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

Billions and billions spent on waste and destruction--in federal public school policy.

by Valerie Strauss, The Answer Sheet blog

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 America̢۪s 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 don̢۪t 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 America̢۪s 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 hasn̢۪t 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. That̢۪s 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 can̢۪t learn. But some of today̢۪s 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 don̢۪t 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.

— Valerie Strauss, The Answer Sheet
Washington Post


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