A New Culture at the Dept. of Education

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

By now you know I believe that an organization’s culture flows from the top — be it the US of A, where the top would be a man named Obama; a labor union, where some at the top are patriarchal and suspicious, others are egalitarian and collaborative (I’ve experienced both); or a religious community, where the person at the top may foster spirituality or gossipy backbiting (same here.)

This post, from David Kurtz at Talking Points Memo, should bring joy to the heart of anyone interested in the future of education in America.  Kurtz quotes an unnamed but obviously very gruntled federal employee:

I work at the Department of Education headquarters in DC. Today completed our 2-day introduction to Arne Duncan [the new Secretary of Education.] Yesterday he had lunch in our cafeteria (Edibles, ha ha), with his wife and children. His wife wore jeans and a sweater and Arne looked like an average joe in khaki dress pants, white shirt and tie. They stood in all of the lines and talked to anyone who approached them. They probably stayed 90 minutes. It was definitely the highest cafeteria attendance ever.Yesterday afternoon he visited every floor of our building and introduced himself to everyone. We all came out into the hall and he shook everyone’s hand with a “Hi, I’m Arne.”

By the end of the day yesterday, everyone was aglow, since this was already more attention than we’d received from Spellings or Paige. Today, however, was the all-staff meeting, and I can say that the morale in the building increased ten-fold by the end of it.

Our auditorium was beyond packed, with people standing in the aisles. I myself snagged a seat on the floor next to the stage kindergarten-style. Arne stood in front of a blue screen that read “Call me Arne!” in bright yellow letters. He insisted that we call him Arne, rather than Mr. Secretary or anything like that, saying his name was Arne before he got this job and it would be 8 years from now.

I know this isn’t anything earthshattering, but the change in the atmosphere at the Department over the last week has been really astounding. In the past, we all knew that the Secretary had an agenda that she was going to follow, and that we were only there to affirm that her way was best. We really feel that Arne wants to know the truth, whether it fits with his agenda or not.

What can we expect from this new attitude? A greater openness to ideas for educational improvement, more willingness to experiment and innovate. Even if some of those experiments fail, and some innovations come a cropper, the net effect of openness can only be good.

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One Response to “A New Culture at the Dept. of Education”

  1. My sister-in-law is a middle school teacher and her idea of a good administrator is someone who really understands the classroom where the real work of education gets done.     

    Mr. Duncan is not a politician but an education professional.  This look at his way of dealing with people shows me that he values accessibility and communication.  Two things every good teacher holds dear.  I am positively impressed and expect good things to happen in America’s schools under his leadership. 

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