Ten Questions for the Secretary of Education

These are heady times in education. The sector received $110 billion in stimulus spending and tens of billions more in the omnibus budget. And President Obama gave a handsome and well-received speech last week to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that drew plaudits from both reformers and teachers' unions (and that is no mean feat).

The point man for the Obama administration's efforts is the youthful, Harvard-educated, well-spoken Arne Duncan, a basketball-playing former superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools. Like his predecessor, Margaret Spellings, Duncan has quickly become an icon in education policy. Indeed, at Duncan's Senate confirmation hearing, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) opined, "Among several outstanding nominations made by President-elect Obama, I believe Arne Duncan is the best."

But Secretary Duncan is operating in the early days of an administration with a stated mission of transforming education, so a slew of questions have emerged. Here are ten that I would very much like to hear the secretary answer.

1) In making the case for the stimulus package, you repeatedly cited a University of Washington study that reported that 600,000 jobs were at risk. Indeed, the first directive in your department's guidance on stimulus spending is, "spend funds quickly to save and create jobs." Yet you've also indicated a concern about wasteful spending. Would you regard it as a problem if the money were spent inefficiently, but created jobs? If your answer is yes, what are you prepared to do to stop it?

The president announced his intention to "scrub" the budget for wasteful or inefficient programs. Which education programs have been identified?

2) The stimulus bill creates an "Invest in What Works and Innovation" fund through which your department is to fund programs that "scale up what works." However, much of "what works" today is elite charter schools fueled by talented staff, missionary zeal, and philanthropic support. These commodities are in limited supply, and history shows that their successes are tough to replicate on a wide scale. How will you ensure that funding "what works" doesn't slosh dollars into terrific boutique programs that don't easily scale?

3) The president announced his intention to "scrub" the budget for wasteful or inefficient programs. Which education programs have been identified?

4) In Chicago, despite the backing of perhaps the nation's strongest mayor, an energetic business and civic leadership, and the entrepreneurial Chicago Education Fund, it appears that most of your successes entailed reforms like merit-pay pilot programs and charter schools--reforms that come on top of and around the existing school system. Do you agree with this characterization? If so, do you think the "on top of and around" strategy is viable for transforming K–12 schooling across the country?

5) The president's call for "performance pay" was met with agreement by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association (NEA)--because they say he is proposing the kind of pay reform that they like. Do you think it's possible to craft a substantial, game-changing merit-pay plan that the NEA will endorse? Also, your time in Chicago was marked by relatively collegial relations with the Chicago Teachers Union. What was your secret?

6) You and the president have touted the $5 billion for preschool in the stimulus, arguing that high-quality early-childhood programs can make a big difference. The premise seems reasonable, but there is scant evidence of such programs delivering big, sustained benefits for large numbers of children. How can we be confident that the money will fund difference-making programs and not simply pad enrollment or staffing levels? And what are you prepared to do if the latter happens?

7) You and the president have both championed charter schools, and the president has called for states to remove caps on the allowable number of charters. As you know from experience, there are many less formal restrictions that hinder charter schools, including unfriendly state and federal regulations, facilities headaches, and teacher-certification policies. Do you intend to use your bully pulpit to spotlight those barriers and, when possible, to remove them?

8) You have supported stricter national standards. But with disputes over the merits of "21st century" skills and concerns that bad standards might crowd out good ones, how confident are you that such a reform would end well? How would you know if the effort was going off the rails, and would we be able to limit the fallout if it did?

9) The president has said to the nation's governors and mayors that if they don't spend the stimulus funds wisely, he will "call them out and put a stop to it." In your view, how would we know if education funds were misspent? What is an example of misspending that you would deem egregious enough that you might say, "Mr. President, we need to get those dollars back"?

10) The president has talked about the importance of every American's attending at least one year of postsecondary study. History suggests that universal access tends to encourage a decline in rigor and the relaxation of standards. Does that possibility worry you? If so, how do you intend to police against such concerns?

Well, Mr. Secretary, what do you say?

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy at AEI.

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About the Author


Frederick M.
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.

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