What Would You Prioritize If You Were the Next US Secretary of Education?

It is decided. On the late morning / early afternoon of February 7, 2017, the Vice President broke a 50/50 tie to confirm Betsy Devos as the next US Secretary of Education. Now what?

I followed the nomination, hearing, vetting, debates, and lobbying closely in this process. Given the nature of my work, this particular position is one of personal interest. I’ve been candid about my past criticisms of the US Department of Education regarding certain policies and practices that are restricting promising innovations and reforms in education. I’ve also spoken up in support of other efforts, especially the desire to create ways to increase access and opportunity to quality education (even if I might have differences on the “how” in the past).

I didn’t speak out in support of Devos, nor did oppose her. If you read my work often enough, you already know where I have some shared ideas with Devos and where I might deviate from her stance in other areas. I am and will continue to be a person who speaks out about affordances, limitations, and promising possibilities in education, and all three are always present.

Now Betsy Devos is the US Secretary of Education and I will work alongside her in the effort to create and refine the educational ecosystem in the United States. For any of us who are engaged in the good and important work of education, I consider that a minimum responsibility. We are charged to speak out when we disagree, but in productive and civil ways. We are also called to work together on areas where we can agree, setting our personal agendas aside and striving to help create the best possible education ecosystem in the United States. Even more important, we are called to live out our educational callings in our distinct contexts.

Yet, I also want to use this as an opportunity to muse about this role. What if the Senate just confirmed you as the next US Secretary of Education? What would be your priorities? How would you spend your first ninety days? Here is what I would do.

Build a world class team.

This is not a lone ranger endeavor. You need to build a great team. These are people who understand the issues, strive to explore the breadth of possibilities, can engage in systems thinking, are committed to collaboration and coalition building, have bigger ears than they do a mouth, put students and families first, refuse to politicize education, they are deeply curious, they have a love of learning, they think deeply, and they are going to get things done. Some diverse viewpoints and experiences will only make this richer and more impactful.

Revisit the Mission Statement.

This is not a quick and easy task, but the US Department of Education mission statement is outdated. Missions matter, especially if there is leadership committed to focusing upon the core mission and sifting everything (and I mean everything) through that mission statement. Yet, if you read it carefully, I think that you will probably agree that it feels like a relic from the days of the Cold War and the industrial revolution, and it needs revision. Work with the necessary stakeholders to rewrite it and establish a clear set of core values to inform what will shape our work. Then we can build the rest around this mission and values. I know that a US Secretary of Education can just change such things on a whim, but I think this is worth the time and effort to push for change.

Systematically Review Existing Policies.

The current state of federal policies regarding education are often confusing, sometimes conflicting, and often so tied to past or current education practices that they unintentionally inhibit innovation and emerging practices. They are too often established without careful enough attention to unexpected consequences. It is hurting quality and progress. As such, I would engage policymakers, education administrators, teachers, students, parents, and other stakeholders in a robust analysis of the affordances and limitations of existing policies, seeking to surface the problems with certain policies and ways to resolve these policies without also creating loopholes that allow for abuses and a complete lack of accountability. The financial aid program would be an early priority for me.

Clarify Local, State, and Federal Roles.

People talk about protecting all students through federal mandates. Others talk about pushing as many decisions to the state and local level. We need to get everything on the table and assess what belongs where. We will likely discover that there are a small but important number of policies that belong at the federal level, while others are better suited for the state or local level.

Support, Celebrate, Disseminate Educational Innovation and Preparation for Vastly Different Futures in Education.

We need a boost of future-readiness. Whether people think most of the innovation should happen on the hyper-local level, the state, the federal level, in private enterprise, or a mix of them; I see the US Department of Education as well-positioned to be a supporter and champion for educational innovation that empowers all individuals, equipping them to thrive as humans and citizens in a connected age. I would maybe even consider establishing, if possible, a Moonshot Task Force to aid in this effort. We can’t stay tied to existing models and constructs for education too much longer. It is holding us back from creating a better education ecosystem that truly equips people for life and learning in a connected world. Personally, I would love to make the future of credentials and reputation systems a priority and key part of this effort. It is time to move from a faster horse mindset to creating the educational equivalent of the automobile.

Create Conversations About What Really Matters and What Really Works.

We can benefit from having have national, state, and local conversations about what really matters; and this has to get beyond soundbites and political positioning. Our students deserve this, and our definition of “student” needs to broaden extensively. We have existing efforts around this, but I believe that we can be better about how we approach it. We need deep and substantive conversations. Our public knowledge and conversations (even within plenty of schools) are still too often uninformed about important foundational matters and emerging research.

We need to tell better stories and tell them more broadly. We can find powerful ways to tell stories, inspire people to action, deepen our collective knowledge about education, and facilitate the dissemination of quality resources. I’m not talking about a large, bureaucratic federal effort. I’m just talking about using this office to facilitate and amplify all the great work that is already out there.

I know. I’m not the next US Secretary of Education. Yet, these are still the types of priorities that I will push for as I am able. Devos is in and (regardless of a person’s stance before her confirmation) it is now time to get to work.