Saturday, January 21, 2017

Help Wanted - US Secretary of Education

The United States is currently looking for a Secretary of Education. Since I am trying very hard not to get sucked into the negativity surrounding American politics right now, I'm going to stay positive. Here are the things we need to see in our next Secretary of Education if we wish to succeed in meeting the goal of providing a great education and equal opportunity for success for every one of America's school children.
Image Credit: Glassdoor.com

Our next Secretary of Education needs to understand how children learn. One of the ways we have failed our students in the past is by enacting policies that fly in the face of the neuroscience research that shows how kids learn. If we want to build a system focused on student learning, the leader of that system must understand student learning.

Since approximately 90% of American schoolchildren attend public schools, our next Secretary of Education must be intimately familiar with the workings of American public schools. This is no small requirement. Each state has a different way of funding, running, and evaluating public schools.

The leader of the Department of Education must understand the purpose of our public school system. Our public schools do not exist to serve parents. Our public schools exist because our society is better when we have an educated populace. While it is true that parents and families benefit from strong public schools, we have developed a publically funded system of education because it is good for everyone in our communities. If we lose sight of this fact and divert tax dollars to privately run schools for the benefit of parents, we destroy a system that was created to strengthen our communities. There is a reason that you cannot take your tax dollars back that the government uses on the police force to buy private security. There is a reason that you cannot take the tax dollars back that the government uses for road maintenance if you don't have a car. There is a reason that you cannot take back the tax dollars the government uses for the fire company in order to install a sprinkler system in your house. In each of those cases, those tax dollars are being used for the good of the community and removing them for the benefit of individuals would hurt everybody. Our next Education Secretary must understand that the public school system benefits the collective, and that removing tax dollars for individuals hurts everybody in the same way.

Education is Constitutionally a state right. The federal government has a role to play, but our next Secretary of Education must end the practice of coercive unfunded mandate control over state education systems. This has become toxic in part due to lobbying from companies who are looking at their own financial interests instead of what's best for our students. While companies have gotten rich off standardized testing and selling Common Core aligned textbooks, our students have been subjected to increasingly more test prep and have had fewer opportunities to find the joy in learning.

The role of the Department of Education absolutely should be ensuring that the US Constitution is not being breached in schools that receive federal funding. This means that students should be protected from discrimination based on gender, disability, race, religion, or anything else. Students can't learn if they don't feel safe. Our Secretary of Education should be a champion for all students.

Our Education Secretary should have at least a Master's Degree in an education field. If a principal, someone who is in charge of running a school, is required to possess a Master's Degree in Educational Administration, it is fairly obvious that someone wishing to run the entire American educational system should have that level of education.

Within the Department of Education's influence, nobody has greater sway over student learning than teachers. Like any other professional, teachers are better at their job when they are supported, inspired, given autonomy to use their professional judgement, and empowered. Our next Secretary must be someone who understands this. Empowered teachers create empowered learners.

We must encourage our most talented youngsters to choose teaching as a profession. In 1971 close to 21% of American college freshmen were education majors. Now, that number is below 5%. The teaching profession has been decimated by a lack of respect and a lack of autonomy. Those who choose to teach do so because they want to make a difference and help our children thrive. When education policy makes it difficult for those who choose teaching to fulfill those goals, when salaries do not allow those who choose teaching to live in the districts where they teach or pay back their student loans, when those in power emphasize the few stories of bad teachers over the plethora of amazing stories of good teachers so that they can better meet political goals, our most talented youngsters are discouraged from teaching. The next Secretary of Education must be committed to reversing this trend.

Communication will be an important skill for our next Secretary to possess. Policy at the highest levels is nuanced and complicated. The leader of a federal department will have to be able to understand and articulate clearly those policies.

The best interests of America's students should be the primary driving force behind our next Secretary of Education's decisions. The person occupying this position should have no financial interests in education companies, for-profit entities, universities, private schools, or any other organizations that may influence his/her decision making. Our students deserve an unbiased Secretary looking out for their best interests.

Sometimes we need to look beyond our borders for solutions. The American public education system helped create one of the most innovative and knowledgeable civilizations in the history of the world. We are the only nation to put men on the Moon. College students from around the globe have flocked to American universities for decades because of our excellence. American teachers are among the most educated and respected on the planet. However, we must not be blind to the excellence happening in other countries, or unwilling to learn from those who have discovered solutions to problems we face. The Secretary of Education should be willing to look at countries like Finland, Canada, Singapore, and others to see what they are doing well and how we can incorporate their solutions into our system.

Being Secretary of Education is an overwhelming job that requires a lot of expertise and experience. There are plenty of more requirements that I could come up with that I did not list due to space limitations. I haven't even touched upon issues outside K-12 education such as the benefit of pre-K programs, the impact affordable college tuition would have on our country's prosperity, or several other issues. A strong public education system has been the backbone of our thriving, free society. We must choose a Secretary of Education who is committed to strengthening the cornerstone of our American democracy.

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