The Education “Powell Doctrine:” Why the Obama-Duncan Education Policies Reflect the Failures of the Iraq-Afghanistan Policies.

“The powers not delegated to the United   States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The Tenth Amendment, the reserve clause had been interpreted to consider education the bastion of the states. The federal government played no role in education until the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965,

In its original conception, Title I under the ESEA, was designed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to close the skill gap in reading, writing and mathematics between children from low-income households who attend urban or rural school systems and children from the middle-class.

Since the original authorization of the ESEA in 1965 research has shown that there is an inverse relationship between student achievement and school poverty. Specifically, student achievement has been found to decrease as school poverty increases. ESEA was intended to provide targeted dollars to the neediest school districts.

The 2001 bi-partisan reauthorization renamed the law (“No Child Left Behind”), required testing in grades 3-8 in all public schools, forced states to set annual progress goals, called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), with sanctions if schools failed to reach goals that could lead to school redesign or school closings.

The original strong support for the law waned on both sides of the aisle and Congress and Presidents Bush and Obama failed to reach an agreement with Congress on reauthorization.

Upon election the Obama-Duncan administration raced to implement sweeping changes in education from pre-K through college outside of the reauthorization process.

The administration moved forward using the power of the purse – 4.4 billion dollars in Race to the Top competitive grants, and currently bypassing the reauthorization process by inviting states to apply for waivers from ESEA requirements in exchange for implementing specific policies.

The Congress, both Republicans and Democrats have rejected the waiver approach and their criticism of administration education policies has escalated .


The Obama-Duncan educational plan is a sharp departure from the original purpose of ESEA – rather than concentrating on increasing funding to targeted poor students the Executive Branch turned to competitive grants that require: focus on individual, school and school district accountability, more charter schools, increased testing and data-based decision-making,  rigid teacher evaluation systems based on student achievement data, linking teacher data to schools of education and competitive grants in lieu of formula driven allocations.

As the administration continues to aggressively press forward resistance grows; from members of Congress in both parties to school principals and teachers to parents.

The American school system has evolved from policies driven by state departments of education and 16,000 elected school boards to Arne Duncan, the appointed Secretary of Education.

President Obama has failed to understand that “owning” the American education system brings with it substantial risks.

Policies adopted by General Colin Powell in the 1990-91 Gulf War are now referred to as the “Powell Doctrine.”

The Powell Doctrine states that a list of questions all have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by theUnited States:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

We can modify this same approach to question the decision to embark upon a total involvement in education from the corridors of Washington into each and every classroom.

1. Is the current American education system so inadequate as to threaten our future?

2. Does this new policy have clear, attainable objectives?

3. Have the risks and costs been fully, frankly and transparently analyzed?

4. Have all other policy means been fully exhausted?

5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglements?

6. Have the consequences, both intended and unintended, been fully considered?

7. Are the actions/policies supported by the American people?

8. Do we have genuine broad support from the implementers of the policies – the school boards, the principals and teachers?

The premise that American schools are “…so inadequate as to threaten our future” is challenged by Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi,

Have the nation’s schools gotten noticeably lousier? Or has the coverage of them just made it seem that way?

Farhi argues that the attacks on the failure of American schools is not based upon facts ,

Some schools are having a difficult time educating children – particularly children who are impoverished, speak a language other than English, move frequently or arrive at the school door neglected, abused or chronically ill. But many pieces of this complex mosaic are quite positive.

First data point: American elementary and middle school students have improved their performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS): they are above the international average in all categories and within a few percentage points of the global leaders (something that few news reports mention).

Second data point: The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared over the past 70 years, from 10 percent in 1940 to 56 percent today, even as the population has tripled and the nation has grown vastly more diverse. All told, America’s long-term achievements in education are nothing short of stunning.

Do federal education policies fail to meet the very first test:“Is the current American education system so inadequate as to threaten our future?”

In fact the policies fail to meet almost all of the Powell Doctrine questions, as amended.

In 1991 General Powell asked, Is the action supported by the American people?

 In 2012 we ask, Are the actions/policies supported by the American people? Do we have genuine broad support from the implementers of the policies – the school boards, the principals and teachers?

As the Congress, school boards, principals, teachers and a wider and wider swath of the public question reject the federal agenda the Executive Branch continues to scurry down a flawed path.

Sadly, the current misguided political agenda is not benefiting the children who are not succeeding: the impoverished, the children of immigrants in inner cities and rural communities.

Perhaps the policy answer lies in a corner of West Virginia, (see Reconnecting Mc Dowell video here) in one of the poorest counties in the nation 40-plus partners, including the American Federation of Teachers, are addressing a range of issues;, from a lack of housing to drug addiction to school dropouts, a coalition of caring partners from the public and private sectors working together rather than imposing a set of highly questionable punitive accountability measures from above.

General Powell is a wise man. But, we knew that.


3 responses to “The Education “Powell Doctrine:” Why the Obama-Duncan Education Policies Reflect the Failures of the Iraq-Afghanistan Policies.

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    A declaration of the victory of public education in the face of undeniable evidence that our schools are failing poor children of color is simply an invitation for the private and not-for-profit sectors to rush in to fill the void.

    Certainly poverty is pernicious, making it harder but not insurmountable to educate. There are urban schools succeeding with poor kids every day and others that never have. The USDOE has requiired that we begin to differentiate between the two. Our children deserve no less, and their parents and the public will continue to demand that we do.


  2. I attended the “hearing” at Herbert H. Lehman HS last night (April 2). A large auditorium mostly full, with ample representation from students, faculty, and, mostly, adults. The adults were (aside from security in suits) apparently community members, parents, a few easily identified as outside the community types. After impassioned, untimed presentations by mandated participants, who unanimously decried the purpose (taking testimony on closing the school), the unmandated interested parties got 2 minutes each to speak. Early on, a speaker asked the audience TO STAND IF THEY WANTED THE SCHOOL TO CLOSE. NOT ONE PERSON STOOD! Enough said.


  3. I am compelled to add, considering the first commenters remarks, two items.
    1). The charterers are doing no better, often much worse, with this population. They “council out” students who need extra help. One clear reason is the utter lack of professional preparation or experience of the teachers or administrators they hire-a fact clearly known by Mr Nadelstern.
    2). The charter companies are doing their best to solicit the “easier to educate” students while seeking to cap the number of ELL’s, kids with special needs, or students who are more mobile (generally not a positive predictor of academic success). This, also, is a fact clearly known by Mr. Nadelstern.

    Therefore, his first paragraph clearly doesn’t hold water. The charterers want only the easy to educate. That’s where the money is.

    The DOE, having taken on the exclusive right to assign kids to schools, is gerrymandering via student placement. THEY have killed Lehman HS with an overload of needy kids, starving the school of necessary resources (from repairs to funding) to deal with the issues THEY created, and then using the dropping school stats to blame the institution-another fact known to Mr Nadelstern!


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