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Whom Will He Choose?

With government as the investor of last resort, Obama has broad support to implement major changes in the educational, health care, and energy systems using federal money.
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Obama's choice for Secretary of Education will be important. For the first time since the early 1970s, we may have an opportunity to improve the educational system where it is now least effective, in large urban and poor rural and semi-rural school districts.

Obama knows this. His campaign platform spelled out an ambitious program to invest in expanding early childhood education, using tuition offsets and higher starting salaries to recruit highly qualified young people into teaching, reforming teacher education so that new teachers would be better trained, implementing mentoring programs to induct teachers into the conditions of inner city schools, and training a new generation of principals and superintendents in the most advanced management methods.

Obama also knows that the current economic crisis, grim as it is, gives his administration a golden opportunity. With government as the investor of last resort, he has broad support to implement major changes in the educational, health care, and energy systems using federal money.

So who would be the best person to carry out this new federal education investment strategy?

You would think it should be someone who is in tune with Obama's vision of educational change; someone who, like Obama, believes that improving the quality of America's teaching force, attracting more highly qualified teachers into under resourced districts, and developing top-flight local educational leadership are key to raising student achievement.

However, there is a not so quiet campaign to disparage this vision of reform. One example is David Brooks' column Friday in the New York Times. "Who[m] will he choose?" Brooks asks. He goes on to argue that one of the leading candidates for Secretary of Education, Linda Darling Hammond, my colleague at Stanford University and currently head of Obama's educational transition team, is a defender of the status quo, whereas the other hypothetical leading candidates are real reformers.

This is an intentionally misleading characterization of the candidates. At issue is not Brooks' status quo versus reform, but whose reform.

On one side are those who believe, based on increasingly convincing data from here and around the world, that you can't have good schools without a large pool of highly qualified professional teachers and managers who are kept accountable to taxpayers. You also can't expect students to do well in school if they spend their early years in poor health and lacking language and other learning stimuli. The McKinsey Company, hardly a bastion of pro-union liberals, argues that the very high achieving countries -- Finland, Korea, Japan, Canada, and others -- all make sure that the very best people go into teaching, that they are pre-screened and then well prepared in teacher training institutions, and that all children have access to health care, nutrition programs, and high quality pre-schools.

On the other side are those who claim that only deregulating education and introducing market incentives can make schools better. These are the charter school and voucher advocates who believe that competition among schools, increased parental choice, and annual reviews of teachers in public schools using student achievement gains will increase learning.

The usual villains of this piece are the teachers' unions, teaching as a "profession," and schools of education. Instead of unionized teachers certified by regulated teacher education programs intending to make teaching a career, these reformers are pushing hard for using many more "short-termers," young people who stay in teaching a few years and then move on to other jobs.

For those of you who are confused and think this is John McCain's education platform, you are right. It is. But it's being pushed by a group of Democrats. This despite the deregulatory experiences of the past eight years, the mounting evidence that charter schools and voucher plans have negligible effects on student achievement, and little proof that merit and other pay incentives improve teaching.

The experience with choice is predictable, since charter and voucher schools draw from the same teacher and educational management pool as regular public schools. They also have to educate the same kids. So when low-income parents in, say, Milwaukee, which has total parental choice, pull their children out of their neighborhood school and send them to a privately run voucher or charter school, they are bound to get a teacher and classroom that is no different academically from the one they left.

That is why Obama's much broader reform agenda makes a lot more sense, and why it is foolish to characterize someone like Darling Hammond as a defender of the status quo. If anything, the reforms of teacher education and certification she has fought for, and the district reforms her work has supported in Boston, Chicago, and pre-Joel Klein in New York City, are more effective than the choice reforms in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C.

Neither is Darling Hammond opposed to charter schools -- she helped found and is deeply involved in Stanford's charter school in East Palo Alto. It's a matter of what she expects charter schools to accomplish. Along with Obama, she wants closely monitored charters as potential sites for innovation, but doesn't expect them to become the new educational system in low-income districts.

True, Darling Hammond has good contacts in the teachers' unions. Why that is a negative for an educational reformer is a mystery that Brooks (and his fellow deregulators) should have to explain. If collective bargaining were really the reason that students don't achieve at high levels, then all those southern states with no collective bargaining would be at the top of the state rankings, and Canadian and Finnish students would be doing a lot worse than students in Alabama. Yes, unions make it hard to fire teachers without due process. But well trained principals and superintendents know how to go through the process and get bad teachers out. Trouble is, we don't really train our educational managers to do this, nor to be instructional leaders, nor to use achievement data to help make teachers aware of their shortcomings.

There are ineffective teachers in big city school districts (and in high income suburban districts and in private schools). Yet, until and even when we have better replacements for them, to improve schools we need tough, long-term leadership that has the cooperation and trust of the good teachers already in the system and their unions. Barack Obama, long experienced at the grassroots level of Chicago's reform, knows all this. It makes him a much better judge than David Brooks of whom to choose for Secretary.