The State of Public Education

Since the 1979 creation of the U.S. Department of Education, there have been seven secretaries of education. In February, five of the six living secretaries came to Duke for an Education Leadership Summit, a discussion of the state of public education.

Part of a yearlong celebration of 150 years of teacher preparation at Duke, the summit brought current Secretary of Education Roderick Paige together with former secretaries Lamar Alexander, William Bennett, Lauro Cavazos, and Richard Riley. While the secretaries brought various experiences and ideologies to the table, the meeting was notable as much for its point of agreement--public education needs fixing--as for the civil disagreements about accountability and testing.

As the sitting secretary, Paige spoke extensively about the Bush administration's education agenda, which had been largely codified by the January signing of the No Child Left Behind Act, a $26-billion federal education bill that included mandates for broader educational testing, increased local control, character education, greater tutoring for children in failing schools, and stricter accountability.

" 'No Child Left Behind' helps us look at schools, governance, and the federal role in education the right way," Paige said. "It reminds us that the goal of schools is not diplomas, but educated citizens, and it assures us that the responsibility for student performance lies not just with educators, but also with communities.

"In order to eliminate the achievement gap and improve student performance across the board, we must hold educators accountable to the bold proposition that every child can learn. There is no middle ground for excuses. Either educators believe that every child can learn, or they do not. When they begin to make excuses for our children based on race or socioeconomics, those who make excuses--and our children--fall prey to what [President Bush] calls 'the soft bigotry of low expectations.' "

Paige said the new law mandates more educational testing, and defended that position. "The 'No Child Left Behind' law is all about discovering and disseminating the information about student performance that assessments will provide. Test scores will be disaggregated by poverty, race, ethnicity, disability, and limited English proficiency so that we can see where the achievement gap exists and attack it so that no group is neglected. School districts and schools that fail to make adequate progress toward statewide goals will, over time, be subject to improvement, corrective action, and restructuring measures aimed at getting them back on course to meet state standards."

The theme of character education was reinforced by Bennett, who has spent the years since his Reagan-era service as a public moralist and think-tank director. Despite opposition to morality-based teaching, he said, children must be educated in values--values that should be inculcated by their teachers. "If you want people to learn about morality, then you put them in the presence of people who embody morality."

Riley, secretary of education during all eight years of the Clinton administration, became the lone Democrat at the summit when Shirley Hufstedler, President Carter's appointee, was forced to cancel her appearance at the last minute. Responding to the Bush agenda, Riley called for caution and the establishment of clear, across-the-board standards by which to judge accountability. "I believe in standards," he said, "but not standardization."

Alexander, a former Tennessee governor whose tenure as education secretary was followed by two runs for the White House, departed from the more traditional Republican local-control stance by repeating his longstanding call for broad, federal, G.I.-Bill-like legislation that would improve the quality and accessibility of primary and secondary education on a nationwide level.

His concerns were echoed to a large degree by Cavazos, who became the first Hispanic cabinet secretary when he was tapped by Ronald Reagan in 1988. Like Alexander, Cavazos spoke with passion about the need to revitalize public education and about his perception of lack of progress in doing so. "When appointed, I believed that the future depended on what happened in the schoolhouse, and that there was no more important job than the education of our children. I still hold that belief today.

"Perhaps my major achievement as secretary, and the principal issue that confronted me during my tenure, was my involvement, with others, in the establishment of the national education performance goals."

Those goals were:

  • That every child start school ready to learn;
  • To increase the high-school graduation rate to at least 90 percent;
  • To teach students to competency over challenging subject matter, including active thinking and problem-solving skills;
  • To take students beyond competency to supremacy in mathematics and science;
  • To ensure that every adult American be literate and prepared for lifelong learning;
  • To create an environment conducive to learning by making schools free of drugs and violence and instilling discipline in the classroom.

"Informally," Cavazos said after discussing these goals, "I added a seventh goal--that by the year 2000, every child be educated to his or her fullest potential.... My greatest disappointment has been that in spite of the work of many, we did not reach our six education goals by the year 2000. I am hopeful, however, that they may be attained in the near future."

Cavazos drew applause from many in the audience of educators and students when he addressed the subject of testing. "The use of high-stakes testing has become fashionable in our states today," he said. "Many schools already emphasize test-taking, and some 'teach to the test.' With the federal government stepping into the testing business, there may be more schools focusing on how to take tests than what every student should learn.

"Other factors to measure student achievement can be used. We need to examine critically whatever assessment tools we use, and work to identify measures that are reliable and recognize and reward excellence."

Finally, Cavazos spoke of the future of education. "I sense a remarkable consensus on the kinds of changes needed to improve our schools," he said. "Schools of the future will involve parents, will enhance the empowerment of principals and teachers, will have an emphasis on early childhood education, and will strengthen curricula in mathematics, science, English, foreign language, and the social sciences.

"Most of all, the schools of the future will have more sensitivity to the differing needs of an increasingly diverse population. I do believe that as a nation concerned with the education of our children, we have the courage and imagination to risk doing something new in education, to move beyond 'more of the same,' and to educate our children in a different and productive fashion."

Cavazos listed several recent proposals for education reform, including academic choice in the public schools, charter schools, voucher proposals, and home schooling. "It is possible that all of these strategies are viable and can enhance the education of our children," he said. "I urge, however, that we continue to focus on improving our public elementary and secondary schools.

"Voucher programs, charter schools, and home schooling tend to take attention, funds, and students away from the public school system. My hope for the future is that we especially focus on ways to improve our urban public schools. We must not abandon them, but continue to restructure them and grow them to academic excellence."

"There is no need to create a new system of schools," he concluded. "We once had the finest public elementary and secondary schools in the world. We can again."

A different decision was reached a couple of years ago by John Aldrich, a Duke political science professor. Aldrich came to Duke in 1987 from a University of Minnesota political science department that, in his view, appeared to be stagnating. Duke's department "was trying to build a national reputation, which, according to professional rankings, we now have." Since then, Aldrich has published prolifically, won various awards, held leadership roles in professional associations, and trained numerous graduate students.

In 1996-97, he had just finished a stint as chair of political science at Duke. While spending a sabbatical leave researching and teaching in Harvard's government department, he learned that Harvard was considering him for a permanent position--right around the same time that he was awarded an endowed chair at Duke, the Pfizer-Pratt Professorship. ("To be recognized by my peers in this way was and is very important to me," he says.) The next academic year, Harvard extended an offer. Meanwhile, Aldrich's book Why Parties? The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America had been named "best book in U.S. national policy" by the American Political Science Association.

It took almost a year for Aldrich to think through the offer; he ended up turning it down. During that period, one of his friends left Harvard's government department for Stanford. Another outside scholar targeted by Harvard, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also decided to stay put. Part of what was playing out at Harvard, Aldrich says, was a tension between traditional and quantitatively oriented political scientists. The Harvard Crimson, making public the unsuccessful effort to lure Aldrich, lamented that "faculty members find it easier and easier to leave the university for other schools, or simply to turn down the offer to come to Cambridge in the first place."

During the negotiations, Aldrich pressed Duke less for personal advantages than for program enhancements, he says. One outcome was the creation of the American Political Research Group. A joint effort between Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, the group supports collaborative teaching, organizes seminars with outside speakers, and helps graduate students by, among other things, posting academic job listings.

Given the cost-of-living reality in Cambridge, salary lures didn't weigh heavily in his thinking, says Aldrich. He had a different reaction to Harvard's departmental dynamics than Keyssar. "One of the things that I disliked about Harvard was that the sense of intellectual community was limited. There were groups that should have been collaborating and that just didn't talk with each other. Interdisciplinary collaborative work is more difficult there than a lot of places. It's much easier here than a lot of places: Duke seems to have an open intellectual community, and it's easy to put things together across fields within political science, across the social sciences, across the colleges."


Putting things together across a single department has been the key concern for Maureen Quilligan. She arrived at Duke two years ago as the Florence Professor and chair of the English department. She had been the Bryson Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, and earlier had taught at Yale. A scholar of the Renaissance, with a particular interest in women and literature, Quilligan is the author of three books and has edited two volumes of essays.

Asked why she made the choice to join Duke, Quilligan laughs--it's a conventional question to which she knows she'll give an unconventional response--and says, "I felt it was an act of professional duty. I could be of more use at Duke than I could be at the University of Pennsylvania." Quilligan talks about wanting to help in healing a "community in pain."

Duke's English department had received unflattering attention from a variety of directions. The New York Times had published a front-page article focusing on the fracturing of a once-heralded program; an external review committee reportedly characterized the department's condition as "seriously weakened" and suggesting a "personnel emergency." The department had been plagued by intense intellectual disagreements, signaled by the moves to other places of many of the high-profile hires made under a former chair, Stanley Fish. "It was absolutely a duty to a profession that had supported me," Quilligan says of her Duke decision. (As an undergraduate student at Berkeley, she had been taught by Fish.) "This was an important English department to save. If I was the one who looked like I was in the best position to help it save itself--and I think that's exactly what it's done--then I couldn't say no. It was a very moral and political and possibly even spiritual demand."

Quilligan sees the department as an intellectual community that collectively is figuring out its direction, even as each new hire potentially changes that direction. As she puts it, "We're going to recruit a group of people who can work together. And then we'll figure out what we are, through a shared conversation that has people speaking beyond their specific idiosyncratic specialties."

English is searching for scholars to fill slots in medieval, nineteenth-century, and early American literary studies. After listening to the candidates in invited presentations and getting to know them in informal circumstances, the department as a whole will make those choices collectively, she says. The idea isn't so much to find a fit for a neat definition of teaching and scholarly background. Quilligan says, "We're not looking to satisfy certain preconceived notions of what an English department ought to look like." Rather, department members are aiming to select "those people who it feels will have the greatest contribution to make to the group and who will profit the most from the group." The department is "constantly being raided," but so far it has withstood the "immense number of outside offers," Quilligan says. "I think people who have stuck around are sticking around for the conversation, just as the people who are coming here are coming here for the conversation."

In a single year, two relatively new faculty members in English, now associate professors, won book prizes from the Modern Language Association: Ian Baucom and Srinivas Aravamudan. To Quilligan, that distinction points to the intellectual energy fostered by recent recruits. Musing about her hoped-for legacy as department chair, she says her main indication of success will be "that the department can happily have any one of its members as chair after this."

Such an observation points to the main measure of "faculty development": a community of colleagues, bound together by shared conversation--and perhaps even by pizza. In the overall university budget, the faculty category is an awfully big slice. For the current fiscal year, faculty salaries (excluding the medical center) come to $78,686,935; fringe benefits are estimated to consume an additional 22.9 percent of that figure. And each time Duke adds a faculty member (in the sciences especially), the startup cost is $500,000 to a million dollars. As Quilligan's concept of her role and her goal suggests, community is an academic ideal. But it's an expensive ideal.

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