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The future of school policy, if Darling-Hammond has her way

Linda Darling-Hammond may be feared and loathed by the younger reform set, but among the people who sat with me last night on the Upper East Side to watch her talk, she is such a star! Before the start of the panel, put on by Bank Street College of Education, all I could hear was the simultaneous sound of my Blackberry buzzing with eager e-mails about her and audience members asking their neighbors, “Has Linda arrived yet?”

She finally did, apparently via the very last available train to New York from Washington, D.C., where she had been for Barack Obama’s inauguration. At the panel, she quickly made it clear how dramatically accountability regimes would change if she is given a major role in the Obama administration. (Of course, that’s a big if: Though Darling-Hammond chaired the education policy team for Obama’s transition, it’s looking like those who have the ear of new Education Secretary Arne Duncan come from a different set. She didn’t comment on this yesterday.)

Darling-Hammond laid out a dramatic picture of how she hopes Obama will change American schools, one that (for the most part) differed substantially from the vision currently in vogue, the “idealocrat” program Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has pushed. Darling-Hammond’s big idea is to move America away from a factory model of education, where teachers are seen as trade workers, and toward a model that treats teachers as just as important as doctors or lawyers. The change, as she sees it, requires that teachers are given better and more extensive training, and that the federal government change the way it evaluates their work, moving from No Child Left Behind’s standardized test-based system into one based on sensitive open-ended assessments that schools might create themselves.

She hinted that the last part might be the biggest challenge — to “get the measuring right.”

Darling-Hammond said her vision draws on the examples of countries like Finland, Sweden, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Canada, which outperform America on international tests and which she said do a list of things wtih their schools that America doesn’t. One is that they use better tests, with more open-ended questions, less multiple choice, and more personalization by individual schools. Finland et al also give teachers several years of extensive (and presumably expensive) preparation, including both university training and mentorships. She said the training not only makes them better educators, but it gives the profession that big extra everyone seems to want these days — the status and glamor of being a profession.

The wide distance between Darling-Hammond’s proposals and those favored by the current reformers seemed to me to be highlighted by the fact that the panel moderator, Deborah Meier, who despises No Child Left Behind, nodded appreciatively at what Darling-Hammond had to say. Yet one person on the panel, Thomas Payzant, of Harvard and formerly of Boston, insisted the differences between the two groups of Democrats are overplayed. And indeed, there were some points of agreement even between Darling-Hammond and the nameless reformers.

Though she didn’t endorse national standards, she did praise Finland et al for having “leaner, fewer, higher, deeper” standards than our 50 states. She did say that all students should be asked to meet the same high expectations. She did say that today’s pay scales for teachers should be reconsidered.

And she did answer the questions of civil rights advocates who like No Child Left Behind because it has forced schools to illuminate the differences in test scores between racial groups — and who worry that without strict standardized testing, those gains will disappear. Re-imagined assessments, she said, will have to produce data that can keep policymakers’ eyes on discrepancies between racial groups.

For another summary of Darling-Hammond’s views, see Tom Toch’s review of a recent paper she wrote for the Phi Delta Kappan journal. The paper touches on a lot of what she said yesterday.

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