Historically, U.S. Education Secretaries Have Been Disconnected From The Classroom

by Christopher Paslay

Most will agree that No Child Left Behind is a flawed education reform policy.  U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress this spring that the “law is fundamentally broken, and we need to fix it this year.” 

President Obama believes this to be the case, which is why he is has directed the U.S. Department of Education to grant waivers to districts that fail to meet annual benchmark standards. 

When President Bush enacted NCLB, he insisted it was a sound policy that would improve education in America.  The reality of the situation, of course, is that good policy doesn’t always translate into good practice.  Those writing policy—scholars, researchers and politicians—are not always plugged-in on the ground floor; few have substantial experience teaching at the K-12 level. 

A top-to-bottom review of those responsible for writing much of America’s education policy reveals interesting results.  Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary, has no experience teaching in a K-12 public school classroom and holds no license to teach in one.  Although Duncan was the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, and was involved in a number of education foundations, his experience working directly with children stems from his time helping his mother run a tutoring program in Chicago, which he spoke about in a speech called “A Call to Teaching” at the Rotunda at the University of Virginia in October of 2009:

“My mother ran an inner-city afterschool program in a church basement on the South Side of Chicago, and raised my sister, brother, and me as part of her program. Every student in her afterschool program was African-American and came from a low-income family. Many of the students had to overcome tremendous adversity every day just to be in that program. When I was little, the older students tutored me. When I got older, I tutored the younger students. That is her philosophy—the 15 year-olds tutor the 10 year-olds, the 10 year-olds tutor the 5 year-olds, and the 5 year-olds help to clean the tables. I saw in that program, day after day and year after year, that a well-run tutoring program is a good thing. But I learned that a good tutoring program run by a caring adult was a great thing. The students my mother tutored felt that she understood them, and they knew that she cared deeply about what happened to them. The sense of connection that great teachers create is second only to a parent’s love in its power to transform lives.”  

Secretary Duncan’s stint helping his mother tutor a small group of urban children in a church basement was no doubt inspiring, but this experience hardly mirrors the challenges facing fulltime teachers in inner-city classrooms.      

Margaret Spellings, George W. Bush’s second-term education secretary, also had no experience teaching in a K-12 public school classroom.  Spellings graduated from the University of Houston with a bachelor’s in political science.  Her experience prior to working for the White House involved writing educational policy at the university and state level.  According to her bio on the U.S. Department of Education’s website, Spellings was the first mother of school-aged children to serve as Education Secretary, so she had a “special appreciation for the hopes and concerns of American families.”

Rod Paige, Bush’s first Education Secretary who received a doctorate in physical education from Indiana University, worked with students as a teacher and a coach, although not at the K-12 level.  Richard Riley, who served as Clinton’s Secretary of Education for both terms, was a lawyer and politician and never taught in a K-12 classroom.  Lamar Alexander, Bush Sr.’s secretary, was a politician and professor and also lacked any K-12 teaching credential.  In fact, the only Education Secretary who ever taught fulltime in a K-12 school was Terrel Bell, Ronald Regan’s first Education Secretary, who taught at the high school level in 1946-1947    

Much of the same holds true at the local level.  Mayor Michael Nutter’s chief education officer, Lori Shorr, has no K-12 teaching experience or licenses.  Although Dr. Arlene Ackerman, superintendent of Philadelphia public schools, has experience as both a K-12 classroom teacher and principal, only one of five members of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission has any experience teaching in a K-12 school.               

In order for education policy to be sound in theory and practice, the realities of everyday K-12 classrooms—and the voices of those teachers working in them—must be accounted for.  When policy is not balanced with feedback from instructors it can in some cases do more harm than good.

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