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Uncertainty Over Obama Education Adviser

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The general public may only want to know what kind of puppy the Obama girls are going to get and where they're going to go to school. The big-time pundits may be focused in on the pros and cons of a stimulus package and John Kerry as a candidate for State Department.

In education circles, however, there's no hotter topic than who is going to be the next Secretary of Education--and if it's going to be Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor known for her focus on teacher quality and her early opposition to the popular teacher recruitment program called Teach For America.

The controversy surrounding her candidacy says as much about Obama as it does about Darling- Hammond.

There are at present several people who are considered possible picks for the Education job, including Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan, Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Though the decision could be announced as soon as this week, no one outside the Obama camp knows.

The possibility of Darling-Hammond being named Secretary has emerged as an especially worrisome possibility among a small but vocal group of younger, reform-minded advocates who supported Obama because he seemed reform-minded on education issues like charter schools, performance pay, and accountability. These reformistas seem to perceive Darling-Hammond as a touchy-feely anti-accountability figure who will destroy any chances that Obama will follow through on any of these initiatives.

"On every issue relating to education, Darling-Hammond is far from a reformer," wrote one pro-charter organization called the Center on Education Reform, "She has a clear and proud record of supporting the existing track for training and paying teachers, and believes governance changes--like charter schools--are a side issue."

"These prototypical ed school types have typically never worked a day in their lives in the private sector and are oblivious to (or enemies of) things that, in the real world, drive success or failure," wrote Whitney Tilson, a pro-Obama hedge fund manager, nearly a year ago when Darling-Hammond's involvement in the campaign first came to light.

Yes, Darling-Hammond is an ed school professor who talks in nuanced, academic terms--not scripted talking points (see her debate here). Yes, she was among the first and most prominent critics of Teach For America--and still favors a more intensive, residency-based approach to training new teachers.

But she also has authored a recent study that acknowledged T.F.A. teachers were in some ways better than traditional teachers. And she has helped start several charter schools in California. Darling-Hammond says there's no real daylight between her positions and Obama's policy proposals, and I haven't seen any convincing evidence to contradict that claim.

So what's going on then? Part of it is just a knee-jerk response against someone who dared criticize T.F.A., the reformistas' most cherished accomplishment to date. Another part of it may be the desire for a younger, fresher name picked from their own ranks--D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee, or New Leaders founder Jon Schnur.

But the biggest issue is that the reform-minded camp isn't sure that Obama is really with them. Even after a long campaign, there's still tremendous uncertainty about just how strong Obama's commitment is. They are not the first to experience this kind of uncertainty. Local school control advocates in Chicago had much the same experience with Obama 10 years ago, struggling to convince themselves that Obama was with them on an issue of intense debate within the Democratic party.

Of course, none of this means that Darling-Hammond will be the Obama pick for Education Secretary, or that she necessarily would be the most effective choice. It's unclear how strong are her political and administrative skills. Academics sometimes fare poorly in the "gotcha" world of politics where stray comments can turn into major fiascoes. Warranted or not, picking her would create immediate tensions with reform-minded school advocates.

Odds are it will be someone else--not her, and not one of the young guns, either.

Whatever the outcome, it's clear that education advocates who supported Obama because of his change agenda are frustrated and confused that Darling-Hammond's name is even part of the discussion. What kind of an education President Obama will be remains a mystery for now.

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