennett said.
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