Politics & Policy

Hoping for Change in Education?

The early signs indicate Obama has sided with the public-school status quo.

New York Times columnist David Brooks began his June 13th piece with a question: “Is Barack Obama really a force for change, or is he just a traditional Democrat with a patina of postpartisan rhetoric?”

The answer, Brooks noted, might be found in Obama’s approach to American K-12 education — a policy issue that had rather recently evinced in Democratic party circles a divide: between defenders of the proteachers’ union status quo and grassroots insurrectionists who demand reform in school administration and staffing to put the interests of students before that of teachers. The side with which Obama chose to huddle on education policy would reveal much about how he’d govern as president.

#ad#Throughout the 2008 campaign, though, Obama huddled ambiguously. His rhetoric about schools was often soaring; his actual platform positions, pedestrian. He called the provision of first-rate education a national “moral responsibility” that he pledged to fulfill; but his major contribution to that end was to propose adding billions of dollars to the federal education-budget without fundamentally reshaping the sclerotic system it funds. Obama also inclined toward trotting out tired tropes: “But, in the end, responsibility for our children’s success doesn’t start in Washington. It starts in our homes. It starts in our families.” Such sentiments are at best a distraction from — and at worst an excuse for — the lousy public schools that so many children attend.

Still, Obama also gave Democratic reformers cause for hope. In April, for example, he told FOX News Sunday host Chris Wallace, “I think that on issues of education, I’ve been very clear about the fact — and sometimes I’ve gotten in trouble with the teachers’ union on this — that we should be experimenting with charter schools. We should be experimenting with different ways of compensating teachers.”

When Obama reiterated his support for merit pay at the July convention of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union – and was booed for it – he won even more credibility with the reform crowd. Joe Williams, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, wrote on the group’s blog that Obama wouldn’t “play by the old rules” and wouldn’t be “the kind of Democrat who blindly presides over massive systemic educational failure because it keeps the unions happy.”

Such hopes, while not dashed, certainly suffered a significant blow last week. The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire reported that Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor and one of Obama’s advisors, will head the Education Department transition team that is tasked with drafting policy for the incoming administration. (Darling-Hammond told Education Week that she is not officially fulfilling this capacity but then sent the newspaper a follow-up email in which she wrote she couldn’t “yet” talk about the transition team.)

Darling-Hammond is a self-described advocate of “progressive” education, the methods of which she believes are “grounded in a deep sense of curricular intentions, arise from compelling questions, and include rigorous intellectual challenges such as critical thinking and problem solving across disciplines.” The best progressive educators “engage in a dialectic between the subject and the student” and in so doing, the student “is constantly moved to a broader and more thoughtful place in the curriculum.”

Such eye-glazing edu-speak manifests itself in a staunch opposition to traditional testing — i.e., testing that might ask history students, say, to answer specific questions about history. And indeed, Darling-Hammond, when she was a professor at Columbia University in the early 1990s, worked to move New York’s Regents Exams away from paper-and-pencil tests and toward personalized performance portfolios that she said would give pupils “multiple ways to show their learning.” Such as demonstrating what they know about George Washington through, say, a song-and-dance routine rather than an essay.

Darling-Hammond is also a crusader for “equity” in education, and she has been involved in several ill-conceived “adequacy lawsuits” — in which occur states are sued for not providing an adequate education for all students, as state constitutions typically require — including the 13-year saga of Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. New York. In that case, the trial judge found that funding for operations and maintenance of New York State schools deserved an annual bump of a whopping $5.63 billion.

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This adequacy litigation that Darling-Hammond supports presupposes that failing schools fail because they lack for money, despite mountains of data belying that notion.

And not only does an adequacy-lawsuit adjudicator conjure up arbitrary amounts ($5.63 billion?) of cash by which governments are supposedly shortchanging their school-age children, but research shows most such money ends up in schools that serve affluent students. Kansas City, Missouri, for example, received $2 billion of adequacy funds; portions were spent on construction of an arboretum, a wildlife refuge, and a model United Nations chamber.

#ad#Darling-Hammond teaches in an education school, and so it is unsurprising that she passionately defends their dubious usefulness. She has been relentless in her criticism of Teach for America, a program that recruits talented college graduates (no matter their major) to teach in troubled schools. Darling-Hammond rightly sees TFA and its innovative ilk as threats to the education-school monopoly that propagates pedagogical gobbledygook (e.g., “deep sense of curricular intentions”) and populates America’s classrooms with too many young people who believe it.

Whitney Tilson — a Harvard Business School graduate, mutual-fund manager, and Obama supporter who maintains a popular education-blog — wrote last year, “I think that Linda Darling-Hammond is little more than a thinly disguised shill for the teachers unions and that her ideas, if adopted, would likely result in much higher spending and little or no improvement in our schools. I can suggest 100 far better people for Obama to listen to if he’s really serious about education reform.” His view can claim adherents on both the left and the right. And so Darling-Hammond’s elevation is for all of them — but especially for fellow Democrats concerned about education reform and school quality — a major bummer.

Back to Brooks’s original question: “Is Barack Obama really a force for change, or is he just a traditional Democrat with a patina of postpartisan rhetoric?”

So far, it seems, tradition trumps change.

Liam Julian is a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and managing editor of Policy Review.

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