Serving in D.C.: Been There, Done That

There is something to be said about hindsight. Those clamoring for jobs with the Obama Administration will soon learn on their own about the burdens and brickbats. As a researcher passionate about issues of poverty, low-achievement, and early childhood education, I took the D.C. plunge and joined the Bush Administration at the urging of my daughter. She reminded me that I had "written about it, talked about it"--and "now's your time to do something about it" by going to Washington.

It's a tough town. My position was even tougher. As Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education I was in charge of implementing the then new No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. As anyone knows who inherits a large department of over 250 people, you are graced with some smart, committed civil servants; some not-so-smart but benign individuals; and some out-to-get-you types who stall, stop and reverse any planned reforms. Thankfully, there were some reporters who really sought to understand the complicated issues behind the new reforms. But there were also some nitwits who would just as soon try to ruin your reputation with their half-baked truths. All in all, it truly is the town of a thousand knives.

Here, then, are my list of lessons learned the hard way.

1.) Don't leave educational reform to the feds. The federal bureaucracy is ill-equipped to shape reform. In my stint, the Title I Office (the office that oversees funds aimed at helping high numbers or high percentages of poor children meet state academic standards) had some employees who were well past retirement age. Good-hearted people but not exactly the change-agent types.

2.) Write the re-authorization legislation carefully. NCLB is both poorly implemented and deeply flawed. As a result, there are probably more regulations and revisions to this law than all of the past education bills combined.

3.) Don't insult your clients. Teachers have been blamed, maligned and targeted as failures while it's these very same individuals who are supposedly responsible for school reforms. The next education bill would do well to highlight the many teachers who are changing the odds daily for children in schools, especially in low-income areas.

4.) Listen. Outsiders from research tanks to lobbying groups had evidence that the adequate yearly progress goals of NCLB wouldn't work--that they would vastly overestimate the number of failing schools, and underestimate the number of schools that could be better with only minor tinkering. Instead, the get-tough philosophy has drawn all schools down, giving the false notion that our school systems are not working. They are working for the majority of children.

5.) Poverty trumps everything. It's not the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that is the problem with our schools. It's poverty. Children who come to school unhealthy, hungry, yearning for attention and nurturance can hardly concentrate on learning. We need a broader, bolder approach to reform, one that recognizes the inextricable connections between health, social-emotional development, and cognitive growth and learning.

Given all these lessons learned, I'm often asked, "Would you still take on the challenge of serving in Washington when you did?" The answer is yes. Our children, our country and our future are too important. I wish those packing up and moving to our nation's capital best wishes and much success in making a difference.