The three best educational systems I know of -- those of Australia, Canada, and Switzerland -- are all federal in nature, the last two (which I think are the best of all) especially so. And please don't think that I derived this result as one I had been seeking in advance for ideological reasons -- in other words, that I decided in advance that I liked federalism, and went seeking after the fact for justifications and ratings that coincided with my ideological preferences. Quite the reverse happened; I decided on criteria by which I would rank educational systems, then saw how those systems ranked related to the various criteria, then published a summary of my findings, and only afterwards noticed that the top finishers all had federal systems.
These findings are salient in this political season, this being the weekend between our two national party conventions and with Margaret Spellings and others being interviewed on the sidelines by media like Education Week. I reflect on what Mr. Bush's administration attempted to do with respect to education, and on what President Obama's administration is currently doing, and detect some bad moves, mostly due to a morally justifiable desire to make a difference in the lives of our nation's underachieving poor, who lack the equal opportunities they should be entitled to according to our founding national ideology. But while I think these two administrations' educational efforts morally justified, I think they have been tactically ill-advised, and that they are stimulating a backlash that could set back the federal Department of Education for decades.
It may well be the case that, with regard to primary and secondary education, most matters are best addressed at more local levels, and that federal educational leaders should revise their visions of their jobs and their policy priorities accordingly. The problem may essentially be one of talent, and where a society's stock of human capital is most likely to allocate itself in large vs. small countries. In most international comparisons of education (for example, Marc Tucker's Surpassing Shanghai and Vivien Stewart's A World-Class Education), the most admired systems are those of small nations like Finland and Singapore, which would be best likened in our nation to a (sovereign) state and city school district, respectively. These countries do not have ambitions or visions of global dominance, as ours has; and therefore, while a lot of top government talent in the United States aims for positions in the state and defense departments, where they can vitally influence the affairs of the world, talented young Finns and Singaporeans, not having these outlets, will have a likelier attraction to a field like education, and will try to better the lives of their fellow citizens and future generations through this career. This of course is attractive to American educational commentators, who may long for a society that would make heroes out of educators, rather than consigning us to the also-ran obscurity in which many of us toil. But it is unrealistic to expect the United States of America to start acting as if we were Finland or Singapore.
Perhaps we should let our federal government take a more modest role towards directing educational destinies, and allow leadership to emerge at less exalted levels, which is where we already have educational institutions established for such purposes.