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Is Obama Getting Bad Advice on His Appointments?

Joel Klein is being considered for secretary of education, which would make as much sense for our schools as Michael Brown did for disaster relief.
 
 
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Has Barack Obama forgotten, Michael "Way to go, Brownie" Brown? Brown was that guy from the Arabian Horse Association appointed by President George W. Bush to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brownie, not knowing the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain from the south end of a horse, let New Orleans drown. Bush's response was to give his buddy Brownie a thumbs up.

We thought Obama would go a very different way. You'd think the studious senator from Illinois would avoid repeating the Bush regime's horror show of unqualified appointments, of picking politicos over professionals. But here we go again. Trial balloons lofted in the Washington Post suggest President-elect Obama is about to select Joel Klein as secretary of education. If not Klein, then draft choice No. 2 is Arne Duncan, Obama's backyard basketball buddy in Chicago.

Say it ain't so, President O.

Let's begin with Joel Klein. Klein is a top-notch antitrust lawyer. What he isn't is an educator. Klein is as qualified to run the Department of Education as Vice President Dick Cheney is to dance in "Swan Lake." While I've never seen Cheney in a tutu, I have seen Klein fumble about the stage as chancellor of the New York City school system.

Klein, who lacks even six minutes experience in the field, was handed management of New York's schools by that political Jack-in-the-Box, Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The billionaire mayor is one of those businessmen-turned-politicians who think lawyers and speculators can make school districts operate like businesses. Klein has indeed run city schools like a business -- if the business is General Motors. Klein has flopped. Half the city's kids don't graduate.

Klein is out of control. Not knowing a damn thing about education, rather than rely on those who actually work in the field (only two of his two dozen deputies have degrees in education), Klein pays high-priced consultants to tell him what to do. He has blown a third-of-a-billion dollars on consultant "accountability" projects, plus $80 million for an IBM computer data-storage system that doesn't work.

What the heck was the $80 million junk computer software for? Testing. Klein is test crazy. He has swallowed hook, line and sinker Bush's idea that testing students can replace teaching them. The madly expensive testing program and consultant-fee spree are paid for by yanking teachers from the classroom.

Ironically, though not surprisingly, test scores under Klein have flat-lined. Scores would have fallen lower, notes author Jane Hirschmann, but Klein "moved the cut line." That is, he lowered the level required to pass. In other words, Klein cheats on the tests.

Nevertheless, media poobahs have fallen in love with Klein, especially Republican pundits. The New York Times' David Brooks is championing Klein, hoping that media hype for Klein will push Obama to keep Bush schools policies in place, trumping the electorate's choice for change.

Brooks and other Republicans (hey, didn't those guys lose?) are pushing Klein as a way for Obama to prove he can reach across the aisle to Republicans like Bloomberg. (Oh yes, Bloomberg's no longer in the GOP, having jumped from the party this year when the brand name went sour.)

Choosing Klein, says Brooks, would display Obama's independence from the teacher's union. But after years of Bush kicking teachers in the teeth, appointing a Bush acolyte like Klein would not indicate independence from teachers but their betrayal.

Hoops versus Hope

The anti-union establishment has a second-stringer on the bench waiting in case Klein is nixed: Arne Duncan. Duncan, another lawyer playing at education, was appointed by Chicago's Richard M. Daley to head that city's train-wreck of a school system. Think of Duncan as "Klein Lite."

What is Duncan's connection to the president-elect? Duncan was once captain of Harvard's basketball team and still plays backyard roundball with his Hyde Park neighbor Obama.

But Michelle Obama put a limit on their friendship: Barack Obama was one of the only state senators from Chicago to refuse to send his children into Duncan's public schools. My information is the Obamas sent their daughters to the elite Laboratory School where Klein-Duncan teach-to-the-test pedagogy is dismissed as damaging and nutty.

Mr. Obama, if you can't trust your kids to Arne Duncan, why hand him ours?

Duncan is proud to have raised test scores by firing every teacher in low-scoring schools. Which schools? There's Collins High in the Lawndale ghetto, with children from homeless shelters and drug-poisoned 'hoods. They don't do well on tests. So Chicago fired all the teachers. They brought in new ones -- then fired all of them, too: The teachers' reward for volunteering to work in a poor neighborhood.

It's no coincidence that the nation's worst school systems are run by non-experts like Klein and Duncan.

Obama certainly knows this. I know he knows, because he has chosen, as head of his education department transition team, one of the most highly respected educators in the United States: Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University.

So here we have the ludicrous scene of the president-elect asking this recognized authority, Darling-Hammond, to vet the qualifications of amateurs Klein and Duncan. It's as if Obama were to ask Michael Jordan, "Say, you wouldn't happen to know anyone who can play basketball, would you?"

Classroom Class War

It's not just Klein's and Duncan's empty credentials that scare me: It's the ill philosophy behind the Bush-brand education theories they promote. "Teach-to-the-test" (which goes under such prepackaged teaching brands as "Success for All") forces teachers to limit classroom time to pounding in rote, low-end skills, easily measured on standardized tests. The transparent purpose is to create the future class of worker-drones. Add in some computer training and -- voila! -- millions trained on the cheap to function, not think. Analytical thinking skills, creative skills, questioning skills will be left to the privileged at the Laboratory School and Phillips Andover Academy.

We hope for better from the daddy of Sasha and Malia.

Educationally, the world is swamping us. The economic and social levees are bursting. We cannot afford another Way-To-Go Brownie in charge of rescuing our children.

Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.