Education Department

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Education Department

Created in 1980, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) is the cabinet-level agency that establishes policy for, administers, and coordinates most federal assistance to education. It is directed by the secretary of education, who assists the president of the United States by executing policies and implementing laws enacted by Congress.

The DOE has six major responsibilities: (1) providing national leadership and building partnerships to address critical issues in U.S. education; (2) serving as a national clearing-house of ideas on schools and teaching; (3) helping families pay for college; (4) helping local communities and schools meet the most pressing needs of their students; (5) preparing students for employment in a changing economy; and (6) ensuring non-discrimination for recipients of federal education funds.

Although the current DOE has existed for only a short time, its history dates back to 1867, when President Andrew Johnson signed legislation creating the first education department as a non-cabinet-level, autonomous agency. Within one year, the department was demoted to the office of education because Congress feared that it would exercise too much control over local schools. Since the Constitution did not specifically mention education, Congress declared that the secretary of education and other officials should be prohibited from exercising direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, instructional programs, administration, or personnel of any educational institution. Such matters are the responsibility of states, localities, and private institutions.

Over the next several decades the office of education remained small, operating under different titles and housed in various government agencies, including the U.S. department of the interior and the former U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the U.S. department of health and human services).

Beginning in 1950, political and social changes resulted in greatly expanded federal aid to education. The Soviet Union's successful launch of the satellite Sputnik in 1957 resulted in an increase in aid for improved education in the sciences. President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty in the 1960s involved many programs to improve education for poor people. In the 1970s, these programs were expanded to include members of racial minorities, women, individuals with disabilities, and non-Englishspeaking students.

In October 1979, Congress passed the Department of Education Organization Act (93 Stat. 668 [20 U.S.C.A. § 3508]), which established the current Department of Education. Since that time, the DOE has continued to expand its duties by taking an active role in education reform. In 1983, the DOE published A Nation at Risk, a report that described the deficiencies of U.S. schools, stating that mediocrity, not excellence, was the norm in public education. This led to the development in 1990 of a long-range plan to reform U.S. education by the year 2000.

Called America 2000: An Educational Strategy, the plan has eight goals: (1) all children will start school ready to learn by participating in preschool programs; (2) the high-school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent; (3) all students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, art, history, and geography; (4) teachers will have opportunities to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for preparing students for the twenty-first century; (5) students will be first in the world in mathematic and science achievement; (6) every adult will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy; (7) every school will be free of drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol; and (8) every school will promote partnerships to increase parental involvement in the social, emotional, and academic growth of children.

Many of the goals of this educational initiative were praised by some educators, although the initiative was not without its skeptics. Its proposals called for revolutionary reforms in educational systems across the United States at a relatively low cost. Proponents of the program also claimed the program would end complacency in the educational systems, would allow employers to hire more qualified teachers, and would dramatically increase student achievement.

One aspect of the America 2000 program was that federal spending on K-12 education increased from over $9 billion in 1990 to almost $18 billion in 2000. Nevertheless, the promise of massive improvements in student achievement never came to fruition. Mathematics and reading scores only increased slightly from 1996 to 2000, while proficiency in science actually decreased during the same time period.

President george w. bush premised much of his campaign in 2000 on educational reform. Among the more striking statistics he cited related to the teachers in American schools. For instance, only about forty percent of mathematics teachers had studied math in college, while one-fifth of the nation's students in English classes were taught by instructors who did not hold a major or minor in English.

On January 8, 2002, Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, 115 Stat. 1425 (20 U.S.C.A. §§ 6301 et seq.). Supporters of the act promised a major reform in national educational policy. The over-all goal of the Act is to "ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain high-quality education…" Moreover, the Act is designed to allow children to achieve higher proficiency on achievement tests and other assessments.

The act requires every state to test students in grades three through eight in mathematics and reading. By 2007, states will be required to test science as well. Testing has been a major issue among educators due in part to the anxiety it causes among students. Moreover, many claim that achievement tests are often flawed and that they may disfavor minorities and low-income children. Proponents of the Act, however, point out that testing is one of the few recognized methods for measuring student abilities, and that standardized testing ensures that children are not failing because they attend a failing school.

Additional provisions provide funding to prepare and train teachers and principals. The act also promotes use of scientifically-based reading instruction and stresses the importance of using established instructional methods. These provisions have likewise been subject to criticism, as detractors claim that forcing schools to adopt stringent educational models inhibits development of effective methods by individual teachers. Supporters note that many independent efforts fail and that the people that suffer from such failures are the students.

Additional provisions of the No Child Left Behind initiative focus upon safer schools, including provisions that allow parents to remove children from unsafe schools; improvements of academic achievement of the disadvantaged; enhancements in language instruction; promotion of informed parental choices; and flexibility and accountability in education.

In the 1860s, federal education had a budget of $15,000 and 4 employees to handle education fact-finding. By 1965, the Office of Education employed 2,113 employees and had a budget of $1.5 billion. In 1995, the DOE administered about $33 billion, or about two percent of all federal spending, and had 4,900 employees, making it the smallest cabinet agency.

The DOE's elementary and secondary education programs annually serve fifteen thousand local school districts and almost 50 million students attending more than eighty-four thousand public schools and twenty-four thousand private schools. Approximately 7 million post-secondary students receive grant, loan, and work-study assistance. From 1975 to 1995, approximately 40 million students attended college on student financial aid programs. An additional 4 million adults received assistance each year to attend literacy classes and upgrade their skills to further their employment goals.

Although the nation spends about $500 billion a year on education for elementary to post-secondary education, the federal government contributes only eight percent of that amount. Federal funding helps approximately one of every two students pay for post-secondary education, and approximately four of five disadvantaged elementary and secondary school students receive special assistance.


The organizational structure of the DOE is made up of the offices of a number of administrative officials, including a secretary, deputy secretary, and under secretary; seven program offices; and seven staff offices. Reporting directly to the secretary are the deputy secretary, under-secretary, general counsel, inspector general, and public affairs director. All other staff offices and program offices are under the jurisdiction of the deputy secretary.

Offices of the Secretary

The secretary of education advises the president of the United States on federal education plans, policies, and programs. The secretary directs department officials in carrying out these programs and activities and serves as the chief spokesperson for public affairs, promoting public understanding of the DOE's goals, objectives, and programs.

The secretary also performs certain federal responsibilities for four federally aided corporations. The American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky, distributes Braille books, talking books, and other educational aids without cost to educational institutions for blind people. Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C., provides a liberal arts education for deaf persons. Howard University, also in Washington, D.C., is a comprehensive university that offers instruction in seventeen schools and colleges, and was established primarily to support African-American students. The National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a division of the Rochester Institute of Technology, located in Rochester, New York, provides educational programs that focus on careers and are geared towards helping hearing-impaired individuals obtain marketable skills in a society that increasingly relies on technology.

The deputy secretary serves as the principal policy adviser to the secretary on all major program and management issues and is responsible for the department's internal management and daily operations. The deputy oversees the Executive Management Committee and the Reinvention Coordination Council, coordinates federal-state relations, and serves as acting secretary in the secretary's absence.

The undersecretary advises the secretary on matters relating to program plans and budget. Through the Planning and Evaluation Service and the Budget Service, this officer directs, coordinates, and recommends policy and administers analytical studies on the economic, social, and institutional effect of existing and proposed policies, legislative proposals, and program operations.

Program Offices

Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs The Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs funds programs designed to help persons with limited English proficiency participate effectively in classrooms and work environments in which English is the primary language. This is accomplished through fourteen grant programs and one formula grant program, as well as through contracts for research and evaluation, technical assistance, and clearinghouse activities.

Civil Rights The Civil Rights Office enforces federal statutes that prohibit discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, age, or handicapping condition in education programs receiving federal financial assistance. Civil rights laws extend to a wide range of educational institutions, including every school district, college, and university as well as proprietary schools, libraries, museums, and correctional facilities.

Educational Research and Improvement The primary function of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement is to gather, analyze, and make available to the public statistical and other types of information about the condition of U.S. education. This is accomplished through the dissemination of information and research findings about successful education practices, student achievements, and nationally significant model projects. The office also supports a wide range of research and development activities and promotes the use of technology in education.

Elementary and Secondary Education The Office of Elementary and Secondary Education formulates policy for, directs, and coordinates activities relating to preschool, elementary, and secondary education. Grants and contracts are awarded to state educational agencies, local school districts, post-secondary schools, and nonprofit organizations for compensatory, migrant, and Indian programs; drug-free programs; other school improvement programs; and impact aid, which compensates school districts for the loss of property taxes for students who live on federally owned property such as military bases or Indian reservations.

Post-secondary Education The Post-secondary Education Office formulates policy and directs and coordinates programs for assistance to post-secondary institutions and to students who need financial assistance to attend college or a vocational training center. Financial aid is awarded in the form of grants, loans, and jobs. In addition, this office provides support for institutional development, student services, housing and facilities, veterans' affairs, cooperative education, international and graduate education, colleges for African-Americans, foreign language and area studies, and innovative teaching methods and practices.

Special Educational and Rehabilitation Services The Office of Special Educational and Rehabilitation Services supports programs that help educate children with special needs, provides for the rehabilitation of youths and adults with disabilities, and supports research to improve the life of individuals with disabilities regardless of age. Programs include support for the training of teachers and other professional personnel; grants for research; financial aid to help states initiate, expand, and improve their resources; and media services and captioned films for hearing-impaired individuals.

Vocational and Adult Education Grant, contract, and technical assistance programs for vocational-technical education and adult education and literacy are administered through the Office of Vocational and Adult Education. This office also works with the department of labor in administering the School-to-Work Opportunities Initiative, which helps states and localities design and build innovative systems to prepare youths for college and careers.

Staff Offices

Assistant Secretary for Management The assistant secretary for management provides the deputy secretary with advice and guidance on administrative management and is responsible for activities involving personnel, training, grants and procurement management, management evaluation, automated data processing, and other support functions.

Chief Financial Officer The chief financial officer manages grants and contract services and oversees financial management, financial control and accounting, and program analysis.Assistant Secretary of Intergovernmental and Interagency Affairs The assistant secretary of intergovernmental and interagency affairs acts as a liaison to state and local governments and other federal agencies and oversees the DOE's ten regional offices.

Inspector General The inspector general audits and investigates programs and operations to promote their efficiency and effectiveness and to detect and prevent Fraud, waste, and abuse. This officer seeks to recover misused federal funds through courts and administrative procedures and, in cooperation with the department of justice, prosecutes wrongdoers.

General Counsel As the chief legal adviser to the secretary and other department officials, the general counsel directs, coordinates, and recommends policy for activities involving the preparation of legal documents and department rules and regulations, including proposed or pending legislation.

Public Affairs Director The public affairs director, who reports directly to the secretary, develops and coordinates public affairs policy and serves as the chief public information officer.

Assistant Secretary for Legislation and Congressional Affairs The assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs serves as the principal adviser to the deputy secretary on the DOE's legislative program and congressional relations.

Further readings

U.S. Department of Education. 1995. "How We Can Help America Learn: A Summary of Major Activities."

——. 1995. "U.S. Department of Education Staff Organization." Available online at <> (accessed February 17, 2004).

——. 1994. National Education Goals Report. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

——. 1992. Information about the U.S. Department of Education. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.


Colleges and Universities; School Desegregation; Schools and School Districts.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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