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Opinion
Education Opinion

Why Not Darling-Hammond?

By Susan Graham — November 30, 2008 4 min read

Analyzing the odds on who will go to bowl games is a hot topic in most of the country, but here in the D.C.-Virginia politicopolis, football pools are often trumped by cabinet appointment speculations. While Joel Klein and Colin Powell’s names have been bouncing around as likely candidates for Secretary of Education, there are rumors that Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, President Elect Obama’s education transition team leader, is a serious contender for the Cabinet seat herself.

There’s no doubt that, as Chancellor of New York City Schools, Joel Klein has made progress in transforming New York’s floundering education system. His Children First restructuring has focused on leadership, empowerment, and accountability and the schools have benefited from his willingness to be a results driven CEO in a school system that had become mired in a dysfunctional organization and inconsistent instruction. But Mr. Klein has a relatively short record of six years in education--make that seven, since he taught sixth grade math for a while during a leave of absence from Harvard Law. As a native New Yorker and former student of NYC public schools his knowledge may be deep and personal, but his experience is very limited in range and what he has learned about schools in New York City may not be replicable or appropriate in Sausalito, California or Deep Hollow, Kentucky. Klein is, by training and experience, not an educator but a lawyer. Since he was highly successful in the Justice Department during the Clinton administration, it seems that he would be better suited for the short list for Attorney General. Of course, Eric Holder is the front runner for that job, but I’d prefer not to have Secretary of Education be a consolation prize.

What about Colin Powell then? Certainly the appointment of a man who could have been a contender for the Republican nomination would be a demonstration of bipartisanship. Mr. Powell is a remarkable man of enormous personal integrity and the American people trust him. As former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State, he was prudent, practical and forthright under difficult circumstances at home and abroad. But while Mr. Powell is a gifted and venerable statesman who has lent his support to education efforts, education is not his field of expertise. Why not use his proven skills? If Senator Clinton is the front runner for Secretary of State (and she seems to be), then he’s not likely to reprise that role. So why not ask Gen. Powell to take on Homeland Security, a troubled department with a tarnished image where his credibility and strategic skills would inspire confidence?

By now, teacher readers, you can probably guess who I would recommend if Mr. Obama called and asked, “So, Susan Graham, what advice might you offer me about appointing a Secretary of Education tasked with impacting student learning across America?” I’d tell him, “Well sir, we haven’t done so well with economists or corporate CEOs running education. Personally, I don’t really think we need more career politicians, and you know what they say about all the lawyers. This may seem like a wild and crazy idea, but what about an expert in education for Secretary of Education? What about that brilliant lady who’s already part of your team, Linda Darling-Hammond?”

I am sure I am exposing my naiveté, but I would have thought this an obvious choice. After reading this week’s lead Education Week’s story, I guess not. Dr. Gerald Sroufe, Senior Advisor to the American Educational Research Association told Ed Week that Darling-Hammond would be an “unconventional choice” -- that past education secretaries have been “former governors or others with significant administrative and political experience.” Sroufe did go on to say that despite her “unorthodox background” (an education scholar and researcher), Darling-Hammond “would be a capable Cabinet secretary.”

As middle school kids say, “Well, duh!” What’s wrong with trying out an education scholar? Darling-Hammond hasn’t led a cloistered academic life, after all. She was the Executive Director of the National Commission for Teaching and America’s Future. She co-authored What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future. This document and the research upon which it was built has been the foundation of much teaching quality reform in the past decade. She was a leader in the successful effort to create a national certification for accomplished teaching, and she is deeply involved and highly respected for her work in teacher preparation, teacher leadership, school reform, and education policy.

Her commitment appears to be to assuring that every child has well-prepared and effective teachers. She hasn’t held political office nor does she appear to have an agenda connected to a corporate education product, service provider or school reform “brand.” She doesn’t see classrooms where teachers and their students go about the business of teaching and learning as problems to be fixed, but places where processes need to be improved and people need to be supported.

Maybe that is unconventional, but maybe it’s about time we put someone in the Secretary job who understands not only the challenges students and teachers face every day in the classroom but has spent a lot of time thinking about what it will take to create a teaching profession fully prepared to meet the demands of the 21st century.

Dr. Darling-Hammond understands something many school reformers do not. She knows that a sizeable percentage of today’s teachers are highly competent, strongly committed to the children they serve, and impatient themselves for smart school and teaching reforms. She sees teachers as potentially powerful catalysts for positive change. So do many of us who do the difficult work of schooling every day. We’ve love to team up with her.The question should not be “Why Linda Darling Hammond?” My question is “Why not ?”

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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