Disturbing development

Liam Julian

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 the status quo, teachers'-union-friendly camp, and those who crave school innovations, reforms, and HR structures that put the interests of kids before those of adults. With which group Obama chose to huddle could signal how he'll govern, generally, as president.

Alas, throughout the 2008 campaign, Obama huddled with ambiguity. His rhetoric about schools was soaring, his actual platforms grounded. He called the provision of first-rate education a national "moral responsibility," one that he pledged to fulfill, yet 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.

And yet, Obama gave Democratic reformers some 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 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 with the Obama transition office's recent announcement that Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond will head the Education Department policy transition team. Darling of the education-reform crowd Darling-Hammond is not.

She is a darling of teachers' unions and ed schools, however, and a self-defined advocate of progressive education, the tenets of which are not progress. The best educators, Darling-Hammond has said, "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 eduspeak manifests itself in, among other fluffy policies, opposition to traditional testing--i.e., testing that might ask history students, say, to answer specific questions about history that might demonstrate whether students know anything. And indeed, Darling-Hammond, when she was a professor at Teachers College, Columbia, 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." A song-and-dance routine about George Washington instead of an essay, perhaps?

Darling-Hammond is also a crusader for "equity" in education, which is too often code for dumping more money into backward systems. She has been involved in several ill-conceived "adequacy lawsuits," including the thirteen-year saga of Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York. In that case, the trial judge found (divined, really) that funding for operations and maintenance of New York State schools deserved an annual bump of a whopping $5.63 billion.

But the presumption that failing schools fail because they lack money is belied by mountains of data. Those who persist in believing that the addition of billions of dollars will make public education more equitable (Darling-Hammond and the teachers'-union leadership are among them) are misguided, perhaps willfully so. Certainly they do not think innovatively about improving schools.

Furthermore, while Darling-Hammond has acknowledged that teacher quality is one of the most important predictors of student success, she remains wedded to the traditional education school. She's been relentless in her criticism of Teach for America because its members threaten the ed-school monopoly by earning their teaching certificates via alternate routes. Reform-minded Democrats see alternative certification programs, such as those used by TFA, as the future of teacher education; Darling-Hammond and her allies see them as a menace.

Whitney Tilson is a Harvard Business School graduate, mutual-fund manager, and Obama supporter and donor who maintains a popular education-blog. He 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."

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.

A version of this piece originally appeared yesterday on National Review Online.

Liam Julian, a former Fordham staffer, is a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and managing editor of Policy Review.

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