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Education Attacks on Darling-Hammond Don't Fit Obama's Post-Partisanship

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A slickly-coordinated string of editorials and columns in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Republic, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere has poured forth recently, all decrying the possible appointment of Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond as Secretary of Education. Obviously responding to the same talking points, the pieces paint Darling-Hammond a status quo, incrementalist and anoint a new group of pro-merit pay/pro-testing/pro-charter school advocates as the hard-charging "reformers."

Darling-Hammond has spent 30 years pushing for a radical restructuring of public schools and the systems that serve them so that all students will have high-quality teachers and rich learning opportunities, not just well-off, predominantly white kids. To call her a defender of the status quo is like calling Lincoln a defender of slavery because he wasn't as absolute in opposition as were some on his team of rivals. The provocative rhetoric would also miss the fact that Lincoln, at the end of the day, alone possessed the unifying wisdom and skills to steer the nation to its most radical of reforms.

The partisans may be congratulating themselves on a well-choreographed crusade, but one has to wonder: what campaign were they watching win the presidency? From the kick-off in Springfield, Barack Obama styled himself not just a little on Lincoln: rising above old school divisive politics; exchanging thoughts in respectful debate; taking the best ideas and humbly but boldly moving forward, building consensus along the way. By drawing so heavily from the old playbook, the hard-chargers may have just charged off the cliff--virtually ensuring Obama will be less receptive to their pleas.

Beyond the discordant tactics, much of the substance of their agenda similarly misapprehends the Obama style and vision. The partisans' founding precept is apparently that true reformers must be anti-union. Obama's campaign, in contrast, espoused the folly of such simplistic, polarizing politics. With teachers, he has consistently recognized that major reforms will best be achieved by winning the unions over. He supports basing pay on performance, he told the NEA last summer, but in a process that is done with teachers, not to them.

The education partisans also draw a hard line in the sand around accountability. They frame as anti-reform any major tinkering with No Child Left Behind's punitive accountability system--which relies on an annual standardized test to identify "failing" schools and intervenes with increasing sanctions. Some researchers say NCLB has resulted in no objective improvements in learning above pre-NCLB trends; others claim that some positive increases have occurred. Either way, the fact is that the law, as it stands, simply has not produced the radical reductions in the achievement gap we'd all like to see. This arguably makes the NCLB-style accountability proponents defenders of the status quo and the real incrementalists.

Obama's education plan, on the other hand, calls for a bolder law that provides "more reform and accountability, coupled with the resources to carry out that reform," and "supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them." To ensure that students--particularly in low-income schools--are taught demanding, higher-order problem-solving skills, Obama intends to use more complex assessments in his accountability scheme. In decrying NCLB's over-reliance on "fill-in-the-bubble" standardized tests--sacred territory for the partisans--Obama has clearly signaled he is not interested in narrow measures or ideological fights over testing philosophy. He wants more challenging expectations, the best ideas on how to ensure they're met, and he's willing to invest the resources for big returns.

Lastly, the partisans falsely divide the world: you're either against traditional teacher education or you're against reform. Again, Obama is unlikely to take the bait. Both traditional teacher preparation and innovative alternative routes like Teach For America have a role in reform and both, as Darling-Hammond points out, can be significantly improved.

Darling-Hammond's vision and style is to a great extent the bolder reform approach Obama has espoused. She has supported performance pay and easing dismissal of truly incompetent teachers but has maintained respectful relations with the unions. She has founded and advocated for charter schools but she doesn't see them as the whole solution. She has supported holding schools accountable for higher order thinking but also providing them the resources they need to succeed. She has advocated for high quality alternative programs and for stronger accountability for traditional teacher education.

Each year, roughly 25 percent of U.S. students fail to graduate from high school. Of those that do, large portions are unprepared for college or meaningful work. The losers in this annual drama are disproportionately low-income students of color. The hard-chargers have some good ideas to contribute; but if public education can ever put us on a path to a Second Emancipation, it will only be because we've put aside the in-fighting and the backstabbing and tapped the best from us all. And that's why we elected Barack Obama.