Sunday, December 07, 2008

Secretary of Education fight heats up

No one ever said that this was going to be easy.
Now David Brooks has weighed in on the Secretary of Education.
One of several problems with this analysis is that those of us opposing Klein have been opposed to the education bureaucracy all along. We have been trying to make urban schools work.

December 5, 2008
Who Will He Choose?

As in many other areas, the biggest education debates are happening within the Democratic Party. On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards. On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms.

During the presidential race, Barack Obama straddled the two camps. One campaign adviser, John Schnur, represented the reform view in the internal discussions. Another, Linda Darling-Hammond, was more likely to represent the establishment view. Their disagreements were collegial (this is Obamaland after all), but substantive.

In public, Obama shifted nimbly from camp to camp while education experts studied his intonations with the intensity of Kremlinologists. Sometimes, he flirted with the union positions. At other times, he practiced dog-whistle politics, sending out reassuring signals that only the reformers could hear.

Each camp was secretly convinced that at the end of the day, Obama would come down on their side. The reformers were cheered when Obama praised a Denver performance pay initiative. The unions could take succor from the fact that though Obama would occasionally talk about merit pay, none of his actual proposals contradicted their positions.

Obama never had to pick a side. That is, until now. There is only one education secretary, and if you hang around these circles, the air is thick with speculation, anticipation, anxiety, hope and misinformation. Every day, new rumors are circulated and new front-runners declared. It’s kind of like being in a Trollope novel as Lord So-and-So figures out to whom he’s going to propose.

You can measure the anxiety in the reformist camp by the level of nervous phone chatter each morning. Weeks ago, Obama announced that Darling-Hammond would lead his transition team and reformist cellphones around the country lit up. Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford, is a sharp critic of Teach for America and promotes weaker reforms.

Anxieties cooled, but then one morning a few weeks ago, I got a flurry of phone calls from reform leaders nervous that Obama was about to side against them. I interviewed people in the president-elect’s inner circle and was reassured that the reformers had nothing to worry about. Obama had not gone native.

Obama’s aides point to his long record on merit pay, his sympathy for charter schools and his tendency to highlight his commitment to serious education reform.

But the union lobbying efforts are relentless and in the past week prospects for a reforming education secretary are thought to have dimmed. The candidates before Obama apparently include: Joel Klein, the highly successful New York chancellor who has, nonetheless, been blackballed by the unions; Arne Duncan, the reforming Chicago head who is less controversial; Darling-Hammond herself; and some former governor to be named later, with Darling-Hammond as the deputy secretary.

In some sense, the final option would be the biggest setback for reform. Education is one of those areas where implementation and the details are more important than grand pronouncements. If the deputies and assistants in the secretary’s office are not true reformers, nothing will get done.

The stakes are huge. For the first time in decades, there is real momentum for reform. It’s not only Rhee and Klein — the celebrities — but also superintendents in cities across America who are getting better teachers into the classrooms and producing measurable results. There is an unprecedented political coalition building, among liberals as well as conservatives, for radical reform.

No Child Left Behind is about to be reauthorized. Everyone has reservations about that law, but it is the glaring spotlight that reveals and pierces the complacency at mediocre schools. If accountability standards are watered down, as the establishment wants, then real reform will fade.

This will be a tough call for Obama, because it will mean offending people, but he can either galvanize the cause of reform or demoralize it. It’ll be one of the biggest choices of his presidency.

Many of the reformist hopes now hang on Obama’s friend, Arne Duncan. In Chicago, he’s a successful reformer who has produced impressive results in a huge and historically troubled system. He has the political skills necessary to build a coalition on behalf of No Child Left Behind reauthorization. Because he is close to both Obamas, he will ensure that education doesn’t fall, as it usually does, into the ranks of the second-tier issues.

If Obama picks a reformer like Duncan, Klein or one of the others, he will be picking a fight with the status quo. But there’s never been a better time to have that fight than right now.
David Brooks.
Be certain to read the earlier posts on this topic below.

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