President-elect Barack Obama made the first significant education appointment of his transition, naming a prominent education researcher and a frequently mentioned candidate for secretary of education to lead the review of federal education policy.
The appointment of Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond to the key transition role drew praise and criticism from different quarters of the Democratic Party.
Researchers and educators praised the appointment of Ms. Darling-Hammond, saying her expertise and background on improving teacher quality would inform the incoming administration’s efforts to recruit and retain new teachers and the rest of its expansive agenda for pre-K through higher education. Some also would support her candidacy to be secretary of education, which has been the subject of speculation.
“It would be a breath of fresh air to have somebody in the Education Department who has been an educator,” said Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government relations for the American Educational Research Association. Ms. Darling-Hammond is a former president of the Washington-based group, which represents academic and professional researchers.
But her critics, who include Democrats who support aggressive accountability programs and the expansion of charter schools, say the Stanford professor is too wedded to seeking answers in the current K-12 and higher education systems and is not willing to experiment boldly with charter schools and alternative methods of recruiting or paying teachers.
“The role that the federal education folks need to play is leadership in pushing things forward, and sometimes taking risks,” said Van Schoales, a program officer for the Piton Foundation, a Denver grantmaker supporting Colorado initiatives to improve urban schools.
Mr. Schoales said Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago school system and a friend of the president-elect, would offer that type of leadership as the secretary of education.
Democrats for Education Reform also has backed Mr. Duncan for the secretary’s post. (“Democratic Education PAC Hopes for Its Moment Under Obama,” this issue.)
Mr. Duncan backs charter schools such as KIPP—or the Knowledge Is Power Program—and the Teach for America program, which places recent college graduates who have no education credentials into urban and rural schools with teacher shortages.
“You hear [about Mr. Duncan’s views] and it’s like: Oh, yeah, that’s what I thought we were getting,” Mr. Schoales said in an interview.
Several other candidates are considered possibilities, including former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., who runs an institute on education leadership in his home state; retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, who with his wife, Alma, runs the America’s Promise Alliance, which is addressing the high school dropout problem; and several current and former governors.
Whoever becomes the secretary of education will have to balance competing agendas within the Democratic Party. For the past several months, Democrats have engaged in a public debate over how much improvement should be expected of schools.
One side—which includes Ms. Darling-Hammond—argues that the federal government needs to make substantial investments in providing health care, fighting poverty, and in funding other social programs as part of a school reform strategy. The other side—led by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, who has also been mentioned as a potential education secretary—says schools could improve student achievement without the support of social programs, and that policymakers can do so by setting ambitious achievement goals and supporting charter schools.
During the campaign, an aide to Mr. Obama said the Illinois Democrat supports both approaches. (“2 New Coalitions Seek Influence on Campaigns,” June 18, 2008.) Mr. Duncan was the only original co-signer of the statements each camp released in June.
Mr. Obama’s campaign advisers represented views that spanned the debate.
Ms. Darling-Hammond spoke on behalf of the campaign at several high-profile events, including an Oct. 21 debate with Lisa Graham Keegan, the top education adviser to the campaign of Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
When Ms. Keegan pressed Ms. Darling-Hammond to voice support for Teach For America, Ms. Darling-Hammond responded: “I don’t think that builds your profession.”
Yet, Mr. Obama’s team of advisers included several TFA alumni and supporters.
Since the election, though, Ms. Darling-Hammond has had the leading role speaking about education on behalf of the transition.
On Nov. 16, three days before she was formally appointed to her transition post, Ms. Darling-Hammond spoke at the Council of Chief State School Officers’ annual meeting in Austin, Texas. In her speech, which was closed to the press, Ms. Darling-Hammond reviewed the president-elect’s campaign proposals and promised he wouldn’t cut education spending, according to a source who attended the event.
Two days later, she spoke at a session in Washington sponsored by the National Academy of Education, a select group of the top researchers in the field. Ms. Darling-Hammond is a member of the group.
In that speech, Ms. Darling-Hammond said the new administration would propose spending $30 billion to pay for Mr. Obama’s campaign proposals, which include $10 billion a year to support states’ pre-K programs, as well as teacher recruiting and retention efforts and tuition tax credits for future teachers and those willing to do 100 hours of community service.
Even though the programs would add new costs and reduce revenue for the federal budget during a financial crisis, the new administration considers the costs of the education plans small compared with the overall fiscal outlook.
“Thirty billion dollars is decimal dust in the federal budget,” Ms. Darling-Hammond said.
She also reviewed the president-elect’s campaign platform, repeating Mr. Obama’s rhetoric from his campaign speeches. The platform includes efforts to recruit and retain new teachers, such as using teacher academies to prepare new teachers, creating opportunities for existing teachers to become mentors, and experimenting with new methods of paying teachers. (“Presidential Hopefuls Weigh In on Education,” Oct. 22, 2008.)
It’s unclear what role, if any, Ms. Darling-Hammond will have in the new administration. As the leader of a policy-review team, her peers include former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who is reported to be the president-elect’s pick to be the secretary of health and human services.
Ms. Darling-Hammond was unavailable to comment for this story.
President-elect Obama last week introduced his economic team—including Timothy F. Geithner as secretary of the Treasury. But he hadn’t formally announced his choices for any other Cabinet post as of press time.
Although Ms. Darling-Hammond’s name has surfaced as a potential education secretary, Mr. Sroufe of the AERA said a researcher and professor such as Ms. Darling-Hammond would be an unconventional choice. Past education secretaries have been former governors or others with significant administrative and political experience.
Despite her unorthodox background for such a position, Ms. Darling-Hammond would be a capable Cabinet secretary, he added.
“She would be a very able administrator of a large federal bureaucracy and she would bring change,” Mr. Sroufe said. “There’s no doubt about her abilities.”
Staff Writer Michele McNeil contributed to this report from Austin, Texas.
A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Professor Is Leading Ed. Policy Review