Equity & Diversity Opinion

A Manifesto by the Powerful

By Diane Ravitch — October 19, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I am sure that you must have seen the “manifesto” published in The Washington Post and signed by 16 school superintendents. It was titled “How to Fix Our Schools: A Manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other education leaders.”

The responses to this article have been fascinating. Some have criticized the use of the term “manifesto,” because a manifesto is usually a declaration of belief by those who are out of power, not by those who hold power. Think, for example, of the Declaration of Independence as a manifesto, though certainly it outclasses the superintendents’ manifesto in gravity and significance! Then there is the Communist Manifesto, which sought to rally the workers of the world to take power. Then there was the Unabomber Manifesto, a screed against technology by deranged mathematician Ted Kaczynski, who managed to kill three people and maim 23 others. In 1962, student activists issued the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society, which called upon the youth of their generation to act against social injustice.

The superintendents’ manifesto does not come from the powerless. It was written by men and women who are in charge of major school systems and who certainly have far more power than parents, teachers, principals, or ordinary citizens.

What are their basic principles? The superintendents want the public schools to operate according to market principles. Their manifesto is a companion piece to the film “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” Like the film, the authors of the manifesto want to be free of the rules governing the hiring and firing of teachers. They believe that teachers alone are responsible for whether students do well or poorly in school. They believe that poverty has no bearing on student achievement: Only the teacher matters. They want merit pay. They want more data by which to judge teachers and students. They want more online instruction. And they want more charter schools so that more children can escape the inadequate schools for which they are responsible as superintendents.

Two of the superintendents who endorsed the manifesto have already resigned: Michelle Rhee and Ron Huberman in Chicago. A third alleged signatory, Arlene Ackerman of Philadelphia, announced that she never signed the manifesto and wrote a letter opposing it, calling its goals “simplistic.” Ackerman, a veteran educator, said that eliminating tenure “or the entire union” would not end school failure, because schools are now expected “to solve many of the ills that the larger society either cannot or will not fix.” She referred specifically to “hunger, violence, homelessness, and unchecked childhood diseases (asthma and diabetes).”

Ackerman also offered “some stern, unsolicited advice to all of us who care about fixing our public schools: Be careful in this time of polarity not to get caught up in the scripted political agendas of individuals and organizations who seek to divide rather than bring us together. A collaborative approach to reform may not be easy, glamorous, or movie-worthy, but it is a stronger and sustainable solution that is likely to outlast the tenure of individuals or politicized agendas.” Sound advice, Dr. Ackerman!

Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post printed Ackerman’s letter, and she printed two other columns on this subject. One quoted a letter by Jonathan P. Raymond, the superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District, describing his reaction to “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” He said he came away from it “with an overwhelming sense that we have to stop blaming teachers for problems that have multiple causes, ranging from poor administrative oversight and accountability to a lack of parent engagement.” In a tone very different from the finger-pointing in the “manifesto,” Superintendent Raymond wrote: “I know how hard teachers work to educate every child and challenge students at their ability level. We need to work equally hard to give our teachers the tools and supports they need to be successful. Let’s stop scapegoating and come together to find solutions that work.”

Strauss asked Raymond why he refused to sign the manifesto, which was circulated to leaders of 65 districts. Superintendent Raymond responded, “Real reform can’t be pushed down from Washington. It needs to bubble up from the men and women who are accountable to the children and families we serve.” He also objected that the manifesto made no mention of “family,” “collaboration,” or “teamwork,” and referred to parents only with reference to school choice.

Buffalo schools Superintendent James A. Williams also declined to sign the manifesto. He said to Strauss in an interview that unions can be problems, but he didn’t see better progress in right-to-work states. Nor did he know of any evidence that charters were doing a better job than regular public schools. He said, “They should come out and tell the truth. If they want to privatize public education, they should say so.”

If anyone wants to know what the research says on all of these issues, read Richard Rothstein’s outstanding research review, called “How to Fix Our Schools,” posted by the Economic Policy Institute.

If anyone wants to read the response of a New York City high school teacher, read Ilana Garon, “Rhee and Klein’s ‘Manifesto': The Usual Nonsense,” on Huffington Post. Without due process rights, this teacher could never have written this column.

The superintendents’ manifesto displays their conviction that those they “superintend” must be compelled or incentivized to do what the leaders want. Perhaps they should heed the advice of legendary football coach, Vince Lombardi, who said “Leadership is based on a spiritual quality; the power to inspire, the power to inspire others to follow.”


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.