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Darling-Hammond Could Usher in New Era of Education Engagement

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Barack Obama will be the first community organizer sworn into our nation's highest office--the dramatic result of an unprecedented level of grassroots support for a single candidate. Just how he will maintain and utilize this grassroots army is still evolving, but the potential is clear: By enacting community-engagement friendly policies and filling top posts with experienced hands who've shown a talent for working with grassroots groups, Obama's presidency could usher in historic new levels of civic engagement at local, state and even federal levels.

Public education presents an interesting example. After basic infrastructure like roads, no other governmentally-provided good is used by so much of the populace. Public education has always proved fertile ground for community organizers, including for Obama during his days on the South Side of Chicago. Organized and engaged parents, students, and community members can push schools to respond to local needs and hold officials accountable for raising student achievement. But as Obama's success demonstrates, organizing on the ground is most effective when it is embraced and understood by the leadership at the top.

This is why Obama's selection of Education Secretary will be critical. Of all the names currently being floated, one person stands out as understanding policy both from the top-down view of policymakers and from the bottom-up view of the grassroots. Linda Darling-Hammond--a Stanford professor ranked by Education Week as one of the country's ten most influential people in education policy--has served as one of Obama's top education advisors and currently heads his policy transition team. Darling-Hammond is known for her commitment to equity and her far-reaching, yet practical ideas for major transformation of our schools. The depth and rigor of her research and writing in her field (particularly on teacher quality and school equity issues) is unparalleled among other potential Education nominees.

Also, uniquely among the other potential nominees for Education Secretary, indeed, of the potential nominees for any cabinet post, Darling-Hammond's name seems to have generated the broadest and the most spontaneous support. Along with a rising tide of letters and blogs supporting her appointment is an online petition carrying just under 2,600 signatures. That petition was closed and a new one started that carries another 400+ names. At the state convening of the Campaign for Quality Education in Sacramento on November 21, the dozen or so grassroots groups assembled to work on a college and career readiness campaign took time out to unanimously endorse her. That so many grassroots groups know, much less feel strongly about, a federal education appointment is, frankly, a remarkable statement. A letter of support circulating among education leaders from the academic, educator, and civil rights communities this week quickly garnered around 100 names, including over 30 school superintendents. This letter and a separate one signed by 49 deans of schools of education have been submitted to John Podesta and the transition team. Darling-Hammond's broad support derives both from her bold transformative vision and her willingness to engage with groups large and small, including parents, students, and grassroots communities, and not just with elite academics and policymakers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, because she has been a shining beacon for bold and comprehensive reform, recently, a group of anti-union, pro-testing reformers has mounted a concerted media campaign to thwart her appointment. Absurdly, they seek to label her a defender of the status quo. Status quo? You might as well call former Massachusetts Board of Education Secretary Horace Mann a staid bureaucrat. Darling-Hammond's comprehensive vision encompasses and exceeds the reforms being pushed by her attackers. Charter schools? She has founded and advised them. Hold teachers and schools of education accountable for teaching that improves student outcomes? A recurring theme in her hundreds of articles. Pay excellent teachers more and remove those who are incompetent? Darling-Hammond pioneered these ideas in her groundbreaking 1996 report from the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future which led to major reforms across the country.

Precisely because she has a bolder vision for reform, one that rises above the negative, punitive approach of No Child Left Behind while pursuing its goals for greater achievement and equity, she enjoys unusually broad support among grassroots community organizers and low-income communities of color actually struggling with the most disadvantaged schools. Her vision is one of greatly expanded accountability--and not just at the school, but at the district and state levels--and adequate resources to ensure schools, teachers, and students can succeed. Were that vision ever realized, it would upend the status quo that leaves low-income students of color in outmoded factory-model schools with low-quality teaching.

The message that Obama's campaign carried for America is the same one Darling-Hammond has carried her whole career--we are the change we need for improving our schools. Given the state of our schools and the promise of Obama, it is a message that is fiercely urgent now, and one Darling-Hammond can uniquely help realize.