This is part of the value of having a clown car full of candidates for a Presidential primary: the contest becomes a primary of ideas, and certain notions gain traction by spreading across the field of candidates. Not that gaining traction means those ideas will ultimately prevail (a widespread notion among the 2016 GOP field was that Donald Trump was unfit to be President), but it’s still an intriguing process.
One up-and-coming education policy idea that was first proposed by Elizabeth Warren, but has now garnered wider candidate support, is the notion that a teacher should be the next secretary of education. At last count, four major candidates were supporting some version of the idea. It’s an arresting and appealing idea. Betsy DeVos is widely seen as a controversial opponent of public education, and in many education circles, predecessors like Arne Duncan were not much loved, either. Many teachers feel that the folks in D.C. just don’t get it, so the idea of someone from the trenches who would, presumably, get it–well, it’s an attractive idea. Now we have to ask–is it a good idea?
The devil, as always, is in the details. The idea has been expressed variously as appointing an educator, a public school teacher, or “someone who comes from public schools.” That may seem pretty straightforward. It isn’t. “Educator” is a loose umbrella term to cover anyone who has held an education-adjacent job: teacher, administrator, education advocacy group member, school bus driver, education-specializing lawyer, or real estate salesman who once opened a charter school. “Public school” is not a clear term, because charter advocates assert that charter schools (privately owned and operated schools fed with public tax dollars) are public schools. Even “teacher” has become a fuzzy term. Teach For America has created a small army of “former teachers” who have only two years of actual classroom experience. Critics have directed lots of attention at TFA’s program that claims to prepare college grads for a classroom in just five weeks. Less attention has been paid to how TFA produces “education policy experts” who have only two years of classroom experience. Those TFA grads have moved into a variety of powerful positions, from leaders of large city school systems to heads of entire state public education systems to founders and heads of their own charter schools. And while some TFA grads have emerged from the program as solid career supporters of public education, some remain aligned with the kind of corporate education reform that is unsupportive of public education.
In short, the candidates could appoint someone like controversial former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee and honor the letter of their pledge. But it would not much alter the trajectory set for the department by past secretaries.
So assuming that the newly appointed secretary was an actual working public school classroom teacher, would that be a good idea?
A classroom teacher would face some significant hurdles. Betsy DeVos lacks experience in running a large, complicated organization, nor has she shown a great deal of aptitude in dealing with members of Congress. A teacher secretary would face similar challenges. Field expertise is not enough; anyone in that job will need either prior understanding or a crash course in how to actually get things done in D.C. Wags will suggest that herding a room of unruly children through math lessons involves a similar skill set, and there’s some merit to that. Teachers manage, organize, and lead every day. But it also seems a legitimate concern that a classroom teacher transplanted to D.C. bureaucracy would have a great deal to learn about effectively navigating the halls of power. But similar transitions have been made. Jerry Oleksiak is a thirty-two-year classroom veteran who is now serving as Pennsylvania’s secretary of labor and industry. We often assume that lawyers and businessmen can, of course, “do government.” Why not teachers?
What most appeals about the idea is the notion of someone in D.C. positioned to say, “Here’s how that policy looks in a real classroom, and here’s why it’s a lousy idea.” It’s not just that a teacher would have power, but that a teacher would actually be listened to. But that, too, is a devilish detail. A cabinet office does not come with a guarantee of access to a Presidential ear.
Selecting a classroom teacher does not guarantee a particular point of view. Among the millions of classroom veterans, one finds a variety of viewpoints (one in three National Education Association members voted for Donald Trump). It’s worth remembering that although previous secretaries include a school administrator and a college professor, the one secretary who taught in a public high school was Rod Paige, who presided over the “Texas Miracle” that turned out to be a mirage, and who once called the NEA a terrorist organization. Coming from a public school background is no guarantee that someone is a public school supporter.
What could be the best feature of a teacher secretary would be a willingness to listen to other teachers. What has been consistently frustrating about education reform policies coming out of D.C. has been how little policymakers have consulted with actual experts who work in the field. Even when teachers have been involved, they have been carefully vetted and selected to be in tune with administration ideas. The best the next secretary could do, regardless of where she comes from, would be to assemble a broad-based panel of actual public school teachers, consult them regularly, and listen to them. In a world in which real live teachers had better access to those in power than lobbyists do, we could spend less time worrying about what the secretary of education used to do for a living.