The Economist : Obama’s Education Picks – No Constituency Left Behind
Sunday, December 28, 2008
DURING the election campaign the economy submerged most talk of education. But beneath the surface, a debate churned between the self-proclaimed reformers and the teachers’ unions. By choosing Arne Duncan, Chicago’s schools chief and one of his own basketball buddies, Barack Obama this week has managed to please both sides. School reformers had been edgy for weeks, noting that Mr Obama’s transition team included Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University. Ms Darling-Hammond is a vocal critic of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal law that promotes testing and accountability. Many feared that she would nudge Mr Obama towards the unions or even become education secretary herself. If Ms Darling-Hammond represented one end of the debate, at the other extreme were Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, chancellors of the school systems of New York and Washington, DC, respectively. Both have supported charter (independently-run but government-funded) schools and paying teachers by results. Both have championed tough accountability. But both have infuriated unions, and Mr Obama has opted not to pick a fight. That is not to say that Mr Duncan is a poor choice. The president-elect has chosen the rare reformer unions can stomach. In Chicago Mr Duncan raised the share of students who meet or surpass state standards from 38% in 2001 to 68% last year. He has closed failing schools and reopened them with new staff. His Renaissance 2010 initiative has opened 75 new schools, including 67 charters, in some of Chicago’s bleakest areas. Yet Mr Duncan was never as tough as Mr Klein or Ms Rhee…..The worry is that the effort to reach consensus may hinder bold change. But at least Mr Duncan may restore the spirit of co-operation that helped pass NCLB in 2001. Mr Obama, in his announcement, criticised advocates who fail to realise that “both sides have good ideas and good intentions”. The president-elect is a master at charting the middle road. Time will tell whether that path leads to meaningful reform or to messy drift.