Beware School 'Reformers'

If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they
would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice
them alone in a closet.
--Linda Darling-Hammond

If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they
would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice
them alone in a closet.
--Linda Darling-Hammond

Progressives are in short supply on the president-elect's list of
cabinet nominees. When he turns his attention to the Education
Department, what are the chances he'll choose someone who is
educationally progressive?

In fact, just such a person is said to be in the running and, perhaps
for that very reason, has been singled out for scorn in Washington
and Chicago Tribune editorials, a New York Times
column by David Brooks and a New Republic article, all published
almost simultaneously this month. The thrust of the articles, using
eerily similar language, is that we must reject the "forces of the
status quo" which are "allied with the teachers' unions" and choose
someone who represents "serious education reform."

To decode how that last word is being used here, recall its meaning in
the context of welfare (under Clinton) or environmental laws (under
Reagan and Bush). For Republicans education "reform" typically includes
support for vouchers and other forms of privatization. But groups with
names like Democrats for Education Reform--along with many mainstream
publications--are disconcertingly allied with conservatives in just
about every other respect. To be a school "reformer" is to support:

SS a heavy reliance on fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests
to evaluate students and schools, generally in place of more authentic
forms of assessment;

SS the imposition of prescriptive, top-down teaching
stand-ards and curriculum mandates;

SS a disproportionate emphasis on rote learning--memorizing
facts and practicing skills--particularly for poor kids;

SS a behaviorist model of motivation in which rewards (notably
money) and punishments are used on teachers and students to compel
compliance or raise test scores;

SS a corporate sensibility and an economic rationale for
schooling, the point being to prepare children to "compete" as future
employees; and

SS charter schools, many run by for-profit companies.

Notice that these features are already pervasive, which means "reform"
actually signals more of the same--or, perhaps, intensification of the
status quo with variations like one-size-fits-all national
curriculum standards or longer school days (or years). Almost never
questioned, meanwhile, are the core elements of traditional schooling,
such as lectures, worksheets, quizzes, grades, homework, punitive
discipline and competition. That would require real reform, which of
course is off the table.

Sadly, all but one of the people reportedly being considered for
Education secretary are reformers only in this Orwellian sense of the
word. The exception is Linda Darling-Hammond, a former teacher, expert
on teacher quality and professor of education at Stanford. The favored
contenders include assorted governors and two corporate-style school
chiefs: Arne Duncan, whose all-too-apt title is "chief executive
officer" of Chicago Public Schools, and his counterpart in New York
City, former CEO and high-powered lawyer Joel Klein.

Duncan, a basketball buddy of Obama's, has been called a "budding hero
in the education business" by Bush's former Education secretary, Rod
Paige. Just as the test-crazy nightmare of Paige's Houston served as a
national model (when it should have been a cautionary tale) in 2001, so
Duncan would bring to Washington an agenda based on Renaissance 2010,
which Chicago education activist Michael Klonsky describes as a blend of
"more standardized testing, closing neighborhood schools,
militarization, and the privatization of school management."

Duncan's philosophy is shared by Klein, who is despised by educators and
parents in his district perhaps more than any superintendent in the
nation [see Lynnell Hancock, "School's Out," July 9, 2007]. In a survey
of 62,000 New York City teachers this past summer, roughly 80 percent
disapproved of his approach. Indeed, talk of his candidacy has prompted
three separate anti-Klein petitions that rapidly collected thousands of
signatures. One, at, describes his administration as
"a public relations exercise camouflaging the systematic elimination of
parental involvement; an obsessively test-driven culture; a growing
atmosphere of fear, disillusionment, and intimidation experienced by
professionals; and a flagrant manipulation of school data." (The only
petition I know of to promote an Education secretary candidate is
one for Darling-Hammond, at

Duncan and Klein pride themselves on new programs that pay students for
higher grades or scores. Both champion the practice of forcing
low-scoring students to repeat a grade--a strategy that research
overwhelmingly finds counterproductive. Coincidentally, Darling-Hammond
wrote in 2001 about just such campaigns against "social promotion" in
New York and Chicago, pointing out that politicians keep trotting out
the same failed get-tough strategies "with no sense of irony or
institutional memory." In that same essay, she also showed how earlier
experiments with high-stakes testing have mostly served to increase the
dropout rate.

Duncan and Klein, along with virulently antiprogressive DC schools
chancellor Michelle Rhee, are celebrated by politicians and pundits.
Darling-Hammond, meanwhile, tends to be the choice of people who
understand how children learn. Consider her wry comment that introduces
this article: it's impossible to imagine a comparable insight coming
from any of the spreadsheet-oriented, pump-up-the-scores "reformers"
(or, for that matter, from any previous Education secretary).
Darling-Hammond knows how all the talk of "rigor" and "raising the bar"
has produced sterile, scripted curriculums that have been imposed
disproportionately on children of color. Her viewpoint is that of an
educator, not a corporate manager.

Imagine--an educator running the Education Department.

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