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U.S. Department of Education


Christopher T. Cross
M. René Islas

Lenore Yaffee Garcia
Rafael Michael Nevarez


A persistent debate that the United States has struggled with since its early history is the role of the federal government in the education of its citizenry. Much of this debate has played out in battles over the existence of a national government entity focused on education, such as the U.S. Department of Education.

The divisive issue of the federal role in education stems from an ambiguous charge from the nation's founding fathers. On one hand, they generally professed a limited national government organized to secure the national interest, leaving the responsibility of most public operations to state and local government bodies. On the other hand, the founding fathers were very direct in their belief in the unalienable relationship between a well-educated citizenry and a healthy democracy.

For the most part, advocates of a very limited federal government were victorious in maintaining the responsibility of education at the local and state level. The strength behind their argument was that the U.S. Constitution made no mention of a federal role in education. However, opponents cite the constitutional clause that grants the power to provide for the nation's "general welfare" to Congress, as reasoning for a substantial federal role. The result was that for the "first three-quarters of a century of the country's existence, there was no agency in the federal government specifically concerned with education" (National Library of Education website).

History of the Department

In 1867 the U.S. Congress passed legislation to establish the first Department of Education. President Andrew Jackson signed the legislation that created the department, which was to be a non-cabinet-level agency with a mission of improving American education by disseminating sound education information to local-and state-level authorities. Henry Barnard, a dedicated scholar of education reform, became the first commissioner of the Department of Education; he was given a small staff of three and two rooms in Washington, D.C., to run the agency.

Barnard accepted the challenge and believed that American education, especially practitioners at the state and local level, would benefit from having sound information, data, research, and best practices to emulate. Barnard was responsible for collecting a great deal of data about the nation's schools and disseminating it to practitioners. He focused the department on producing scholarly reports and research to provide a context for education. Despite the miniscule staff, resources, and power that the Department of Education carried, Barnard achieved some success in achieving his mission. However, Congressional opposition did not agree that Barnard's academic approach was cost-effective, charging that the department had become a waste of national resources.

As a result, "the annual appropriations act approved by Congress on July 20, 1868 reduced the funding for the education agency and stated that after June 30, 1869, it would lose its independent status and become the Office of Education within the Department of Interior" (National Library of Education website). Soon thereafter, in 1870, the education agency was renamed the Bureau of Education, and Barnard became discouraged about the new direction and resigned.

Barnard's successor, John Eaton, was immediately appointed as commissioner of the Bureau of Education. Eaton continued Barnard's interest in collecting education statistics, publications, and reports, and in disseminating them to local and state education authorities. In fact, Eaton, recognizing the value of the library collection owned by Barnard and housed in the Bureau of Education, decided to purchase the collection for the Bureau of Education's library. Eaton emphasized the importance of the collection of resources by appointing a librarian and pushing to grow the collection despite a lack of funding support by Congress.

Additionally, Eaton maintained the emphasis on collecting statistics. He realized that there was much to be collected, and he continued Barnard's charge, with some success. In an 1875 report, Eaton stated:

When the work of collecting educational statistics was begun by the Office, it was found that there was no authentic list of the colleges in the United States, or of academies, or normal schools, or schools of science, law, or medicine, or of any other class of education institutions. The lists of nearly all grades of schools are now nearly complete. Information on all other matters relating to educational systems was equally incomplete and difficult to access. (quoted in Grant)

From 1889 to 1906 the Department of Interior's Bureau of Education continued its focus on collecting and diffusing education information and statistics in the United States. William Torrey Harris was the commissioner during this period, and data collection was greatly expanded. It included private elementary and secondary school enrollment, teachers, and graduates; enrollment by subject field in public high schools; public school revenue receipts by source; and income and value of physical plants of institutions of higher education. The bureau continued along the same path of substantial growth under commissioners such as Eaton, Harris, and Elmer Ellsworth Brown (1906–1911) until 1929, when the Bureau of Education once again became the Office of Education. In 1929 Commissioner of Education William John Cooper took over the newly renamed Office of Education, which was still residing in the Department of the Interior. Cooper maintained the focus on collecting materials for the library.

In 1939 the Office of Education underwent yet another reorganization. This time it was not a cosmetic name change but an actual restructuring. The Office of Education was moved out of the Department of Interior and made part of a new agency called the Federal Security Agency (FSA). The office was granted more autonomy under the reorganization under the direction of another ambitious commissioner of education, John Studebaker.

In 1953, early in the Eisenhower administration, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) was established by merging parts of the Federal Security Agency, including the Office of Education, with related functions in other parts of the government. During the 1950s, more funds became available for education due to political and social circumstances. The United States began to take global competitors seriously, and the government was reminded by the Soviet Union's launch of the satellite Sputnik that educating the nation's youth was vital to remaining a world power. The National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958, a direct result of the furor surrounding the launching of Sputnik, created major federal education programs in mathematics, science, and foreign languages. When President Lyndon Johnson came into office in 1963, he made education a central element of the War on Poverty, which led to the passage of the Higher Education Act (1965) and the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, 1965).

The National Education Association (NEA), the national teachers' union, was a major player in American politics at that time, and the organization was rewarded for its political support with the creation of the cabinet-level U.S. Department of Education in 1980. The decision to raise the status of education to a cabinet-level position was one that did not come without controversy and an interesting series of events.

Independence Achieved

The Carter administration proposed the creation of the Department of Education in 1978, despite the active opposition of HEW secretary Joe Califano. While it easily passed the Senate, due to strong advocates such as Abraham Ribicoff (the Democratic senator from Connecticut) and Jacob Javits (a Republican from New York) the bill faced a tough fight in the House of Representatives. Under House rules, the bill was referred to the Government Operations Committee, where a coalition of Republicans led by John Erlenborn (R-Ill.) and Leo Ryan (DCalif.) kept the bill from being reported out of committee for full House consideration.

At the end of that session of Congress, Representative Ryan led a delegation to Jonestown, Guyana, to investigate reports of a cult leader, Jim Jones, and his influence on young Americans, many from Ryan's district. Following his meetings, Ryan and four others were murdered as he and his delegation returned to their small planes. When the Congress reconvened in January, the Democratic opposition collapsed in the committee and the bill finally passed the House by the very close margin of 210 to 206. President Carter soon thereafter nominated federal judge Shirley Hufstedler from California as the first secretary of the new department. The department formally came into existence on May 4, 1980. In November, Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan and Hufstedler left office in January. She was replaced by Reagan nominee Terrel Bell.

In the Carter proposal to create the department, it was anticipated that schools operated by the U.S. Department of Defense on and near overseas military bases would be transferred to the new Department of Education. The legislation scheduled the transfer for several years in the future. Prior to that date, Congress intervened and amended the section of the law deleting the provision to transfer Department of Defense schools to the Department of Education. This was a notable action because it reduced the staff size of the agency by nearly half and removed the department from any direct involvement in operating those schools.

Because Reagan had campaigned on a platform that called for dissolving the U.S. Department of Education, Bell operated under severe handicaps: the budget was cut; there was a major consolidation of programs, and a significant downsizing of staff. While Bell was presiding over a department that the White House wanted to dismantle, he took one action that ensured the continued existence of the department. In 1981 he created the National Commission on Excellence in Education, chaired by David Gardner, then president of the University of Utah and later president of the University of California. In 1983 this little-noticed commission issued a report titled A Nation at Risk. Using rhetoric in an extraordinarily powerful fashion, this report, which coined the phrase, "a rising tide of mediocrity," captured the attention first of the White House, and then of the nation.

A Nation at Risk led to the publication of a tidal wave of similar reports, a wave that swept ashore in 1989 when the George H. W. Bush administration held the first joint White House/Governors summit since the Great Depression. That summit led to the creation of National Education Goals, a renewed status and respect for the department, and an ambitious agenda that largely reversed the declines of the first Reagan administration. It was at this point that President Bush appointed a former governor, Tennessee's Lamar Alexander, as the first political leader of the department. Alexander followed Lauro Cavazos, who had followed William Bennett upon Bell's departure in 1984.

The political leadership of the agency continued when Bill Clinton defeated George Bush in 1992 and appointed another former southern governor, Richard Riley of South Carolina, to the secretariat. Riley stayed at the department the entire Clinton presidency, thereby establishing himself as the longestserving education secretary and creating a record achieved in few other agencies. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Rod Paige, then the Houston superintendent of schools, as secretary of education, returning the department to leadership from the education field.

The Department Focuses Its Mission

With the creation of the Department of Education, education became a prominent national issue. The department's major functions were to establish policy for administrators and coordinate most federal assistance to education. According to the Department of Education Organization Act (1979), Congress set out to accomplish seven things by creating the department:

  1. Strengthen the federal commitment to ensuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual.
  2. Supplement and complement the efforts of states, local school systems (and other instrumentalities of the states), the private sector, public and private educational institutions, public and private nonprofit educational research institutions, communitybased organizations, parents, and students to improve the quality of education.
  3. Encourage the increased involvement of the public, parents, and students in federal education programs.
  4. Promote improvements in the quality and usefulness of education through federally supported research, evaluation, and sharing of information.
  5. Improve the coordination of federal education programs.
  6. Improve the management and efficiency of federal education activities, especially with respect to process and procedural funds, as well as the reduction of unnecessary and duplicative burdens and constraints, including unnecessary paperwork, on the recipients of federal funds.
  7. Increase the accountability of federal education programs to the president, the Congress, and the public.

In developing its own mission, the Department of Education identified its own basic responsibilities:

  1. Establish policies relating to financial aid for education, administer distribution for these funds, and monitor their use.
  2. Collect data and oversee research on America's schools, and disseminate this information to the public.
  3. Identify major issues and problems in education and focus attention on these problems.
  4. Enforce federal statues prohibiting discrimination in programs and activities receiving federal funds and ensure equal access to education.

Organizational Structure

The Department of Education is a horizontally and vertically differentiated agency organized into four levels: management and staff, operations, external relations, and program offices. Each level of the department has its own offices and individual mission that contributes to the attainment of its four stated goals.

Management and staff. The secretary of education is responsible for the overall direction, supervision, and coordination of all activities of the department and is the principal adviser to the president on federal policies, programs, and activities related to education in the United States. The deputy secretary serves as the principal policy adviser to the secretary on all major program and management issues, including student financial assistance. The deputy secretary is also responsible for the internal management and daily operations of the department. The under secretary is responsible for oversight of policy development and administration of the Budget Service and the Planning and Evaluation Service.

The Office of the General Counsel is under the supervision of the general counsel, who serves as principal adviser to the secretary on all legal matters affecting departmental programs and activities. The office has three legal practice areas, each of which is headed by a deputy general counsel, and an operation management staff, headed by an executive officer.

The Office of the Inspector General's mission is to promote the efficiency, effectiveness, and integrity of the department's programs and operations; conduct independent and objective audits, investigations, and inspections; and other activities. The Office of Public Affairs develops the department's communications and outreach strategy, coordinates communication with members of the national and local media, directs the department's speechwriting and publications operations, and oversees its in-house television channel and radio news service.

The Executive Management Committee meets each week to discuss and advise the deputy secretary on decisions about the overall management of the agency and the implementation of its initiatives. Its members are all senior offices whose central purpose is management of the agency.

Operations. The Office of Management is the department's administrative component and is dedicated to promoting customer services, expanding staff performance capacity, using strategic approaches to management, and providing a high-quality workplace for the department.

The Office of the Chief Financial Officer is headed by the chief financial officer, whose primary responsibilities involve supervising the activities of major components and serving as the principal adviser to the secretary on all matters related to discretionary grant-making, cooperative agreements, and procurement, as well as financial management, financial control, and accounting. The office's mission is to provide accurate, timely, and useful grant, contract, and financial management information and services to all of the department's stakeholders.

The Office of the Chief Information Officer develops technological strategies and solutions that enable the Department of Education to provide worldclass service to schools, students, and their families.

External relations. The mission of the Office of Legislative and Congressional Affairs is to serve as the principal adviser to the secretary on education and other legislative matters before the Congress, and as the department's liaison in responding to the needs of Congress. The Office of Intergovernmental and Interagency Affairs works with government officials at federal, state, and local levels–as well as with educators, business and community leaders, parents and families, and religious leaders–to encourage their support for the improvement of American schools.

Program offices. The Office of Postsecondary Education is responsible for formulating federal postsecondary education policy and administering programs that provide assistance to postsecondary education institutions and to students pursuing programs of postsecondary education.

The Office of Student Financial Assistance Programs is a performance-based organization (PBO) established as part of the Higher Education Amendments of 1998 to modernize the delivery of student financial aid and improve service to millions of students and the postsecondary institutions they attend. In fiscal year 1998, some 8 million students received more than $46 billion in federal financial aid.

The mission of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education is to promote academic excellence, enhance educational opportunities and equity for all of America's children and families, and to improve the quality of teaching and learning by providing leadership, technical assistance, and financial support. The office is responsible for directing, coordinating, and recommending policy for programs designed to: (1) assist state and local educational agencies to improve the achievement of elementary and secondary school students; (2) help ensure equal access to services leading to such improvement for all children, particularly children who are educationally disadvantaged, Native American, homeless, or children of migrant workers; (3) foster educational improvement at the state and local levels; (4) and provide financial assistance to local educational agencies whose local revenues are affected by federal activities.

The Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) provides national leadership for educational research and statistics. OERI strives to promote excellence and equity in American education by conducting research and demonstration projects funded through grants to help improve education; collecting statistics on the status and progress of schools and education throughout the nation; and distributing information and providing technical assistance to those working to improve education. OERI houses the National Center for Education Statistics, the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data that are related to education in the United States and other nations.

The Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs (OBEMLA) provides national leadership in promoting high-quality education for the nation's population of English language learners (ELLs). Traditionally, this population has been known as limited English proficient (LEP) students. OBEMLA's mission is to include various elements of school reform in programs designed to assist the language minority agenda. These include an emphasis on high academic standards, an improvement of school accountability, an emphasis on professional development, the promotion of family literacy, the encouragement of early reading, and the establishment of partnerships between parents and the community. OBEMLA administers grant programs that help every child learn English and content matter at high levels. It also provides leadership ensuring that policy-related decisions focus principally on the best interests of the ELL child; collaborates with other federal, state and local programs to strengthen and coordinate services for ELLs and promote best practices; monitors funded programs; and provides technical assistance to ensure that funded programs focus on outcomes and accountability.

The Office of Vocational and Adult Education has the mission to help all people achieve the knowledge and skills to be lifelong learners, to be successful in their chosen careers, and to be effective citizens. The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services' mission is to provide leadership to achieve full integration and participation in society of people with disabilities by ensuring equal opportunity and access to, and excellence in, education, employment and community living. In implementing this mission, the office supports programs that help educate children and youth with disabilities, provides for the rehabilitation of youth and adults with disabilities, and supports research to improve the lives of individuals with disabilities.

The mission of the Office for Civil Rights is to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation through vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws.


U.S. CONGRESS. 1979. Department of Education Organization Act Conference Report. 96th Congress, 1st session, S. Report 96-326.

VINOVSKIS, MARIS A. 1999. The Road to Charlottesville. Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel.


GRANT, W. VANCE. 2001. "Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education: Highlights from the Past 120 Years." <http://nces.ed.gov/publications/majorpub/120yr/porhigh.txt>.

MURPHY, RETHA. 1995. "U.S. Department of Education." <http://mailer.fsu.edu/~kshelfer/busrefpapers/edu.htm>.

NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION. "General Records of the Department of Education." <www.nara.gov/guide/rg441.html>.

NATIONAL LIBRARY OF EDUCATION. 2001. "History: National Library of Education." 2001. <www.ed.gov/NLE/histearly.html>.



Although the primary mission of the U.S. Department of Education is a domestic one, the department also sponsors international programs, cooperates with other nations, and participates in international organizations, studies, and events. This international role has grown over time with the heightened relevance of global developments for U.S. citizens in an increasingly interdependent world, and the growing awareness of the part played by education in fostering economic, social, and personal development, and in sustaining democracy.

Within these contexts, the department facilitates efforts by U.S. educators, students, researchers, and policymakers to forge partnerships with counterparts abroad who have common interests. The department engages in a variety of international activities with three primary objectives: to strengthen U.S. education, to increase U.S. international expertise, and to facilitate the exchange of information and building of knowledge about education worldwide.

The department's international cooperation helps educators and policymakers understand how U.S. educational performance compares with that of other countries. It also provides information on effective educational policies and practices abroad. The department coordinates U.S. participation in both international assessments of student achievement and the development of internationally comparable educational statistics. Other activities focus on analyzing other countries' best practices in areas in which there have been positive results, as well as learning alongside other nations through joint studies and research projects, on topics ranging from mathematics instruction to migrant education, and from early childhood education to rehabilitation services. Educators and policymakers use such information to improve educational practice in the United States. Other programs support U.S. educational institutions' efforts to build strong partnerships with counterpart institutions abroad.

Through its international activities and grant programs, including those authorized by Title VI of the Higher Education Act and the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961, the department supports efforts to expand the study of the languages and societies of other nations, as well as opportunities for U.S. students and teachers to study and carry out research abroad. Such programs help U.S. citizens develop a broader understanding of, and communicate more effectively with, other nations, and contribute to national security by developing experts on regions of the world that are of strategic importance to the United States. A significant proportion of U.S. students studying abroad receive financial aid from the department.

The department represents the U.S. government in education-related matters at international meetings and conferences, and provides expertise to the U.S. government's foreign affairs and foreign assistance agencies on matters related to education policy and practice. In doing so, it helps to (1) stimulate discussion and research on topics of priority to the United States; (2) increase the participation of U.S. experts in international policy dialogues; (3) build mutual understanding on social issues with other nations; and (4) improve education both at home and abroad. New technologies facilitate these efforts.

Foreign demand for information regarding U.S. education policy and practices results in frequent information exchanges between the department and colleagues in other countries. The department also receives foreign visitors who request to meet with their counterparts to learn about education in the United States. Visitors (more than 1,500 in the year 2000) range from ministers of education and senior policy advisors to school administrators, teachers, members of legislatures, the press, and the private sector. Many others obtain information on U.S. education via the department's web-based resources.


PETERSON, TERRY; GINSBURG, ALAN; GARCIA, LENORE; and LEMKE, MARIANN. 2000. "Educational Diplomacy: Using the Untapped Opportunities of International Education." Education Week November 22, 48.



OPEN DOORS ON THE WEB. 2001. "Senate Resolution on International Education Policy for the United States." <www.opendoorsweb.org/Lead%20Stories/National_Policy_Resolution.htm>.



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