School & District Management Opinion

A Manifesto of Errors: Rhee, Klein and the Gang Strike Out

By Anthony Cody — October 09, 2010 4 min read
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This week some of the people our media has anointed the leaders of educational reform, including Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and a baker’s dozen of school superintendents, released a “Manifesto”purporting to tell us how to fix our schools. But this is a manifestation of monumental misconceptions, that begs to be refuted. Let’s take it point by point.

As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income -- it is the quality of their teacher.

Unfortunately President Obama is wrong here. Most studies have shown that differences between teachers account for 25% to 40% of the variation in student achievement. The lion’s share is indeed their zip code, parent’s color and level of affluence. *[Please note update below]

The glacial process for removing an incompetent teacher -- and our discomfort as a society with criticizing anyone who chooses this noble and difficult profession -- has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.

Millions? There is no research that suggests that incompetent teachers are so numerous as to destroy the futures of so many children. Even the researchers that started this national obsession a couple of years ago put the estimate at around 5% of the teaching force. While it is true that our evaluation systems could be greatly improved, there is no evidence that the US suffers from a particularly high level of teacher incompetence, or that doing away with due process or seniority protection will, on the whole, drive improvement in the profession. In fact, the states in the US that have the strongest union representation for teachers also consistently perform the best on national tests. If you continue to attack the teaching profession in this way, what intelligent person will choose to make this their career? These attacks on our rights are likely to cause far more damage than the problem they are supposed to correct.

When teachers are highly effective -- measured in significant part by how well students are doing academically -- or are willing to take a job in a tough school or in a hard-to-staff subject area such as advanced math or science, we should be able to pay them more.

Unfortunately for these manifesters experience has not shown that financial incentives work the way they suggest. Time after time, school districts have learned that bonuses for test scores do not work. And the emphasis on scores drives a well-documented narrowing of the curriculum that robs students of a well-rounded education.

Just as we must give teachers and schools the capability and flexibility to meet the needs of students, we must give parents a better portfolio of school choices. That starts with having the courage to replace or substantially restructure persistently low-performing schools that continuously fail our students.

Here we arrive at the cruel signature of these brave bureaucrats.
Declare schools failures. Close schools with low test scores. Fire staff and principals. Scatter students to the four winds. Ignore the fact that the students in Chicago where this was done under Arne Duncan’s rule there did no better as a result.

We also must make charter schools a truly viable option. If all of our neighborhood schools were great, we wouldn't be facing this crisis. But our children need great schools now -- whether district-run public schools or public charter schools serving all students -- and we shouldn't limit the numbers of one form at the expense of the other. Excellence must be our only criteria for evaluating our schools.

Charter schools are being held up as models of what public schools ought to be, but the comparison is manifestly unfair.
Most successful charters, including the ones featured in recent films, raise millions of dollars to support their programs, and their students get small class sizes and attention the public schools cannot afford. Second, many charters limit the population they will accept, and shift students who do not succeed, or lack parental support, back to the regular public schools. Lastly, the largest study ever done found that charters, on the whole, are not better than regular public schools. So why should we shift students and resources from our neighborhood schools to charters?

But the last paragraph is really the most staggering.

For the wealthiest among us, the crisis in public education may still seem like someone else's problem, because those families can afford to choose something better for their kids. But it's a problem for all of us -- until we fix our schools, we will never fix the nation's broader economic problems. Until we fix our schools, the gap between the haves and the have-nots will only grow wider and the United States will fall further behind the rest of the industrialized world in education, rendering the American dream a distant, elusive memory.

The gap between the haves and have-nots has grown steadily wider over the past two decades. Poverty is at its highest levels in decades, and more than 20% of our students are living in poverty. The rise in poverty has virtually nothing to do with the supposed “crisis” in education. Our nation’s peak economic years FOLLOWED the last great crisis that the media and business leaders declared in education. Our current economic troubles have everything to do with the depredations of vultures on Wall Street and in the finance industry - many of whom are the millionaires and billionaires who have decided that they will sprinkle a bit of tax-deductable largesse on the schools.

Let’s take this last paragraph and re-write it, from the point of view of our students in poverty.

For the poorest among us, the supposed crisis in education is someone else’s problem, because the families we live in endure crises far more immediate and threatening - eviction from our homes, deportation by ICE, drive-by shootings in our neighborhoods, and the expiration of our parents’ unemployment benefits. Our schools are a source of hope, but here the poverty strikes hard as well, as declining tax revenues mean we have no libraries, no counselors, and rising class sizes. And the favorite strategy of the bureaucrat, school closures, hits the poorest of us the hardest. These are our problems, and until we fix these, we will have a very hard time succeeding in school, or making four-year college a reality. The gap between haves and have-nots has grown not because of our schools. It has grown because of economic policies driven by the wealthy for their benefit. If the wealthy wish to do something about this, it would be best for them to start by taxing themselves and giving greater resources to the starving public schools they are so very worried about.

For some funny reason the poor have rarely been well-served by manifestos written on their behalf by the wealthy. And the wealthy have a funny way of defining crises in such a way that they are the fault of others, and have nothing to do with the concentration of wealth itself. The manifesto that will deliver poor people a measure of economic and educational justice will not be written by billionaires or their favorite bureaucrats. It will be written by poor people themselves, and will be far more accurate in placing responsibility where it belongs, and in identifying solutions with a chance of actually helping them.

*Update: A watchful reader sent me the following correction:

You wrote this:"Most studies have shown that differences between teachers account for 25% to 40% of the variation in student achievement. The lion's share is indeed their zip code, parent's color and level of affluence."
But, Diane Ravitch quotes others like this: "But this proposition is false. Hanushek has released studies showing that teacher quality accounts for about 7.5-10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10-20 percent of achievement outcomes."

I stand corrected. Even I exaggerated the impact teachers make.

What do YOU think of the bureaucrat’s manifesto for our schools? What would a teacher’s manifesto say?

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