Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Obama's disappointing choice of Linda Darling-Hammond to be one of his education advisors

As an Obama supporter, I was very disappointed to learn that he recently picked Linda Darling-Hammond to be one of his education policy advisors.

While Sen. Obama is making many good moves and is closing (and in some places, reversing!) the gap between himself and Sen. Clinton, this selection of a wolf-in-sheeps-clothing ed advisor is troubling. This is an issue Sen. Obama could really win with by staking out positions that Sen. Clinton would be hard-pressed to follow, allowing him to speak to several vital constituencies in key states who crave genuine school reform, but instead he's making her look like the reformer! With the selection of Prof. Darling-Hammond, he continues a pattern of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory on this issue (for my comments on his recent education speech, see:

Prof. Darling-Hammond has every qualification imaginable (see her bio at, but she is about as bad as it gets in terms of education reform. That's a strong statement, so let me be clear what I mean: I have no doubt that she really cares about kids, closing the achievement gap and doing what's right to improve schools, so right there you'd think that she's hugely better than, say, teacher union bosses who will stop at nothing to preserve their unions' interests, even when they're totally contrary to what's best for kids.
But I actually think people like Linda Darling-Hammond (and Jonathan Kozol -- I've posted my thoughts on him here:, here: and here: are actually more dangerous to the school reform movement precisely because they tend have pure motives.
All sensible people are rightly skeptical when union bosses call for more spending and smaller class size (gee, what a shocker that they favor more money to more teachers) as the solution to all that ails education, but they drop their guard when well-credentialed, well-intentioned people like Prof. Darling-Hammond talk about education reform, even when their solutions, rooted in the Alice in Wonderland world of ed schools, are either very limited or flat-out wrong.
These prototypical ed school types have typically never worked a day in their lives in the private sector and are oblivious to (or enemies of) things that, in the real world, drive success or failure of organizations like accountability, choice, competition, incentives, the importance of not only identifying and rewarding success but -- egads! -- identifying and punishing failure, etc. Worse yet, these folks are not interested in reform unless the reformers have credentials they deem acceptable -- yet for too long, the very process of obtaining those credentials is antithetical to making the reforms.
The failure to recognize the true nature of people like Prof. Darling-Hammond (again, I don't for an instant question her good intentions) leads too often to important people like Sen. Obama, who could be real leaders on this issue, instead mouthing meaningless platitudes about toothless reforms fed to them by these so-called experts who, though certainly they would never admit it, even to themselves, are carrying water for the enemies of reform.
My primary quarrel with Prof. Darling-Hammond is not that what she says/writes is all wrong, but rather that in all of her writings, I can't find a single word about the core problem in American education: the broken, dysfunctional system, with awful bureaucracies, skewed incentives, little accountability, and powerful, entrenched interests defending it. In fact, I can't think of anything important she's said or written that wouldn't be embraced and endorsed by the teachers unions.
For example, as I discuss below, her Marshall Plan for teachers sounds great, but in the absence of reforms that address the broken system -- reforms that she either ignores or is hostile to -- it will simply end up costing a lot of money and won't change anything.
To summarize, let me be clear: 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.
Having made very clear my issues with Jonathan Kozol (see the posts above), why so I have similar views of Prof. Darling-Hammond? Let me count the ways:
A) She's long been a rabid critic of Teach for America and is the author of the infamous "study" on Teach for America, which has been totally discredited -- see: Here's an excerpt:
Darling-Hammond's recently released study reflects only two grade levels in a single Teach For America site, draws conclusions from old data, and appears not even to meet the research standards for its own less rigorous design. Perhaps most concerning, the analysis and conclusions of Darling-Hammond's study were not subjected to rigorous review by other objective researchers or the subjects themselves before being released to the press.

While Teach For America was not given the opportunity to ask questions about the study design, or to view the study before it went to the press, our initial look since the public release has revealed significant flaws in the analysis and methodology. In fact, every researcher with whom we have spoken who has seen this study has concluded there are problems that could invalidate the conclusions. We summarize several of these problems below.
Her "study" is so shoddy that I can only conclude that she's biased and deliberately did a hatchet job. In bringing Darling-Hammond onto his team, does Sen. Obama really want to send the message that he's against Teach for America?! That's the message I'm getting...
B) According to a friend who was there, at a conference she publicly called one of the most passionate, committed education reformers I know (and a long-time Democrat) a tool of Republicans because his courageus, bold ideas conflicted with her politically correct, toothless reforms. No, Prof. Darling-Hammond, we Democrats who are real education reformers aren't tools of anyone -- it's you who are the tool of the entrenched forces of the status quo.
C) When she's not directly attacking amazing reform organizations like TFA, she's damning others with faint praise. For example, on charter schools, while she's one of the founders of a charter school in East Palo Alto ( and, I've heard she's lukewarm on charter schools in general and doesn't understand the benefits of competition and choice at all, as is made clear in this interview (

"I'm an advocate for good schools, and I think some charter schools allow us to do some things to create those schools. Some charters don't. The movement is very diverse. I don't think the issue is charter versus non-charter, it's how do we get schools to change in ways that are going to be more supportive to kids? I'd like to see regular public school districts taking charge of the issue the way charters are."

"Competition does not always breed quality. All you have to do is sit up one night and try to find a station on cable TV. The same thing is true in schools. The studies about charter schools across the country have shown that in many states the charter schools are doing less well than the regular public schools. So they're not a whole lot of competition in some ways. On the other hand I do think that creating good school models does show people that it is possible to break out of the mold. So the provision of high-quality modeling for schooling, whether charter or non-charter, is a good thing and in a sense may be what the proponents of competition have in mind."

Of course charter schools are a mixed bag, but overall the great majority of studies show they're leading to greater student gains than comparable public schools (see page 4 of my slides posted at: and, equally importantly, the top schools like KIPP, Achievement First and Uncommon Schools (see slides 5-12) are achieving unprecedented educational success with the most disadvantaged students -- yet Prof. Darling-Hammond is silent about this.
D) In this extended interview from The Nation(, she makes a few good points (we need more robust ways to test and measure students and schools), but it's clear that she's an enemy of choice, competition, accountability and anything that identifies and punishes failure.
Let's look at her Marshall Plan for teaching, which sounds wonderful, but pretty much could have been copied and pasted from the NEA's website -- a lot more money, but little that fundamentally changes the system:

A Marshall Plan for Teaching could insure that all students are taught by well-qualified teachers within the next five years through a federal policy that (1) recruits new teachers using service scholarships that underwrite their preparation for high-need fields and locations and adds incentives for expert veteran teachers to teach in high-need schools; (2) strengthens teachers' preparation through support for professional development schools, like teaching hospitals, which offer top-quality urban teacher residencies to candidates who will stay in high-need districts; and (3) improves teacher retention and effectiveness by insuring that novices have mentoring support during their early years, when 30 percent of them drop out.

For an annual cost of $3 billion, or less than one week in Iraq, the nation could underwrite the high-quality preparation of 40,000 teachers annually--enough to fill all the vacancies taken by unprepared teachers each year; seed 100 top-quality urban-teacher-education programs and improve the capacity of all programs to prepare teachers who can teach diverse learners well; insure mentors for every new teacher hired each year; and provide incentives to bring expert teachers into high-need schools by improving salaries and working conditions.

But let's look at what's missing: 1) She talk about improving teacher retention, but what about the other side of the coin: removing ineffective teachers? (oops, I forgot: at ed schools, all teachers are wonderful, committed and effective); 2) How does she plan to identify the best teachers, esp. since she appears to be no fan of testing? What about merit pay for the most effective teachers (which is separate for higher pay for math and science teachers and extra pay for teaching in the toughest schools)?; 3) What about making tenure something rigorous, only to be earned by proven effective teachers rather than something nearly automatic?
Speaking of the bizarre ed school worldview in which any accountability is cruel and counterproductive, this captures it perfectly:

Punishing the Neediest Schools and Students. At least some of the schools identified as "needing improvement" are surely dismal places where little learning occurs, or are complacent schools that have not attended to the needs of their less advantaged students. It is fair to suggest that students in such schools deserve other choices if the schools cannot change. However, there is growing evidence that the law's strategy for improving schools may, paradoxically, reduce access to education for the most vulnerable students.

NCLB's practice of labeling schools as failures makes it even harder for them to attract and keep qualified teachers. As one Florida principal asked, "Is anybody going to want to dedicate their life to a school that has already been labeled a failure?"

Again, at first glance this sounds reasonable. No doubt schools NCLB labels as failing have trouble attracting top teachers -- but this has nothing to do with NCLB! Does Darling-Hammond really think top teachers don't already know which schools suck?! And taking her concern to its logical conclusion, we should stick our heads in the sand and not label any school a failure!
As for giving students stuck in chronically failing schools some options to escape, she appears to be open to this ("It is fair to suggest that students in such schools deserve other choices if the schools cannot change."), but then retreats:
schools that have been identified as not meeting AYP standards must use their federal funds to support choice and "supplemental services," such as privately provided after-school tutoring, leaving them with even fewer resources for their core educational programs. Unfortunately, many of the private supplemental service providers have proved ineffective and unaccountable, and transfers to better schools have been impossible in communities where such schools are unavailable or uninterested in serving students with low achievement, poor attendance and other problems that might bring their own average test scores down.
I could go on, but you get the idea...

December 7, 2007

School-Reform Expert to Be Obama Adviser

Barack Obama has picked as an education-policy adviser Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University who for two decades has been a key figure in the nation’s school-reform debate.

Ms. Darling-Hammond volunteered to become part of Mr. Obama’s team of education-policy advisers last month, said Jen Psaki, an Obama spokeswoman. “As one of the leading thinkers on education, we are thrilled to have her on the team,” Ms. Psaki said in an interview today.

At Stanford, Ms. Darling-Hammond is co-director of the School Redesign Network and the Stanford Educational Leadership Institute. Before moving to Stanford, in 1998, she was a professor of education at Teachers College at Columbia University, a researcher for the RAND Corporation, and director of the National Urban Coalition’s Excellence in Education program.

At Columbia, she also served as co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, and as executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. She is the author of The Right to Learn, which received the American Educational Research Association’s Outstanding Book Award in 1998, and has been a leading critic of the federal No Child Left Behind law, arguing that it does not do enough to encourage schools to teach higher-order thinking skills.

Ms. Darling-Hammond’s involvement in higher education has consisted mainly of weighing in on debates over teacher education. She has been a prominent critic of Teach for America—a program that sends recent college graduates into rural and urban schools—telling The Chronicle that it has failed to take steps to make sure it adequately prepares its participants.

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