Who Are the Real Reformers?
Now we know that President-elect Barack Obama has chosen Arne Duncan as his secretary of education. This must be a relief to Linda Darling-Hammond, who heads Obama's transition team for education policy, because now the attacks on her can cease. I have been shocked by the editorial onslaught directed at Darling-Hammond in major newspapers and magazines. After you wrote your column, I read a few more editorials (most recently in The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and The New Republic) drawing a distinction between LDH and "reformers" like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee. I have been withholding judgment on Rhee until I see some results or learn what her educational plans are. But I seem to be the only person in the United States who is doing that. The media—Newsweek, Time, PBS, and many others—have already decided that she is very likely going to "save" the public schools of Washington, D.C., and possibly even save the public schools of the United States. I find this media frenzy bizarre in light of the fact that she has been on the job only 18 months and that what she is celebrated for consists of fighting the union, firing people, and closing schools.
Maybe I am a softy, but it seems to me that the head of the school system should see herself as the leader of the troops and should not be firing on them. It may be that Rhee can recruit some bright, young college graduates, which she did when she ran the New Teacher Project, but there is no guarantee that all these new teachers will be good (let alone "great" teachers). And surely they will benefit by having experienced teachers to advise them. I recall that some years ago Rudy Crew developed an approach in New York City to help failing schools (he put them into "the Chancellor's District," which was saturated with extra resources and services), instead of shuttering them. The Council of the Great City Schools wrote a report identifying that district as one of four national models for urban education. Of course, successful though it was, it was dismantled in 2003 by Joel Klein's Department of Education.
Many years ago, Linda Darling-Hammond and I were colleagues at Teachers College. We sometimes crossed swords over issues, but I always found her to be smart, thoughtful, and deeply devoted to the well-being of teachers and children. I don't think that makes her a leader of the "status quo" crowd. I have always thought that she is above all interested in improving schools, helping teachers, and doing right by kids. What's wrong with that?
As for the new breed of superintendents who are supposedly going to "save" American education, I have a very different take on them from the editorialists. They say they are Democrats, but their policies are truly the Republican agenda. The Republican education experts and conservative think tanks have always wanted more accountability, more choice, merit pay, and a tough anti-union stance. Thus, it is one of the amusing ironies of our time that the people who now espouse this agenda call themselves "reformers" and are acclaimed as such by the national media. They are reformers indeed, but the reforms they are advocating and implementing come right out of the Republican playbook.