At The New Republic, Seyward Darby takes at face value the complaints some edu-reformers have about Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford teacher quality expert who is leading the transition team's education efforts. Sample hand-wringing reactions to Darling-Hammond's appointment: "This is a sign that the president-elect isn't a bona fide reformer." "The reform community is scared to death."
It's certainly true that some of Darling-Hammond's 1990s criticisms of Teach for America haven't stood the test of time; more recent research shows that TFA teachers, despite their inexperience, are better than traditionally certified teachers at raising students' math and science scores. (On reading and writing, the advantage shrinks.) Yet boiling down Darling-Hammond's career to her stance toward TFA is unhelpful. One of Darling-Hammond's main arguments about alternative certification programs is that they aren't scalable and sustainable in a way that would truly reform teacher quality all over America. Most teachers will continue to be relatively average individuals who make a long-term commitment to the profession, not Ivy League graduates or professionals making a mid-career change, who are likely to leave teaching after a few years. Teacher reform efforts must grapple with that reality.
On the campaign trail this year as an Obama surrogate, Darling-Hammond showed a surprising facility speaking about "accountability" -- especially considering she is a known critic of NCLB and high stakes standardized testing. She seems to be a team player who represents Obama's policies before her own. And if we trust Obama's appointment of folks to his right on foreign policy and the economy, we should trust his appointment of some more traditional liberals on domestic issues. It is the president who sets the agenda. Yet Darling-Hammond brings some real gravitas. She isn't scared to discuss the oft-neglected, yet crucial education issue of our time: segregation of low-income children of color. Here's what she had to say at an education debate at Teacher's College in October: "We can't have a two-tier system anymore, where in these concentrated, apartheid-schools where African Americans and Latinos are, the resources are not there to insure that they have a teacher that knows how to teach them to read, write, mathematics."
Lastly, smart politics suggests that if education reformers believe teachers' unions are the primary obstacle to change, they shouldn't oppose the appointment of someone to a key position who is trusted by the unions. After all, Obama's best bet to cajole and influence the unions is to hire people who aren't openly hostile to them, but who are willing to pressure them in a way dictated by Obama's own priorities, which include merit pay. Darling-Hammond wouldn't have signed on to be an Obama surrogate if she weren't comfortable with Obama's positions on education.
I still think Darling-Hammond is unlikely to be named secretary of education, as she is an academic with no experience running either a government or a school system. She's a fine person, though, to do what the transition team leaders are actually doing, which is fact-finding on how each federal agency is currently run, and how it can become more effective under Obama. There's a lot of nervousness and overheated rhetoric right now in the edu-wonk community, on all sides. I'd suggest more of a wait-and-see approach.