Uncertainty on Obama Education Plans

Published on
by
The New York Times

Uncertainty on Obama Education Plans

by
Sam Dillon

As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to announce his choice for education secretary, there is mystery not only about the person he will choose, but also about the approach to overhauling the nation's schools that his selection will reflect.

Despite an 18-month campaign for president and many debates, there remains uncertainty about what Mr. Obama believes is the best way to improve education.

Will he side with those who want to abolish teacher tenure and otherwise curb the power of teachers' unions? Or with those who want to rewrite the main federal law on elementary and secondary education, the No Child Left Behind Act, and who say the best strategy is to help teachers become more qualified?

The debate has sometimes been nasty.

"People are saying things now that they may regret saying in a couple of months," said Jack Jennings, a Democrat who is president and chief executive of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. "Unfortunately, they're all friends of mine, which makes it awkward."

Some of the toughest criticism has been aimed at the person Mr. Obama appointed to lead his education policy working group, the most important education post of the transition: Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University.

Dr. Darling-Hammond is liked by the teachers' unions, and partly for that reason has been portrayed as an enemy of school reform by detractors. These have included people who have urged Mr. Obama to appoint Joel I. Klein, the New York City schools chancellor, or Michelle Rhee, the schools chancellor in Washington, as education secretary. Both of them have clashed with teachers' unions.

Editorials and opinion articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have described the debate as pitting education reformers against those representing the educational establishment or the status quo. But who the reformers are depends on who is talking.

Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, used different terms in discussing the debate.

Dr. Fuller said it pitted "professionalization advocates such as Darling-Hammond," who believe the policy emphasis should be on raising student achievement by helping teachers improve their instruction, against "efficiency hawks like Klein and Rhee." The efficiency hawks, he said, emphasize standardized testing, cracking down on poor school management and purging bad teachers.

"It's tough love without any love," he said.

Dr. Darling-Hammond has become a controversial figure partly because of her longtime criticism of Teach for America, the nonprofit group that recruits college graduates to teach for two years in hard-to-staff schools. She says the group loses too many recruits at the end of their two-year commitments, just when they are learning to teach.

Teach for America has no official preference for or opposition to any candidate, said Kevin Huffman, a spokesman for the group.

But an organization called Leadership for Educational Equity, which was founded to help former members of the Teach for America corps become involved in politics, has photographs of Dr. Darling-Hammond, Mr. Obama and Mr. Klein alongside an article on its Web site with the headline, "Education Secretary Fight Could Affect Teach for America's Mission."

The article notes that Dr. Darling-Hammond "has long been a vocal critic of Teach For America," and it urges the group's alumni to make their views on the candidates known.

Mr. Obama has given no hint of his own leanings.

Arne Duncan, the chief executive of Chicago Public Schools, may have an edge. Mr. Duncan is a longtime friend of the president-elect and has closed failing schools and improved achievement without alienating the teachers' union. The superintendent of Denver Public Schools, Michael Bennet, who has enacted a plan to reward effective teachers with higher pay, has also attracted the transition team's interest.

Mr. Klein and Ms. Rhee, as well as former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and several current and former governors, have also been considered, a member of the transition team said. Mr. Powell has said publicly that he is not interested.

One former Teach for America official who has been outspoken is Whitney Tilson, a New York mutual fund manager.

In a recent blog entry, Mr. Tilson said of Dr. Darling-Hammond, "She's influential, clever and (while she does her best to hide it) an enemy of genuine reform."

Mr. Tilson is on the board of Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee based in New York.

The group sent the Obama transition team a 43-page memorandum shortly after the election with policy advice and a "wish list" of candidates for secretary that included Mr. Duncan; Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America; and Jon Schnur, who started a nonprofit group, New Leaders for New Schools, that trains principals for urban schools, said Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.

Mr. Williams said his group also liked Mr. Klein and Ms. Rhee. "We'd be thrilled," he said, "if either one were named secretary."

The two national teachers unions have also been active. The National Education Association has not formally endorsed anyone but has discussed candidates with the Obama transition team, indicating some candidates who would have the union's support, said John Wilson, the executive director.

The American Federation of Teachers presented the Obama team with written evaluations of a string of candidates without endorsing any of them, said Randi Weingarten, the union's president. "We have no candidate in the race," Ms. Weingarten said.

But last week she publicly praised Mr. Duncan in an interview with The Associated Press. "Arne Duncan," she said, "actually reaches out and tries to do things in a collaborative way."

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