A Job for a Reformer
Will Barack Obama opt for boldness or the status quo in choosing an education secretary?

Friday, December 5, 2008

WITH MUCH of his national security and economic teams in place, President-elect Barack Obama faces another critical pick: education secretary. No names have emerged from the transition team, but warring camps within the Democratic Party are furiously seeking to influence the decision. We trust that Mr. Obama was serious when he promised change and will select someone who -- instead of just tinkering with a tired, low-performing system -- will be bold in choosing new directions for American education.

The different education factions of the party -- those pushing for radical restructuring and those more wedded to the status quo -- were each convinced during the campaign that Mr. Obama shared their particular viewpoints. So it is not clear whether Mr. Obama is leaning toward the "disrupters," House education committee chairman George Miller's approving description of the reformers, or the "incrementalists" who are allied with teachers unions.

The choice of Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond to head the education policy transition group, along with speculation that she is a candidate for secretary or deputy secretary, is not reassuring to those in the reform movement. Ms. Darling-Hammond has been more critical than supportive of the No Child Left Behind law, dislikes linking teacher pay to test scores and is no fan of Teach for America. It would be a mistake to retreat from the accountability that No Child Left Behind has brought in improving learning and narrowing the achievement gap for minority students. And the next secretary should encourage the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship typified by Teach for America's success in attracting top college graduates to inner-city schools. Indeed, Mr. Obama might want to look to this new generation of educators -- people such as his adviser Jonathan Schnur, chief executive of New Leaders for New Schools, or the Education Trust's Kati Haycock -- in assembling a team equipped to deal with the new realities of education. Nor should opposition from the forces of the status quo scare Mr. Obama away from considering someone such as New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, who has helped improve the nation's largest school system.

We are not promoting any individual, but the ideal candidate would be someone who is not afraid to break with orthodoxy, who is more concerned with results than with ideology, who has a proven ability to lead large systems toward change and is passionate about regaining America's place as the best-educated country on the planet. It's encouraging that, in his nominations to date, Mr. Obama has been sure-footed and inspiringly unpredictable. He won't be able, nor should he try, to placate all the education interests, so he should focus on the only interests that matter -- those of America's schoolchildren.

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