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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 03/12/2010

Why Obama, Duncan should read Linda Darling-Hammond’s new education book

By Valerie Strauss

Educator Linda Darling-Hammond told me that her publisher gave her one hardback copy of her new paperback book, “The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future.”

She gave it to President Obama. After all, the Stanford University education professor had headed his education policy team during the transition, and she wrote the book during that period.

How I hope he reads it, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan should too.

Anybody who does read the Darling-Hammond book--and Diane Ravitch's new book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”--will get a full picture of how Obama and Duncan are off track with education reform and in danger of wasting billions of dollars on schemes that had already wasted billions in the George Bush era of No Child Left Behind.

Darling-Hammond’s research, teaching, and policy work focus on issues of school restructuring, teacher quality and educational equity--and she knows as much about them as anyone in the country. These issues are central to any effort to create schools that really work.

Still, when it came time to pick an education secretary, there appeared to be a campaign against her. She was falsely accused of supporting the status quo and blindly aligning with teachers unions.

Whatever his reasons, Obama tapped Duncan, the superintendent of Chicago schools, who supported key elements of No Child Left Behind during his tenure there. As education secretary, he has disappointed many people who had hoped Obama would end the era of high-stakes standardized testing and punitive measures for schools that don’t meet artificial goals.

Darling-Hammond’s book gives us an idea of where we could have been headed if she were in charge of the country's education policy.

Her education experience is extensive: At Stanford she launched the Stanford Educational Leadership Institute and the School Redesign Network, and served as faculty sponsor for the Stanford Teacher Education Program. She is a former president of the American Educational Research Association and member of the National Academy of Education. She was, from 1994-2001, the executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a blue-ribbon panel whose 1996 report, “What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future," led to important policy changes that affected teaching and teacher education. And she has written hundreds of publications about education.

Where Ravitch’s new book looks at the tenets of No Child Left Behind--in which she once believed--and uses data and personal experience to show how egregiously it failed, Darling-Hammond looks at why and how the country can build a truly equitably public education system.

Darling-Hammond uses a mountain of data and stories about reform efforts in various states to explain what can really work in helping close the achievement gap and what hasn’t worked.

She takes conventional wisdom and explains why we don't really know what we think we know. For example, she explains how Finland, Singapore and South Korea created excellent, equitable school systems.

There is a common notion that they did it through the centralization of power. That’s not what happened. The key element in all three success stories was a commitment by the governments to equitably fund schools.

Finland went from having a centralized model to “a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around very lean national standards,” she wrote. All assessments are school-based, designed by teachers, rather than standardized.” The Finnish government put a lot of money into making sure they had a quality teaching force, raising standards for teacher preparation as well as salaries.

Singapore, a country that is highly controlled by the national government, realized that regimentation in schools was counterproductive and introduced the American notion of innovation.

Her analysis of the ups and downs of reform efforts in three states--North Carolina, Connecticut and California--lays bare how policy-makers can get things right, then get them wrong again.

Darling-Hammond’s remedies are not original; they are what many educators have long known is necessary to close the achievement gap and build an equitable system, but which the country has never properly funded.

Working to reduce poverty so that children have secure housing, food and health care is central; kids who go to school hungry and sick can’t learn. But some of today’s generation of reform superintendents think they can achieve their goals simply by ordering the classroom in a specific way.

How many studies must be done before policy-makers understand that supportive early learning environments are critical, that teachers and education leaders must be well-trained and well-supported, that any effort to close the achievement gap is doomed to fail if we don’t equitably fund all schools and properly staff them?

If Obama and Duncan did read the book, I have to think that it would be hard for them to stay on the road they're now traveling.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 12, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, No Child Left Behind  | Tags:  Arne Duncan, Education Department, education reform  
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Singapore and Finland succeed because they are both wealthy and highly equitable societies. In addition, Singapore is the land of Singapore Math, a curriculum that is so effective that it has become wildly popular among American parents of gifted kids who are looking to teach their kids what they don't learn in school. The model of good early learning environments, highly trained and well supported teachers, and equal funding of schools, will never ever happen here for a myriad of political reasons. Obama knows that, and is trying to deal with realities, not dreams. It is sad - most of my life I have argued for equal funding of school districts - but I have realized that with Tea Party movements conservatives surging, it will never happen in this country.

Posted by: bkmny | March 12, 2010 8:16 AM | Report abuse

"Still, when it came time to pick an education secretary, there appeared to be a campaign against her. She was falsely accused of supporting the status quo and blindly aligning with teachers unions."

There was not so much a campaign against LDH for Secretary of Education as there was a realization on the part of the Obama team that she was not of the same mind as the president-elect was for reforming our schools. He's more of a centrist while she's a liberal. He's experienced an actual inner-city, poor/minority environment while she has little or no first hand knowledge of this environment. She only writes about it. Obama wants quantitative data to figure out what's working and what's not, while LDH is inclined to favor qualitative "evidence" such as student reports, projects, essays, and portfolios to determine what's working and what's not. The Obama/Duncan team is more traditional than LDH's progressive perspective.

Read Ravitch's Left Back carefully, especially the chapter that details why the progressive movement in education of the 60's and 70's failed our schools and students miserably.

The days of John Dewey, A. S. Neill (Summer Hill), Dr. Spock, and Sigmund Freud are quite thankfully behind us, discarded rubbish on the scrap heap of so many "fads" purported to reform our society and our schools.

That's why Obama chose Duncan (although he is clearly not the brightest bulb in the box) over Linda Darling-Hammond.

Posted by: phoss1 | March 12, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

What "quantitative data" is it that Obama/Duncan are using to make these rulings coming out of the Education Department lately? Have they extensively surveyed teachers in the classrooms throughout the nation to find out the reality of NCLB, "merit-pay" and national standards? Since when did politicians become the only decision-making experts in education?

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | March 12, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

The more I learn about the Obama/Duncan approach to reform, I have to think they see unions sole function as protecting bad teachers. Actually, that does happen in some older, inner-city systems. The teachers who should retire sometimes end up at the school in the least desirable area. A kid could get stuck with bad teachers for years in a row if they are unlucky.
Therefore the charter school is the answer for them because a charter school has no union and can fire a teacher whenever it feels like it. Of course the questions about whether charter schools in those areas are attracting the best teachers is still out there. Do they have experienced teachers? I suspect many experienced teachers get tired of all the inner city issues and move out to where the majority of parents are involved.

As a teacher and a parent, I think this whole accountability thing implies that the teachers all are terrible, therefore we need new ones (people from other fields), businesses can do better than schools, etc.

Teachers opinions seem to be regarded as excuses or rantings.

I also wonder, "since when did politicians become the only decision-making experts in education?"

Posted by: celestun100 | March 12, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

"Darling-Hammond’s book gives us an idea of where we could have been headed if she were in charge of the country's education policy."

In other words, it will make me cry.

1bnth... - there is recent quantitative data from a survey* done by the Gates foundation, no less (along with Scholastic) that shows that teachers are not interested in merit pay and do want more administrative support and collaboration with teachers. This is being ignored in favor of singling out teachers for merit pay, and firing teachers instead of giving them more admin support and colleague collaboration.


Posted by: efavorite | March 12, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

"discarded rubbish on the scrap heap of so many "fads" purported to reform our society and our schools."

In other words, what we're calling NCLB now and will be calling RttT in a few years -- all the while, children suffer and the rich get richer and the government throws more money away.

Posted by: efavorite | March 12, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

If the president were truly well informed and truly bold, he'd make a radical transformation right now of his disastrous education policy. He'd say "our children only have one chance to be educated" and instead of using those words to break up schools and fire teachers, he'd use them to justify changing course from a plan already doomed to fail according to the data - not to mention common sense - including his own.

Posted by: efavorite | March 12, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

I am a big fan of Obama on most things, but I do like the idea of using his quote to turn his education policy around. good point, efavorite.

Yes, I like that, "our children have only one chance to be educated"

Think about it.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 12, 2010 7:47 PM | Report abuse

Obama mouths a lot of the right words, but there is a disconnect between what he says and what he does. The Central Falls case is a good example. He (and Arne Duncan) have repeatedly said that we should measure schools by how much their students are learning (growth), not simply how they perform on a single standardized test. Yet Obama's justification for the Central Falls massacre was that only 7 percent of students achieved a passing score on the state math test. But that statistic is meaningless without the context of how well the student were doing in math when they entered the school and whether they attended the school long enough for it to have an instructional impact on them. This is not complicated to understand, and Obama certainly knows it. But rather than shedding light on the situation by pointing out that teachers can claim with some justification that they are not solely responsible for their students' outcomes, he chose to policize it.

Posted by: dz159 | March 12, 2010 9:55 PM | Report abuse

There's an interesting op-ed piece in this morning's Boston Globe ( - "A Step Down" 3/13/2010) chronicling a related issue, the ineptitude of LDH and her "progressive" agenda.

"If Obama and Duncan did read the book, I have to think that it would be hard for them to stay on the road they're now traveling." They don't have to read the book. They've heard the same nonsense countless times from the educational establishment over the past half century. And many wonder why teachers, etc., are not invited to join in the education reform dialogue? They controlled our schools for how long? And where did it get us? It won us the race to mediocrity amongst our contemporaries of the industrialized world. Noq isn't that special!

Posted by: phoss1 | March 13, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

As always, this writer gets it right on education.

Posted by: jlp19 | March 13, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps phoss1 the same as P.H. who posts online that he is a "Retired elementary classroom teacher from Scituate, Massachusetts after 34 years?" The politics seem to be the same.

If so, the 2000 demographics of Scituate were 97% White, 0.49% Black or African American, 0.83% Latino, and 0.45% Asian. The median family income was the median income for a family was $86,058. That gives us an idea about the public schools there.

Such a personal teaching experience would be extremely limited. To me, any commentary for how to improve urban public education from such a person can be immediately dismissed for a lack of sufficient understanding. LDH most certainly knows much more than phoss1 thinks she does.

As for Obama who phoss1 says: "He's experienced an actual inner-city, poor/minority environment while she (LDH) has little or no first hand knowledge of this environment."

Obama attended religious or elite private schools from day one, so did Arne Duncan (Chicago Lab School). Michelle Obama was isolated in an academic public magnet school, then headed to the Ivies. The Obamas have always sent their kids to elite private schools (first the Chicago Lab School, now Sidwell Friends). No one at the top knows much of anything about the realities or dynamics in urban public schools and school districts.

The extent of Duncan's education is a bachelor's degree. Whoop. De. Doo. He happened to get his foot in the education-field-door by being a personal friend of the very wealthy John Rogers, who Duncan knew from the Chicago Lab School and who gave him a job when he returned from basketball-playing in Australia and needed one. Rogers is the common basketball-playing link for this entire cast of characters now running the future-of-public-education store.

Adolf Reed, Jr., nailed Obama from before day one.

Posted by: pondoora | March 14, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

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