The Faculty
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The Faculty

What We Really Need in a New US Education Secretary is …

It’s that time in the presidential campaign cycle where educators, policymakers, and transition teams play their favorite parlor game … who could be the next EdSec? While education has barely caused a policy ripple over the past four years, the U.S. Education Secretary remains a lightning rod. The appointment and confirmation hearings of Betsy DeVos garnered far more attention in 2017 than any previous U.S. Education Department appointment. Since her confirmation that spring, DeVos has been a cartoon villain for many in public education, used as a fundraising tool and a rhetorical bludgeon in both the 2018 midterms and the current campaign season.

DeVos’ background as a philanthropist and reform advocate is a significant outlier for those who sit in the big chair at 400 Maryland Avenue. Historically, we are used to EdSecs coming from the K-12 perspective. That’s definitely true of the four preceding DeVos, with Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings, Arne Duncan, and John King all cutting their teeth on the mean streets of K-12. Before that, we had governors like Dick Riley and Lamar Alexander, who brought a deep policy perspective but whose educational lens — due to the nature of a state chief exec — was more primary/secondary ed than higher education.

President Donald Trump has given no indication at all that he intends to replace DeVos should he be re-elected in November. On the Democratic side, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren was boldest when it came to the Education Department, pledging that she would appoint a classroom teacher as EdSec.

Presidential candidate Joe Biden has kept his thoughts on such an appointment closer to the vest, with those supposedly in the know offering names ranging from Warren herself to Freeman Hrabowski, the president of University of Maryland Baltimore County. (And yes, Hrabowski has the potential to be an excellent EdSec).

Regardless, it is fun to throw out names and rank this state chief over that urban superintendent over this university president over that former governor or congressman, to talk about who the teachers unions will approve of versus who some of the big money reform donors can live with. It becomes particularly interesting to envision what an EdSec with a higher ed focus might bring to the bully pulpit and the impact he or she can have on free college, student debt, innovations in virtual learning, and the role of for-profit education.

But what if maybe, just maybe, we went in a different direction? What if instead of looking at the two sides of the coin — P-12 and higher ed — we instead looked at the ridged edge that brings the heads and tails together? What if we took the cabinet search in a completely different direction, and instead looked for a parent voice, a family engagement advocate who could talk with some authority on the full continuum, from early childhood education through adult professional learning and all points in between?

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on the value of high-quality early childhood and the linkages between health and education …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on K-12 issues well beyond “the test” and instead key in on what students should know and be able to do to succeed and how families can be a part of the learning process along with educators …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could reflect on the lessons learned during this period of virtual and hybrid education and thread the needle on educational opportunities that are best for learners, their parents, their parents’ employers, teachers of record, and the community at large …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on higher education issues, bringing real-life experiences to fights over student loans, free college, and gainful employment …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on the role continuing education plays after finishing formal P-16 pathways, or about the importance of career and technical education, or about how education and labor can work together to address workforce readiness issues …

There is a reason groups like the National Assessment Governing Board insist of having specific parent voices on their boards. Parent and family advocates bring a particular focus to a range of education policy issues. They can be the link between practitioner and policymaker. And they can ensure the work focuses on both the inputs and the outcomes, with every action focused on how it impacts the learner.

Sure, we’ve had discreet projects like the Parent Information Resource Centers (PIRCs) that sought to give voice to such parents. And sure, a new EdSec could always appoint a special advisor for family engagement. But such an appointment can be empty. Without a formal voice, and without a formal budget, those special advisors can be hamstrung from bringing the best of ideas into practice.

So let’s forget this East Coast/West Coast style battle of K-12 and higher ed, of who is the candidate of the unions versus who is the voice of reform. Instead, let’s look to place the first honest-to-goodness parent advocate in the biggest chair on 400 Maryland Avenue. Let’s give the rostrum to a family voice who can work with teacher and policymaker alike, one who can see that P, K-12, and higher ed are deeply connected and should never be separated.

And if we can’t have such an EdSec, and we have to fall back on tradition, can that new EdSec at least create a new Assistant Secretary for Family Engagement position? Please? Pretty please?

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Patrick Riccards

Patrick Riccards

Father; founder and CEO of Driving Force Institute; author of Eduflack blog; author of Dad in a Cheer Bow and Dadprovement books, education agitator