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TRANSITION: Who (Or What) Fouled Up The EdSec Selection?

340x In a transition that has over all gone relatively smoothly, the still-incomplete process of picking an Education Secretary -- usually considered one of the least important and most easily-filled Cabinet posts -- has turned a prolonged, openly antagonistic debacle.

What’s happened?

Part of it is circumstantial. 

Another part is generational.

But there are other, more concrete factors at play here.

Part of it is circumstantial.  After eight years of No Child Left Behind (and maybe 20 years of accountability-based reform efforts), school reformers who favor broader reforms and more traditional approaches have been pushing back against accountability hawks and nontraditionalist reformers --  since long before the election wrapped up.

This intense infighting – roughly parallel to internal debates over single payer or mandatory health coverage – was almost bound to flare up after the election.

Another part is generational. While some of education’s most experienced reformers – former governors Hunt and Romer, for example – are considered to be past their best years, the younger generation of reformers – Rhee, Duncan, Schnur, et al – doesn’t yet include among them a leader who is widely acceptable.

The country as s whole may be ready for a young new President, but the education community isn’t ready for a young new Education Secretary.

But there are other, more concrete factors at play here.

By going silent after the election, the Obama education team created an information vacuum that undid all the previous moths’ carefully balanced set of speeches and policy papers.  Forced to go cold turkey after the election, the school reform community went a little bit crazy.

It didn’t help that, during the campaign, Obama had given educators the floaty feeling that he was “with” all of them, rather than coming down clearly on core issues like test-based accountability.

The transition team made another obvious mistake by appointing controversial Stanford professor Linda Darling Hammond to head the policy review team.  Even without her history of opposing Teach For America, Darling-Hammond had been away from the East Coast for 10 years, and away from DC for much longer than that.

A more familiar, neutral figure would have helped calm the waters, while at the same time introducing the education community to campaign staff like Heather Higgenbottom, who is moving to the Domestic Policy Council.

The clunky moves of the accountability-oriented group Democrats For Education Reform didn’t help, either.  They wrote a cynical memo that flamed antagonisms among educators when it (predictably) became public. Some of their members – most notably the over-excitable Whitney Tilson, have piled on against Darling Hammond in ways that seem unwarranted.

Even more problematic, DFER threw New York City superintendent Joel Klein overboard without a fight, prematurely turning to a compromise candidate, Chicago’s Arne Duncan.  Klein had been their nominal leader and was their most probable Cabinet contender.  Unveiled too early, Duncan was already left hanging out there too long before the Blagojevich (“how much can I get for a Senate seat?”) scandal came along last week.

Last but not least, the mainstream media did little to inform the debate over the various candidates, resorting instead to rehashed speculation and half-formed criticisms.  There has been no real look into the nuances of Darling-Hammond's accomplishments, which include charter schools, or Duncan's performance, which includes strong support for community schooling. 

In immediate terms, the unpleasantness of the past six weeks will resolve itself shortly.  We’ve been promised a full set of Cabinet nominations by Christmas.

Looking ahead, however, the transition process has revealed deep fissures among education reformers, new challenges to the Obama education team, lackluster coverage from the education media, and the absence of an experienced, moderate education leader who is acceptable to either side of the reform divide.

Cross-posted in the Huffington Post


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One of our most difficult problems is, even though we have benchmarks and learning levels, many students have the opinion that no grade counts towards gradutation until ninth grade. Because of this attitude, I see many students sitting in the classroom doing nothing. They can not see a reason for doing the work. I have seen an increase in this attitude spreading in our junior high. No matter what the students do, they get passed to the next grade. Until we return to gradutation bencmarks for each grade ,and start holding children back until they reach the benchmark, we will continue to loose ground. We need to give them a reason to do the work. Telling them it will help in the future is not working for lower level students.

NCLB needs to be done away with completely. Since it started, there is no more LEARNING, only MEMORIZING information like robots.
Teachers have to teach the students HOW to take a test and teach the students WHAT is on the test. This is ALL they teach, they call it 'teaching to the test'.
I call it 'teaching THE test'.
When these students get into the adult world, they will not know how to think for themselves, they will not know how to be creative or curious to learn and do for themselves, what with everything already been handed to them to memorize.
They will have to have everyone tell them what to do, like their teachers did for them.
This is the beginning of communism, IMO.
What's more, schools go to GREAT LENGHTS to get the NCLB funds (money) such as changing the low scores to high and omitting low scores altogether.
On the front page of yahoo it stated that Atlanta GA was doing this and the state dept of education was allowing it.
And, some states are PAYING students to get good grades and pass these state tests!
Most parents in the USA don't know this is what is happening to their children.
WHY do you think SO MANY students go on to college and have to drop out, because the college work is TOO HARD for them?
Even a high school valedictorian in Texas had this happen to her.

Arne, Roy, Linda, Rhee, Joel, David Axelrod and Colin Powell in one room for one day and an aligned choice by them together.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.