Education was relegated to the outskirts of the presidential campaign this year, always a fourth or fifth runner-up to such pressing matters as the economy, Iraq and healthcare. With few people asking penetrating questions on the issue, Barack Obama was able to sound as though he sided both with traditionalist teachers unions and with accountability-minded reformers.
Now that it's time to name an Education secretary, no one is sure in which direction he's headed. Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who was named to Obama's education transition team, is one of the most-mentioned candidates. As a severe critic of the No Child Left Behind Act and an opponent of merit pay for teachers, she is favored by teachers unions. The accountability camp prefers names such as New York schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who has spearheaded large-scale reforms in the nation's largest school district. One side says that what students need are major improvements in health and social services, as well as drastic increases in school funding. The other says that schools wrongly lay the blame for students' low achievement on poverty instead of on lackluster teaching and low expectations.
Both are right. Schools are short the money needed to turn barely literate teenagers into employable young adults, and No Child Left Behind is riddled with faults. It unfairly punishes many schools and has had the effect of narrowing curricula. Yet greater accountability also has led to significant improvements, and new infusions of cash must be contingent on evidence that they result in stronger achievement. Higher pay for teachers? Absolutely -- as long as it's tied to merit pay and an end to tenure.
It would be a shame for the reform movement to lose momentum at this point. For all of its weaknesses, the federal accountability law has pushed schools into higher gear. For more than a decade, this country's students ranked in the middle among industrialized nations in math. In the most recent round of testing, they were in the top third, the result of focused math instruction backed up by regular testing. In addition, Darling-Hammond's early attacks on Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that recruits some of the brightest college graduates into the teaching profession, give us little confidence that she would support innovative approaches to education.
At the same time, reformers must be open to how badly No Child Left Behind itself needs reform. After years of public battering, schools need a leader who is less an ideologue than a pragmatist, who puts children ahead of both union and political priorities.