You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Old School

Obama's union-loving education guru.

In November, Barack Obama bewildered education reformers by tapping Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor who had advised his campaign, to oversee the transition's education policy team. Their verdict was swift and harsh. "Worst case scenario," wrote Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, the day after The Wall Street Journal leaked the news. "This is a sign that the president-elect isn't a bona fide reformer," he later told me. Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, confirmed, "The reform community is scared to death."

The "reform community" is an aggressive group of education advocates who argue that the certification programs which produce teachers, and the unions that represent them once they're in the classroom, have had too tight a grip on progressive priorities in the field for too long. Instead, they want to shake up the system through programs that bring in new blood and hold teachers accountable. They place their hopes in nervy, pioneering leaders like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, the chancellors of the D.C. and New York City public schools, respectively. In Darling-Hammond--an academic, union favorite, and vocal critic of Teach for America and No Child Left Behind--they see the opposite: an ideological enemy representative of a sluggish status quo.

Reformers are right to be nervous. During the campaign, Obama deftly appeased all sides of the policy debate. While appealing to the unions, which have long been bastions of Democratic support, he also gave great hope to reformers inside and outside the party by supporting merit pay and pledging to increase funding for charter schools. In asking Darling-Hammond to helm the transition--a precursor, some worry, to her appointment as secretary of education--Obama has suggested that he wasn't entirely serious about change, at least when it comes to education. It's a misstep that threatens to derail his quest for post-partisanship--and ruin a critical opportunity to revolutionize America's lagging schools.

Darling-Hammond first roiled the reform community--largely a young, fervent crowd--in the early 1990s, when she emerged as the toughest critic of Teach for America (TFA), a program started by Princeton graduate Wendy Kopp to draw some of the nation's top college students into teaching. Darling-Hammond, a former public school teacher, is a staunch advocate of bolstering teacher-certification programs. TFA teachers, by contrast, aren't required to have a teaching degree before they serve two-year stints in some of the country's poorest school districts. "TFA is bad policy and bad education," Darling-Hammond wrote in a 1994 article.

Today, TFA is one of the reform movement's prized accomplishments. It boasts 20,000 current teachers and alums, many of whom, like Michelle Rhee, have gone on to become leaders in the field. Darling-Hammond has softened her criticism, but, in an education debate this fall, she told a McCain adviser that TFA isn't a program that "builds your profession." She's also published studies showing that teacher certification is critical to improving students' performance, even as other research showed the opposite. "She's either dishonest or the sloppiest person in education research I've ever seen," says Vanderbilt education professor Dale Ballou, who co-wrote a 2000 report criticizing a teacher-certification study spearheaded by Darling-Hammond. (She fired back at the time, saying Ballou's report "ignores and misconstrues" the evidence.) And, in January 2007, she proposed a "Marshall Plan for Teaching," a $3 billion agenda for improving training and certification programs and diminishing the "parade of underprepared and inexperienced teachers" in public schools.

Darling-Hammond has also gone after No Child Left Behind (nclb), which reformers see as a flawed but important bipartisan law that calls for raising accountability standards, enhancing student testing requirements, and closing the achievement gap among students of differing racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. In a May 2007 article in The Nation, she wrote that the country needs "something much more than [nclb] and much different." Last fall, she penned an op-ed criticizing high-stakes testing, a measure many reformers support. It didn't help that, during the campaign, she signed an education manifesto at odds with a rival, tough-minded reform agenda. (Both documents were circulated and hotly debated at the Democratic convention this year.) "The ideas associated with Darling-Hammond are ones that educators love because they're warm and fuzzy," says Petrilli of the Fordham Institute. "They're not tough, not admitting that sometimes adults aren't doing their jobs."

On the trail, Obama managed to win over both camps. He satisfied the unions by working with Darling-Hammond, yet drew boos at one union meeting by praising merit pay. At an American Enterprise Institute forum in early October, Obama education adviser Michael Johnston, a former TFA teacher, assured a nervous crowd that Darling-Hammond's opinion was just one among many in the campaign and pointed to a speech in which Obama proposed doubling federal spending on charter schools as emblematic of his real views. And, just before the election, Obama publicly praised Rhee, who is at war with the D.C. teachers' union over tenure. "Obama was careful during the campaign to assure both sides he was with them, with a wink, wink and a nod, nod," says Petrilli.

The winking and nodding paid off. Despite nagging misgivings, the reform community threw its support to Obama. But reformers grew worried when he selected Darling-Hammond for the transition. "What's disappointing is the fact that Darling-Hammond is a staunch opponent of TFA and other alternative programs," Rhee says. "We get many of our best teachers through those routes. Somebody who's coming into this with thoughts about shutting those down is extremely problematic." They became even more nervous when Darling-Hammond appeared on short lists for education secretary, along with more reform-friendly types like Joel Klein and Arne Duncan of Chicago Public Schools. "Since Darling-Hammond surfaced as officially on the policy team, there have been a lot of people e-mailing asking, 'What should we do, should we be talking more about our reservations?' " says Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. TFA declined to comment on Darling-Hammond's appointment, but, in late November, it sent an e-mail to alumni encouraging them to "stay on top of about [sic] what is happening and not happening regarding education reform" and directing them to the website of its political arm, where photos of Darling-Hammond and Joel Klein are captioned with a reminder that the Democratic factional debate is "spilling over into a battle over Secretary of Education."

Reformers are quick to say that, while they disagree strongly with her methods, they don't doubt that Darling-Hammond wants to improve schools. And she does have significant support within the education establishment. "Her approach works," says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation's largest teachers' unions. "She's been involved in education reform since before a lot of these newcomers." Ash Vasudeva, who works with Darling-Hammond at Stanford, says she's "a passionate advocate of the teaching profession." More than 2,500 people have signed an online petition pushing for her Cabinet appointment.

Darling-Hammond also insisted, in a lengthy e-mail, that her positions promote reform. "I don't care who is for and who is against an idea, what matters is whether the idea will improve education for children," she wrote. She said that her opinions are "really not an issue" because the transition team is charged with "figur[ing] out how to implement the policy platform already developed by the Obama campaign."

That may be, but, with Darling-Hammond as the point person on deciding how to implement the most important pieces of an undoubtedly evolving platform, it's easy to imagine reform-backed proposals falling by the wayside. That's why, even if she does not secure a position in the Obama administration, the symbolism and influence she has in this preliminary stage are troubling. Vexing education's boldest change agents won't help Obama substantiate his still-murky education reform credentials and forge bipartisan policies. And, if Obama does elevate her to his Cabinet, the appointment would leave lasting wounds, both among reformers and in the nation's schools. "Hopes would be dashed . . . if [the secretary of education] isn't reformed-minded," Williams says.

In The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote that "ideological battles [in education] . . . are as outdated as they are predictable." Too bad he's just started another one.

Seyward Darby is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

This article originally ran in the December 24, 2008, issue of the magazine.