Freedom New Mexico
Of course, in a genuinely free (or even constitutional) society there would be no such position as secretary of education at the national level. The U.S. Constitution saw no role for the national government in education and education at the time — a time when literacy and enrollment of children in educational institutions were remarkably high — was almost exclusively private in nature.
The notion that the president of the United States, in addition to his responsibilities for executing the laws passed by Congress, is also First Teacher, is an outgrowth of the Imperial Presidency, a perverse concept that places more power and hope in the hands of a single individual than is healthy in a free society.
Given that separation of school and state is unlikely to come to pass in the near future, however, the selection of secretary of education is fairly consequential. Although the likelihood of genuine improvement in government schools resulting from initiatives at the federal level is low, the secretary can do a great deal of mischief.
Given all those caveats, the choice of Arne Duncan, for the past seven years the head of the Chicago government schools and a basketball-playing buddy of Barack Obama, comes close to a “do no harm” choice, given the realistic alternatives available to a Democratic president.
Insofar as standardized tests are an indicator of educational progress (they are imperfect at best, stifling to innovation at worst), Duncan has instituted programs in Chicago that have increased student test scores.
Duncan has been a friend of charter schools, an occasionally useful reform, while managing to maintain decent relations with teachers and their unions. He has been skeptical about one-size-fits-all programs from Washington. He has been willing to close failed schools, sometimes reopening them with new personnel and better success. He has been cautiously in favor of merit pay for teachers judged to be outstanding.
Of course, he has not favored educational vouchers, the single reform within the context of the existing system that carries the most hope of promoting genuine innovation through competition and empowering parents.
There are questions as to whether Duncan will have the clout to navigate the ego-ridden waters of Washington and to face down the hidebound educational establishment when necessary.
But there’s just a chance he will encourage the Department of Education to focus on evidence-based research into what actually helps children to learn more effectively and to encourage the use of these results through persuasion and example rather than with heavy-handed, rigid mandates from Washington.
If he can manage that, then he will at least have done little harm, and maybe even a bit of good.