Oceans of ink and big chunks of cyberspace and the radio spectrum will be consumed, starting a few weeks hence, by speculation about who will or should or mustn't occupy key roles in the Presidential administration of John McCain or Barack Obama.

But why wait? In the world of education policy wonkdom, two of the keyest slots are already opening, with the recently-announced and soon-to-occur departures of Russ Whitehurst from the directorship of the Institute for Education Sciences and Mark Schneider from the commissioner's office at the National Center for Education Statistics. (Yesterday, in fact, was Schneider's swan song at NCES.) And it's never too early to start thinking about who could and should fill them.

They really do matter. Though neither official dispenses big bucks, the IES director steers the principal vehicle by which Uncle Sam supports education R & D and evaluates education programs. And the statistics commissioner is responsible for pretty much all the data by which we know how we're doing throughout the education sector, how much we're spending, how many teachers there are, you name it. In a time of widespread discontent with the performance (not to mention the efficiency and productivity) of U.S. schools and colleges, and a time when so many of Uncle Sam's efforts to alter that situation aren't working very well, the people in these two offices bear weighty responsibilities.

They need to be decent administrators and deft politicians, of course, but above all they need sound ideas, strong intellects--and the fortitude to demand and maintain their independence in an environment where just about every decision they make is likely to upset somebody influential. Maybe a lot of somebodies.

Neither Whitehurst nor Schneider is going very far--the former to head the Brown Center at the venerable Brookings Institution, the latter to develop new projects at the less venerable but ultra-entrepreneurial American Institutes of Research (AIR). Neither is apt to be mute, either. Whitehurst's mandate is to chart a much more ambitious course for Brookings in education policy and to ramp up that organization's productivity and visibility in this field. Schneider is known for clear, straight talk--and is also known to be brimming with insights and concerns that have accumulated during his government tenure. (One hopes the controversy-averse, contract-seeking folks at AIR won't muzzle him.)

They'll both be missed, too, though in different ways. While in government, Whitehurst did a good job of relaunching the federal research agency in its current guise and is well regarded for insisting on rigor and, wherever possible, experimentalism. (For a time he went overboard on the latter but eventually recovered a better balance.) He ensured IES's independence, even when some of its studies clashed with administration priorities (remember Reading First!) and he worked pretty well with a policy board comprised of eminent and strong-willed individuals. A bit of a control freak, he's not the warmest or funniest guy around but is widely respected.

Schneider had to wrestle to maintain NCES's precious semi-autonomy within IES--Whitehurst was a problem here--and to garner adequate funding for its work. (His successor may face real struggles on these fronts, particularly when Congress takes up the IES reauthorization.) But he insisted on the integrity of federal education data while accelerating their production--no easy double feat. And he launched important new projects, notably the incorporation of state-representative samples into major national data collections, including the high-school longitudinal study; greater attention to longitudinal data in general; new surveys of teacher compensation (including benefits!) that will--finally--free NCES from union-collected stats in this sphere; and some terrific moves to make NCES data usable by ordinary folks at the retail level as well as veteran analysts poring over macro-stats. (High school kids can even start their postsecondary search with the help of NCES's new College Navigator.)  

Who should fill these shoes? The great risk is that the next President and secretary of education--both the IES and NCES posts are White House selections requiring Senate confirmation but you can bet that the EdSec will want a say in who gets picked--won't ask who could do the best job but will instead seek to repay political debts or placate members of their coalitions. Big mistake, and one that's been made before. (I could name names but, being a courteous fellow, will bite my tongue.) These might, in truth, be the only two jobs in the Education Department that really need to be filled on the basis of merit. Yet because they're not very visible--and don't pay badly--there's always a temptation to treat them as rewards.

Assuming, for now, that merit will be the watchword of those making these selections, who might do a great job? Fortunately, plenty of strong candidates are available to either administration. Without trying to assign party labels, one could proudly suggest (for the IES post) Eric Hanushek, Kati Haycock, Caroline Hoxby, Mike Castle, Ted Mitchell, Reid Lyon, Stefanie Sanford, Rick Hess or John Winn, to name but a few. At NCES, consider such folks as Patrick Wolf, Gregory Cizek, Robert Costrell, Bill Jackson and Tom Loveless.

And there are plenty more.

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