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A wish for the new education secretary

Submitted by on Wednesday, 17 December 2008 One Comment

If the chief knock against Arne Duncan is that the education secretary-designate is not an educator, there’s little cause for worry.

The last time the party changed in the White House the education secretary’s resume included a doctorate in the field and administrative credentials, and look where that got us: Rod Paige and No Child Left Behind.

Grading on the curve, how much worse could Duncan, currently head of Chicago schools, be?

And, again grading on the curve, at least he’s not New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who rates his teachers based on standardized tests. Or Washington, D.C., Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who thinks offering teachers eye-popping raises to give up tenure will weed out the bad ones.

There were better people out there, including the head of Barack Obama’s search committee, Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond. She gets that you don’t punish poor schools into submission, and that would be a refreshing change.

One of the chief knocks against Darling-Hammond was that she signed on to the “Bigger, Bolder Approach to Education,” which criticized NCLB for starting after children already left behind. It also blasted the Bush program for encouraging schools to focus on those on the cusp of passing at the expense of students at the top and bottom.

The bigger, bolder approach advocates spending for pre- and after-school programs and giving children access to health and other social services.

Duncan signed on, too.

He also signed the Education Quality Project Statement Klein and Al Sharpton rolled out at about the same time. Its emphasis is on “parental choice” and “accountability” — read, charter schools and testing.

That duality is completely consistent with Obama’s education platform as a candidate. He backed merit pay, testing and charter schools, but called for testing that goes beyond graying in bubbles. He also called for extensive spending on preschool programs.

It’s hard to swallow one without the other, and the danger in this budget climate is that preschool will be lost and the testing lunacy will continue.

So here’s what I wish Duncan would do before taking office.

Visit a kindergarten — if he can’t find one in his district, I’d be happy to play host — and see how many children at the midpoint in the year still are struggling to recognize letters while their classmates can recognize words.

Ask the teacher which kids came to class not knowing how to hold a pencil or scissors — chances are, they’ll be the same kids still struggling with letters.

Next, find out how many of those students started the year on a free- or reduced-lunch plan.

Then tell me that the preschool part of the Obama education plan isn’t just as important as drill-and-kill testing.

Darling-Hammond knows that. I hope Duncan does, too. Our children deserve better than Not Klein or Rhee as education secretary.

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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One Comment »

  • Genevieve said:

    I loved my oldest son’s after school program. It came with a reasonable price tag and was excellent with tutoring and homework.

    Daycare combined with preschool has made an incredible difference for my youngest son. His language has exploded beyond what he and his speech therapist work on because of interaction with his peer group. He is almost at the skill level they’re asking of kindergartners before promotion with letters and math. This is my child who was at least two years behind his peers when starting. He spoke a handful of words unintelligible to anyone but his parents (and often times, even us). He is labeled at a slow learner on his assessments. The steep price tag for daycare is worth it — even if it’s a struggle.

    I don’t know how others are doing it though. There is a Headstart here for families with low-income and 10% of the slots saved for children with special needs. There used to be a preschool program for low-mid income families (sliding scale) but I don’t know if it’s still around. Both had really long waiting lists. I really hope this administration can help all families get their kids in to pre and after school programs. I know what a difference it has made for us.

    Of course, there’s that budget …