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Christie and National Expert Duel Over School Reform

Gov. Christie and Stanford University's Hammond-Darling present sharply divergent visions of education.

One of the closing speakers at the Iowa Education Summit yesterday afternoon was far better known in New Jersey: education reform firebrand Gov. Chris Christie.

The other is arguably the best-known academic expert on teacher quality in the country: Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University.

Speaking to the same audience and on much the same topics, Christie and Darling-Hammond explored better teachers and public schools.

And they couldn’t have given more different speeches.

The Des Moines event was a well-timed conference on national education reform, hosted by Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, at a time when the state is an obvious focal point of presidential ambitions in his party.

The two-day conference was more just speeches, with workshops and small-group discussions on every facet of how to improve teaching and learning. The keynote speaker was no lightweight, either: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

A Duel of Ideas

But to have Darling-Hammond and Christie as the two last speakers of the afternoon provided a provocative duel of ideas: the former a noted expert on the nuances of teacher preparation and school improvement, the latter a master of the podium and press conference in seeking more change in public schools.

Darling-Hammond cited statistics and studies. "For all the hype notwithstanding," she said of merit pay at one point, "there were studies that found no benefit in student achievement for the use of its practices."

On the same topic, Christie relied on what he said was common sense. "First off, having a little more competition is probably a good thing," he said.

A Familiar Story

Christie’s talk would have been familiar to many New Jersey residents by now, although he was a little more conciliatory.

He began by trying to counter his possibly negative national reputation, speaking of how he is no enemy of public education. He reminded the audience that he increased aid to schools by $850 million for next year, although didn’t mention that more than half of that amount was ordered by the state’s Supreme Court -- against his wishes.

He espoused tenure reform, harking to favorite lines about how public school teaching is the only profession not to judge and pay teachers based on performance. He talked about school choice, including the merits school vouchers as an escape from failing urban schools.

He promoted the idea of charter schools, but added they may not be the answer in all school districts, a clear response to the suburban backlash that has been felt in New Jersey.

"They are not needed in every district in New Jersey and wouldn’t add much to the education offered there," he said.

Still, he continued to use Newark, Camden and Asbury Park as his poster children for the decline of urban schools and the need for systemic reforms.

By and large, it was a speech of lofty rhetoric that spoke about justice and opportunity, the idea of providing equal access to schoolchildren, rich and poor. It was a national speech, a political speech.

"I came to Iowa today not to throw down the gauntlet in the next battle, although it is a battle I am willing to have if forced to," he said. "I came to Iowa today at the invitation of a governor who has a reputation of bringing people together."

"We must find common ground on this issue," he continued. "The clock is ticking, everybody, and children’s lives are wasting as we dawdle."

The Academic Angle

Darling-Hammond is no stranger to politics -- she came close to being President Obama’s education secretary -- but she struck a very different tone.

She opened with examples of student writing, many of them humorous, to speak to the learning process. She talked about the merits of professional development and collaboration among teachers, citing many examples from high-performing countries like Finland and Singapore where testing is actually less pervasive.

Darling-Hammond said testing in Singapore, for example, comprised lengthy projects and more "experiential skills and investigation."

"The write-ups read like research articles you’d find in a journal," she said.

She did not mention tenure reform by name, or even charter schools. Darling-Hammond is no apologist for the shortcomings of public schools, but it was a speech from inside the education establishment as to how it could improve from within.

While she has been a proponent of national standards and led one of the projects for building federal testing models, she said they are only a first step. When it comes to the teaching profession, it's not about a single set of standards.

"To get to high standards, [teacher training] actually needs to become less standardized, not more so," Darling-Hammond said. "We as teachers need to find kids where they are and help them improve."

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