Biden’s Education secretary must expel the harmful policies of the last four years
Federal Policy

Biden’s Education secretary must expel the harmful policies of the last four years

Faceless dude in a suit coat pictured from the back standing at a lectern addressing a blurry crowd of people.

A spirit of hard-hearted antagonism toward the missions of many federal agencies and the government workers serving them haunts the halls of the buildings along Independence Avenue, perhaps none more so than the Department of Education.

That’s why President Joe Biden has his work cut out as he restores the effectiveness of executive agencies built to serve the interests of the American people.

The next education secretary who strides into that building undoubtedly will have an ambitious agenda, one with almost transcendent importance given the deeply held beliefs Americans hold about education.

Increasing teacher pay, school safety, and racial equity, as well as exploring “free college” options are likely to be topline goals. The next secretary also will have to be a policy expert, surely. Someone who understands the role of teacher. Certainly, an articulate spokesperson for the unique power of education to meet the rapid changes that technology is forcing on education and work.

But to really succeed at the job, the next secretary also needs to be an exorcist.

During the past four years, under Betsy DeVos, we’ve had an Education Department focused more on culture than education—weakening regulations designed to protect sexual assault victims, promoting a “patriotic education commission,” and working to move public dollars into private hands with preferences benefiting for-profit schools and other private entities.

The next secretary must be a leader who can cast aside the demons of such misguided thinking and put money from taxpayers to better use, readying people for work and life after the pandemic. Supporting the ability of Americans to earn livings in increasingly automated workplaces hasn’t been a priority.

Going forward, it must be Job One.

As Biden prepares to govern in unprecedented times, his administration faces huge challenges—as do all Americans. There are the health and economic crises posed by COVID-19, persistent wealth and income inequality, racial inequity and injustice, and threats to democracy, just to name a few.

Clearly, progress won’t happen without pain, and it can’t happen overnight. But there is a way forward. That’s why it’s critical that the next secretary be a shrewd leader and teaching expert steeped in the nuances of strategies and policies that address the needs of today’s students.

Biden’s team already has shared promising proposals for improving education and training. His plans would expand the vital role of community colleges by investing in workforce training and by fostering partnerships among high schools, community colleges, and employers. No doubt first lady Jill Biden will help advance this agenda.

Biden’s proposals seek to make education more affordable through loan forgiveness and by increasing the amount and availability of Pell grants, though some of this agenda may be limited by a divided Congress. The president has also proposed dual-enrollment and workforce programs that can help students to obtain college-level learning—and earn marketable credentials—while still in high school.

These ideas are well worth pursuing, especially as we work to recover from the devastating economic effects of the pandemic. But even amid urgency, how we pursue these ideas matters.

Whatever programs and policies are considered, they must be framed properly, not just for today, but for the future. In short, the steps the Biden team takes—that we all take—must be part of a larger effort to truly transform our systems for education and training. He must empower the agency’s political and career staffers to enable responsible innovation.

In the long term, the overwhelming force driving changes in work is not the pandemic but technology. To succeed in the new workplace, where smart machines and artificial intelligence increasingly dominate, workers must be educated in new ways.

It’s not just that they must be able to adapt to rapid change, though that’s certainly true. What’s more critical is that they’re properly prepared to do human work—that is, the work that cannot be automated away.

In human work, knowledge, and skills matter, but so do capacities such as abstract reasoning, interpersonal communication, empathy, creativity—traits that no algorithm can replicate. Human work also involves serving others, a factor in meeting every person’s need not just to make money, but to build a life of meaning.

This article was originally published in The Hill on Nov. 14, 2020.

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