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The Education Battle Continues

The already heated debate between two rival education camps--the traditionalists and the reformers--about leadership and policy under Obama is becoming even more virtriolic. On Friday, transition adviser Linda Darling-Hammond, whom I wrote about earlier this week, responded to her reform critics in a letter to The New York Times. While touting her record, Darling-Hammond tempered her previous censures of No Child Left Behind; she said she has sought to "amend and reauthorize" it. But a careful reading of a 2007 article she wrote about the law reveals that she advocates for a vast overhaul of its methods. She also didn't refute specific concerns about her opposition to alternative certification programs like Teach for America, saying only, "I have also fought to overhaul teacher education programs and close weak ones." Nor did she address criticisms of the research she's done on teacher quality. (Side note: I can't help thinking that writing such a public defense is a sign that she's not about to become education secretary.)

Meanwhile, an editorial in the LA Times praised the opposing ideas of the reform camp, so dubbed for its hard line approach to accountability, testing, and merit pay. But coming to Darling-Hammond's defense is Alfie Kohn in The Nation, who characterized the reform community as test-crazed and "disconcertingly allied with conservatives." And then there's Greg Palast at the Huff Post, who bashed reform favorites Joel Klein and Arne Duncan for being lawyers--although, in fact, Duncan isn't one--in charge of large public school systems:

It's no coincidence that the nation's worst school systems are run by non-experts like Klein and Duncan. ... We have the ludicrous scene of the President-elect asking this recognized authority, Dr. Darling-Hammond, to vet the qualifications of amateurs Klein and Duncan. It's as if Obama were to ask Michael Jordan, "Say, you wouldn't happen to know anyone who can play basketball, would you?"

Under Duncan's watch, for instance, Chicago's schools have undergone a variety of reforms. In that time, the number of students meeting or exceeding standards on the Illinois State Achievement Test in reading has risen almost 25 percent, while in math it's gone up 34 percent. These numbers have improved among students of all backgrounds; black students, for instance, now meet or exceed math standards at a rate of 60 percent, up 33 points since 2001. And the achievement gap between black and white students has shrunk more than eight points in both subject areas. Dropout rates have also declined by eight percent and graduation rates has increased by the same amount. (See all data here. Results include English Language Learners in 2008 only. Also, the test's format changed between 2005 and 2006, but there were consistent gains before and after the redesign, which was meant to make the test more accessible.) There have also been good signs in New York under Klein.

This isn't to say that reformers are perfect, that their ideas never hit obstacles and setbacks, or that other proposals shouldn't have room at the table. But to argue that the likes of Klein and Duncan aren't credible leaders without tangible successes just because they are younger or come from backgrounds outside teaching and academia is ludicrous. As I said in a previous post, I don't doubt the dedication Darling-Hammond and her supporters have to building better schools. What I doubt is their willingness to move past Democrats' traditional change avenues and embrace more pioneering programs and policies.

--Seyward Darby