Secretary of Education

George Orwell coined the term Newspeak. An aspect of Newspeak is Doublespeak in which language is often used to mean its opposite. We have seen this come to play in our times in many ways—missiles called “Peacekeeper,” being one of the most infamous. In education, the recent example is the “No Child Left Behind” Act (NCLB), which is leaving more and more children behind educationally. Now it is being used against Linda Darling-Hammond, a possible pick for Obama’s Secretary of Education. “Reformers” are those who want to keep to the policies of NCLB, and anti-reformers are those who want to break with them in this new twist on language.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford, was one of the main educational advisors and spokespeople for Obama during the campaign, and has been leading the transition team. In contrast to Dr. Darling-Hammond, possible picks include several who run large city school districts: Arne Duncan, superintendent of Chicago’s public schools, Joel Klein, Chancellor of New York City’s school system, and Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school system.

In the press, Dr. Darling-Hammond is being labeled as too “status quo” and the other named possibilities as being the “real” reformers. This to me appears immensely ironic. Dr. Darling-Hammond has spent her career working for improving education for poor and minority students (she is herself African American). This has meant a constant battle with policy makers and school leaders, creating reforms on multiple fronts and multiple levels, ones that went against long standing traditions of education in this country. For much of her career, going back at least to her days in New York City with Teachers College, she worked to support the small schools movement and more autonomy for such schools in a system made up of high schools that often have many thousands of students, and were run (and is still run) in a very top down fashion. The small schools movement in New York City, that she was part of starting, has shown remarkable results with low-income and minority students in study after study. The autonomy and sustainability of these schools to has been enormously undermined by “real” reformer Joel Klein, the chancellors of the New York City public schools. More than one of those schools has ceased to exist despite their success, due to the Klein administration.

In Connecticut, Darling-Hammond created new standards for assessing teachers, based on high levels of performance assessment methods, which again have been shown to be successful there in raising teacher quality. The new “reformers” would rather use standardized test scores to measure teacher competency.

At Stanford University, Darling-Hammond has continued her advocacy for poor minority students. She has been a constant critic of NCLB, while the other “reformers” are willing to accept the premise of this act as a valid way to measure schools teachers and students. As in Connecticut, she was involved in creating a performance-based assessment system for credentialing teachers in California. Among her efforts to support teacher quality through capacity building was her involvement in creating the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Not one to work only at state and national levels, at the local level she founded two charter schools, one high school and one elementary school in East Palo Alto, a very poor community that went 25 years without its own high school. Both of these schools were founded on the small school, democratic and constructivist principles, to serve poor minority children. None of these types of reforms have ever been popular among the status quo for use with poor minority children. (These new reformers push policies that reinforce drill and kill rote learning for the most needy students.) At Stanford, she developed the School Redesign Network to support efforts across the nation of local schools and districts who are trying to create smaller learning communities.

On what do they try to base these attacks? Her being a successful academic makes her seen as suspect in a country that is highly anti-intellectual. Part of this comes from the fact that, as a professor, she believes strongly in accurate research. She is both a researcher herself, and an avid and critical reader of the research. She will not support reforms that research shows to be ineffective or counter effective, which is true of some of the reforms posed by some of the other names.

That she does not favor their “reforms,” in particular is probably the main problem. For instance, she has not been a supporter of Teach for America (TfA), one of Rhee’s pet projects. Darling-Hammond dared to examine and report on the actual research on TfA in a less than favorable light. Teach for America has therefore started an offensive against her appointment.

Her support for teachers themselves and their unions is another main criticism. For many reformers, those teachers who have to carry out these reforms are seen as the enemy. This goes along with the general attack on the working class, akin to blaming the auto workers for the failure of the American auto industry to compete. (Look whom our government bailed out—the Wall Street rich, but the auto workers and homeowners are left on their own.) The three above named so-called reformers are among those who see teachers as the problem, rather than the solution, to our schools’ difficulties.

The alternative reform of these three large school district leaders? All three have fought for authoritarian power. Klein, for instance dismantled the New York City School Board and the local semi-autonomous school districts. In the name of making teachers accountable, he is accountable to no one. The idea of these new “reformers” is more reliance on high stakes test scores to measure both students and teachers. Such tests reinfoce rote learning and drill and kill teaching methods. Despite fifty plus years of using such tests and teaching methods with the poor, they have never shown any lasting positive results. The data from any of these districts is less than promising under the leadership of these three.

Not only are the reforms of these so-called reformers unproven, they are highly anti-democratic. They rely on those at the highest levels making the decisions and then using rewards and punishments to insure compliance. It is likely that if any these reformers have national power, they will advance polices that promote top-down mandates, more testing and anti-teacher measures.

This is again in strong contrast to Linda Darling-Hammond, who has been a strong advocate for democratizing schools. She believes instead in giving teachers and local schools the tools, support and professional development to succeed. This is known as capacity building. It is based on the idea that teachers do want their students to succeed, and that those closest to the children are in the best position to know how to succeed, given that those people have the resources and knowledge to do so.

While believing in high standards, Darling-Hammond argues that the measure of success cannot be found in multiple choice tests, either of teachers or of students, but must be found in assessments that authentically measure the skills, abilities and knowledge that we actually want out teachers and students to have. She has spent a career developing and promoting such assessment tools.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have as Secretary of Education someone who was both one of the most respected researchers in educational reform, knowledgeable about the research on school reform, and experienced at successfully carrying out many of those reforms and both local and state levels? And an African American woman to boot!

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