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What is the US Secretary of Education?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The US Secretary of Education is the head of the Department of Education, the federal agency that oversees matters related to education in the United States, from kindergarten to colleges and universities. Because education in the United States is not highly centralized, as it is in many other nations, the scope of the secretary's duties and powers is fairly limited, and the department itself is actually rather controversial. Some conservatives believe that the Department of Education represents unreasonable interference on the part of the federal government, and they would like to see it dismantled.

ED, as it is known colloquially, was established in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter split the then-Department of Health, Education, and Welfare into two separate agencies, creating two Cabinet level positions: the US Secretary of Education, and the US Secretary of Health and Human Services. ED is the smallest cabinet-level agency, with far fewer employees and programs than other agencies at the same rank in government.

Each new president is responsible for appointing a Secretary of Education, with the president typically choosing someone who will support his or her goals for American education. The selection is subject to a Senate confirmation hearing, allowing senators and the people of the United States by extension a chance to reject candidates who might be perceived as unfit. As a cabinet-level official, the Secretary of Education is in line for the succession to the United States presidency, although since the position is ranked 16, it is unlikely that an Education secretary will ever be forced to step into the office.

As a member of the presidential cabinet, the US Secretary of Education is responsible for discussing policy matters relating to education with the president, and for proposing policies which will shape American education. He or she also keeps the president informed about issues in the American education system, ranging from dropout rates to the changing demographics of US colleges.

One of the most important roles of the Department of Education is in the keeping of statistics pertaining to education so that this data can be used to assess the state of education in the country and to identify areas that need improvement. ED also hosts the Department of Federal Student Aid, which provides financial assistance to college students, along with departments that deal with things like special education, English language learners, migrant education, and civil rights in the education field.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon220413 — On Oct 07, 2011

The driving force behind America's lag in education is a social issue. Until we can eradicate the staggering social inequalities our students face, enforcing school "reform" will not bring about the changes we want to see. Children living in poverty have so many needs that are not met on a daily basis, and when we work to meet those needs, they will be in a better position to do well in school.

Did you know that the strongest predictor of high SAT scores is family income? Enforcing more and more standardized testing is only going hurt the kids we need to be helping most.

By PinkLady4 — On Sep 21, 2011

We really ought to take a good hard look at the educational systems in other countries, where education policies are determined by the central government. Countries like Japan, Finland and Germany, have become tops in the world, and their educational systems are much more centralized than the U.S.

We should do some serious research on how other countries approach education. Why are they so far ahead of us? We wouldn't need to adopt every aspect of their system - just adapt them to our philosophy of education. They must have some clue as to what works.

By B707 — On Sep 21, 2011

I gather from reading this article that the Secretary of Education and the Department of Education have very little power as far as educational policy and instituting reforms is concerned.

Our educational system is in dire need of reform. The states are just kind of floundering, trying this and that.

There have been some attempts to try out reforms in school districts. Many of these have been financed by private citizens, like Bill and Melinda Gates and have had positive results.

I would like to see the Department of Education be given more power to set up some criteria to improve education nationwide. There's more to it than testing - we need the best teachers, even if that means letting some go - so teacher evaluation is important.

By KaBoom — On Sep 20, 2011

@ceilingcat - I agree that we need to do something about our education system, but giving some bureaucrat in the government more power just isn't the answer.

Usually the federal government thinks the answer to educational reform is more testing. This is a very bad idea. I remember when they instituted some standardized tests in elementary schools awhile back they found that teachers were "teaching to the test" instead of actually teaching the students what they really need to know.

I think these matters should be left in the hands of the states. I think it would be easier to enact some educational reforms on a smaller scale than on a larger, federal scale.

By ceilingcat — On Sep 19, 2011

I really don't understand why conservatives have such a problem with the Department of Education. If anything, we should be worried about how we lag behind the rest of the world in math and science.

I think we need to give the US Secretary of Education more power. We really need to enact some reforms in our educational system so that our country can keep up in the science and technology sectors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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