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Interview with Linda Darling-Hammond


Interview with Linda Darling-Hammond

The prominent education researcher and Stanford emeritus professor on school reform, politics, and her new institute.
By Alexander Russo

Linda Darling-Hammond may be the nation’s most prominent education researcher. Over the years, she has headed the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, helped develop a new performance-based teacher preparation program called edTPA, and was a much-rumored (and extremely controversial) candidate for education secretary in the Obama administration.

Darling-Hammond talks about what she hopes the new version of No Child Left Behind will leave to states and districts, what’s next for the Common Core, and why she’s retiring from Stanford, where she is an emeritus professor, to start the Learning Policy Institute.

Q: What is your sense of what will happen next on the congressional reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as NCLB)?
A : Democrats and Republicans seem united on having a new law rather than continuing to work through administrative waivers. The bipartisan Senate bill is a pretty amazing piece of work. It preserves some of the important gains of NCLB in terms of keeping track of all kids’ learning, but it also makes corrections for what has come to feel like too much federal involvement and gives more responsibility to the states within some useful parameters. ESEA also has more room for innovation around assessment and accountability.

Q: If testing has been overemphasized in American schools, what are the alternatives?
A: We have allowed tests to be misused for purposes for which they weren’t intended, in isolation rather than combined with other information. The best places to look for a better approach are those that are combining data from periodic tests with other information and using them for improvement rather than to punish.

Q: Where is that happening?
A: New Hampshire got a federal waiver that allows them to use the Smarter Balanced assessments in combination with state and local performance assessments. Vermont has something very similar integrated into a school quality review.

Q: What happens next with the Common Core standards and tests?
A: A lot of teachers like what the Common Core is articulating in terms of thinking and problem solving. The challenge has been getting enough opportunities for professional development and sorting out the complicated role that testing has come to play. In some states, [officials] started emphasizing the way they were going to put tests into place and used [the results] for various decisions before they’d even implemented the standards. In those places, Common Core has come to mean the testing rather than the standards.

Q: Are you going to be involved in the presidential campaign or even the next administration?
A: Various campaigns are looking for advice, but I’m not attached to any particular campaign and have no plans to be. I will work with whoever gets elected and across party lines to get the best possible ideas and evidence for stronger policies in education. I have no interest in becoming secretary [of education].

Q: What do you think about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s comments regarding the inequalities of housing-based school assignment?
A: What she was calling out is a really important problem that includes both racial and economic segregation and unequally funded school districts. There are several ways to unpack that. In smaller states, you could open up the boundaries between and among districts. This has been done in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Milwaukee. There’s been a similar approach in Kansas City. San Francisco is trying to figure out how to build strong neighborhood schools in every neighborhood and also give them a magnet quality that will attract people in ways that desegregate schools.

We also have to take up school funding reform, which California recently did and Massachusetts did many years ago, to create a student-weighted-formula kind of system that allocates resources based on pupil needs, such as poverty, English learner status, and foster-care children.

Q: What needs to happen next to make teachers better prepared?
A: We must continue to focus on strong clinical practice for new teachers. You cannot learn to teach by being told what to do or by reading about it in a book. You also shouldn’t be licensing people if they can’t demonstrate they can teach. Passing a basic skills test is not enough. It’s frustrating to see people continuing to make excuses for not making that investment in a serious approach to clinical training in teacher education—a year of student teaching or apprenticeship, for example, under the wing of a master teacher while taking tightly linked, practically useful coursework. It’s really not that hard to do, but we have almost no incentives in federal and state policies to leverage those changes.

Q: What’s it going to take to soften the harsh debate that’s been present in recent years over so-called school reform efforts?
A: The strategy of blaming teachers for all the shortcomings of schools and society has been way overdone. And yet the public continues to be clear that it supports teachers. Probably one of the most difficult policy elements we’ve encountered has been the idea of attaching teacher evaluations to student test scores. Researchers have discovered that the measures are unreliable and inaccurate and cannot give a sensible reading of a teacher’s effectiveness.
I think that policy is going the way of the dodo pretty soon, even though I, like many other people, thought it might be a good idea when first proposed. I think once the federal incentives are gone for that approach and we get past that set of problems, we will be able to have a more productive conversation.

Q: What’s the motivation behind starting this new center, and how is it going to be different from those that already exist?
A: Quite often, researchers and funders pursue topics on timelines that aren’t relevant, and they present their work in ways that are not usable for policymakers, and so the work goes on the shelf. The goal here is to make the research available, accessible, and useful when there’s real policy work to be done.   

Photo: Courtesy of Linda Darling-Hammond

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