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Education Opinion

Obama’s Choice: Secretary of Education

By Anthony Cody — November 16, 2008 2 min read

There has been a great deal of speculation about President-elect Obama’s choice for Secretary of Education. Obama has called for a new era of mutual responsibility in education, and it will take an extraordinary leader to rally educators and the nation at large to this task. Many names have been mentioned, but I am going to write about two with whom I am acquainted, and open up the discussion for your ideas as well.

One candidate is Dr. Pedro Noguera. I attended UC Berkeley with Dr. Noguera back in the 1980’s, and worked with him on various projects, including a campaign to get the university to withdraw its investments from businesses involved in the apartheid regime in South Africa. He emerged as a strong leader in that movement, and went on to become a professor of sociology at the university.

He became active in the Berkeley public schools, where his children were enrolled, and served on the school board. His book, Unfinished Business, took a close look at the dynamics of race and achievement at Berkeley High School. He is now an NYU education professor, and has written several books focused on closing the achievement gap, urban education and the particular challenges facing African American boys in school. He has written critically about No Child Left Behind, and spoken widely on education reform.

Another leading candidate for the post is Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond. She has been one of Obama’s primary advisors on education issues, and represented his views in a debate with a McCain representative held last month.

I first learned about Dr. Darling-Hammond’s work ten years ago, when I read her book, The Right to Learn.

In it she wrote passionately about the need for a stronger teaching profession, and provided a powerful critique of the status quo:

It has taken nearly a century to discover that, as a form of organization, bureaucracy lacks the tools to manage complex work, handle the unpredictable, or meet distinctive client needs. By its very nature, bureaucratic management is incapable of providing appropriate education for students who do not fit the mold upon which prescriptions for practice are based. As inputs, processes, and measures of outcomes are increasingly standardized, the cracks through which students can fall grow larger rather than smaller because the likelihood that each accumulated prescription is suitable for a given child grows smaller with each successive limitation upon a teachers' ability to adapt instruction to students' needs. Bureaucratic solutions to problems of practice will always fail because effective teaching is not routine, students are not passive, and questions of practice are not simple, predictable or standardized. Consequently, instructional decisions cannot be formulated on high then packaged and handed down to teachers. Nor can instructional problems be solved by inspectors who make occasional forays into the classroom to monitor performance and dispense advice without an intimate knowledge of the classroom context, the subject matter being taught, the goals of instruction, and the development of individual children.

Instead of “bureaucratic solutions,” Darling-Hammond has been a powerful proponent of a strengthened teaching profession. She actively supported the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and created the National Board Resource Center at Stanford University, which has helped hundreds of candidates (including myself) achieve certification over the past decade. She has written extensively on how teaching and learning actually work, looking in-depth at how we can identify and promote teacher quality. She has been critical of No Child Left Behind and the emphasis on “testing rather than investing.”

An online petition has been started urging President-elect Obama to select Dr. Darling-Hammond.

From my point of view, either of these individuals would be an excellent choice, because both of them bring a powerful dedication to the needs of our students, and will be forceful advocates for school improvement. They are both, like Obama himself, articulate and passionate in their beliefs, and could offer us the fresh start we need.

Update: Today’s San Francisco Chronicle says

It's been a busy week for Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor who heads back to Washington, D.C., on Sunday to preside over the start of what she hopes will be a new - and better funded - era for public schools.
Darling-Hammond, a teacher-friendly educator, has been tapped by President-elect Barack Obama to head his transition team on education policy.

Whom do you think President-elect Obama should choose for this job? Why?

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