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On Finding Better, Bolder Education Policies

Over at The American Prospect, Dana Goldstein and Ezra Klein have responded to my article about Linda Darling-Hammond, saying that I take a surface-level approach to education policy ideas and the debate between two feuding, progressive camps. Goldstein says Darling-Hammond is well-suited for the job of heading the transition's education policy team:

She's a fine person... to do what the transition team leaders are actually doing, which is fact-finding on how each federal agency is currently run, and how it can become more effective under Obama.

In fact, that's not Darling-Hammond's job. That role goes to the education agency review team--a separate transition group that includes about a dozen members. Darling-Hammond's job is to help define the administration's policy priorities, based on Obama's campaign platform, and make suggestions about how to implement them. It's a much juicier gig than the one Goldstein describes.

Klein then argues that my pitting of reformers against Darling-Hammond is misguided:

[N]owhere does the article examine, or even so much as mention, Darling-Hammond's own ideas for reform. Which is strange given that Darling-Hammond is a longtime reformer who helped write Obama's education plan and is considered a leading expert on teacher quality. ... [T]here's no evidence that the first group has figured out a policy strategy that will prove effective, nor that the second group, which includes Darling-Hammond, has not.

Is the name "reformers" a misnomer? To some degree, sure. As I mention in my story, this is a debate between two camps that both want change. Nonetheless, the more aggressive camp--including the Michelle Rhees and Joel Kleins of the world--has adopted the "reform" title, and to quibble about what the appropriate name for each camp should be doesn't get us very far. (Over at Gotham Schools, an education blog, there is an ongoing discussion about just what to call these folks; if you really want to get in on that argument, see here.)

Klein suggests that, in this debate, I am choosing sides based on the relative trendiness of policy ideas or education leaders. On the contrary, I believe, as he does, that this boils down to who offers better policy. But on top of that, it matters who is more open-minded about seeking and implementing that better policy, even if it requires serious change that might buck the Democratic education establishment. I am not suggesting that reformers have all the answers, or that Darling-Hammond has none. But I do believe that Darling-Hammond's track record in research and policy proposals shows a too-narrow view of how change can be achieved.

For example, on the point of teacher quality, I describe Darling-Hammond's "Marshall Plan for Teaching," which calls for a $3 billion investment in teacher training and certification because she believes "high-quality programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels" are the most effective means of building a competent teaching force. When considering ideas like the Marshall Plan, reformers worry that Darling-Hammond wants to throw all of the federal government's chips into an agenda that focuses on traditional avenues of preparing teachers (hence, reformers' "status quo" criticisms), while remaining wary, and even dismissive, of alternatives like Teach for America and The New Teacher Project that bring much-needed new blood into schools. (See here for a recent report on TFA's classroom successes.)

What's more, many reformers and academics contend that Darling-Hammond's research on the relationship between teacher certification and teacher quality is deeply flawed. In my interviews, several people--ranging from her strongest opponents to the more mildly concerned--said that her sample sizes and assessments of existing literature on teacher quality are questionable. (For a long study on this issue, see here. It argues that research shows, "teacher certification, is neither an efficient nor an effective means by which to ensure a competent teaching force. Worse, it is often counterproductive.")

With these points about her stances and research in mind, I don't think Darling-Hammond is the right person to be in charge of the transition's policy team, or to be secretary of education. These are jobs which both require a willingness to admit when education's established institutions and power players shouldn't steer the boat, and to push for an aggressive array of effective options, both traditional and alternative, when it comes to improving schools. I don't doubt that she is well-intentioned, nor do most reformers. Rather, the concern is that Darling-Hammond isn't the change agent Obama needs, at a time when pushing for sweeping, bipartisan education reform is so critical.

--Seyward Darby