Educate All Students: Larry Miller's Blog

October 18, 2010

Point by Point Critique of Superintendents’ Manifesto

Filed under: Education Policy — millerlf @ 1:48 pm

What’s wrong with the ‘manifesto’ — point by point

Washington Post-October 14, 2010 Valerie Strauss

This was written by Anne Geiger, who served on the Orange County School Board in Orlando, Fl., from 2004-2008. A native of Virginia, she lives in Arlington and blogs at, where this appeared.

In this piece, Geiger analyzes the school reform “manifesto” signed by 16 big city schools superintendents and chancellors, including Michelle Rhee of Washington D.C., and Joel Klein of New York City, and published this week in The Washinton Post. I have posted this week a few pieces critical of the manifesto’s agenda, but this one looks at it point by point and offers an alternative vision of real school reform.

1) “Manifesto.”
A curious, full-throated choice when it’s really more of an op-ed written in real time, more disjointed than coherent, more hyperbole than fact. So, what is a manifesto? A document that lays out a catechism, a body of fundamental principles or beliefs to be accepted uncritically by those who sign it and those who afterward pledge to follow it. Most prominent examples: The Communist Manifesto and the Declaration of Independence. Putting aside the Communist one, although I’m tempted not to, our country’s “manifesto,” the Declaration of Independence, defines the founding principles of our Constitution and basis of our laws. So, I’ll take them at their word and assume the writers and signers of the school reform manifesto seek to implant their “manifesto” as the basis for the founding principles of our nation’s public education system and road map for its policies. This brings us to….
2) Six Tenets of the “Manifesto.” The following sentences were highlighted in yellow in the print version of Sunday’s Washington Post. Assuming the authors and signers agree with the emphasis, they must represent basic principles. So let’s call them the “six tenets” of the “Manifesto,” its yellow-brick road, of sorts. So, here goes:

Tenet One: “These practices are wrong, and they have to end now.”

The practices they are referring to are the “entrenched … practices that have long favored adults, not children.” They say that our public education system is one that exists only to favor the adults in the system, i.e. teachers, principals, superintendents and school board members have systematically created a system that is intended only to benefit them and not children. They apparently are not in their jobs to teach children, manage schools or govern school districts. And they must be exposed, disciplined or removed. They tell readers that there are thousands of children languishing in this lumbering, selfish institution. If they meant only to refer to unions in these declarations, they did not say so. When they say “adults, ” we are to assume all adults.

Translation: The American public school system is overrun with oppressive, selfish adults who do not care about children. We are in a crisis. We must now save the system from itself.
Tenet Two: “Yet, for too long, we have let teacher hiring and retention be determined by archaic rules involving seniority and academic credentials.”

This is linked to the first tenet, that seniority and advanced degrees are the ONLY ways teachers are hired and retained. Superintendents and principals for years have used many ways for evaluating teachers. And like any profession, (and any business) advanced degrees are not just encouraged, they are required. Should union contracts be more flexible, should there be better ways to identify teachers who need more support and professional development, should there be more expedient ways to remove the minority who are not capable of improvement? Yes, yes and yes. Should multiple criteria be used for hiring, and multiple measures be used for retaining? Yes and yes. But, this “Manifesto” mentions none of this.

Translation: Experience is overrated. Advanced degrees are unnecessary. School administrators never work to improve, discipline or remove ineffective teachers.
Tenet Three: There isn’t a business in America that would survive if it couldn’t make personnel decisions based on performance.”

Here we go again. Schools should be run like businesses (even though businesses choose their markets, customers, raw materials, etc.; public schools, at least traditional ones, do not). OK, for the sake of argument, let’s use the analogy, but take it the next level.

First: Surely, they don’t want to share statistics from the Small Business Administration that “two-thirds of new employer establishments survive at lease two years, and 44 percent survive at least four years.” Is that a tolerable statistic for public charter schools, the kissin’ cousin of small business? Oh, let’s not go there? OK, then, let’s look at it more broadly.

Second: Do the most successful of businesses, small, medium and large, have comprehensive ways to train and develop employees, give frequent feedback, fold them into teams, clearly define hiring criteria and performance measurements, give them opportunities for advancement and continuing education, reward and provide incentives in a variety of ways, ensure that evaluations follow legal and ethical standards? Yes to all of the above.

The “Manifesto” defines teacher performance as “effectiveness in the classroom” and “increasing student achievement.” OK, but if the writers believe in a broader business model, they say little. They vaguely state that district leaders must be able to provide financial incentives (Aha, signing bonuses, subject-area supplements and performance pay) and effectiveness should be mainly measured by “how well students are doing academically” (Aha, test scores tied to teacher’s pay). That’s it? Amazingly, they go on to declare that “rules” must change to “professionalize teaching.” Excuse me? Current teachers are not professionals?

Translation: Use the business analogy to imply inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Reinforce the perception that the system is backward and ignorant of best practices, and that current teachers do not deserve to be called professionals. Signing bonuses, subject-area supplements and performance pay will transform the system.
Tenet Four: “We need the best teacher for every child, and the best principal for every school.”

This is the one that we can all agree with. It’s what we already believe, or at least most people do. So, if this is re-affirmation and re-focus, fine.

BUT, it’s sandwiched between criticism that the system ignores “basic economic principles of supply-and-demand” (Not enough public charter schools?) and doesn’t instill a performance-driven culture in every school (Not enough tests? Not enough competition? Not enough pressure?) They mention “meaningful teacher training” as sort of an extra little thing that’s needed (really?), BUT then throw in a sour zinger, “let’s stop pretending that everyone who goes into the classroom has the ability and temperament to lift our children to excellence.”

Apparently, the writers do not believe that there are many good teachers currently in our schools since they keep saying in a multitude of ways that schools are overrun with ineffective ones.

Translation: Reinforce the perception of incompetency. The system must adopt supply-and-demand principles and every school must have a performance-driven culture. Schools must be run as businesses. It is the only way to bring in smarter, better adults to teach our children.
Tenet Five: “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.”

After a build-up describing a failed, broken system and some vague solutions, they add a few, surprisingly specific, solutions. They start with “the best technology available” as the primary means to meet the needs of diverse students and “make instruction more effective and efficient.”

Tied to that is their call for more virtual learning, “reducing seat time,” even though, paradoxically, it usually means replacing the all-important teacher with a computer program. Then, they go on to school turnarounds and school choice, saying that replacing and restructuring struggling schools (i.e urban schools in low-income neighborhoods) and providing more public charter schools (i.e. in those same neighborhoods) are the two ways to rescue children served in those communities. They end with, “Excellence must be our only criteria for evaluating schools.”

Again, we can all agree with that. Of course, it is. Superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents work to define and refine excellence all the time. But nothing is stated about how THEY define excellence nor how WE should define excellence. Reading through the “Manifesto,” it possibly is “best teacher for every child and best principal for every school,” but that’s not clear since this proclamation is in a paragraph about more technology, closing and restructuring schools, and more public charter schools.

Translation: (Add to signing bonuses, subject-area supplements and performance pay), more technology, virtual learning, school turnarounds and public charter schools comprise the Manifesto.
Tenet Six: “But it’s a problem for all of us — until we fix our schools, we will never fix the nation’s broader economic problems.”

The schools they’re really talking about (the 16 writers and signers are all urban school superintendents, CEO’s and chancellors; this is out of 60+ cities) are the ones located in low-income neighborhoods in our nation’s cities. Their solutions do not address the unique challenges in rural school districts, and they ignore the majority of schools across the nation that are effective and successful.

Translation: Leave a final impression that all public schools, no matter where they are located, are failing. We must follow this “Manifesto” to rescue the American dream.
3) The beginning and concluding paragraphs.
The authors and signers start off by saying that they (alone???) are working hard to move their students along and gush over the Obama administration’s competition, Race to the Top, as an unprecedented catalyst for reform. They then proclaim that recent media-hyped events— the depressing, misleading movie, “Waiting for Superman,” “tidal wave of media attention” (i.e. the equally depressing, misleading Education Nation series on NBC), vaguely-defined $100 million gift of Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg to Newark City Public Schools, and surprising defeat of Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty—-are the long-awaited sparks for finally addressing “the crisis in public education.”
What these school leaders who signed the manifesto do NOT do is tell readers that:
–The schools they are really talking about are ones located in the most impoverished, unstable communities in the cities where they collectively serve.
–That those schools have the most challenges because they have the most children in need and at risk.
–That education, especially in those most challenged and most challenging schools, is complex and that there are no easy solutions or simple answers.
–That education is the most dynamic, human-driven enterprise on earth.
–That it is the most vulnerable to political manipulation and experimentation by those who know little about education.
They do, however, ramble on to intensify the doom and gloom, and weave in a curative cocktail of vague generalities and a sprinkling of specific “reforms.”

And they conclude with dramatic flourish: “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.”

So now, boys and girls, the yellow brick road has taken us to the Emerald City. And the great Oz has given us a “Manifesto” that should be our call to arms, our body of principles, our road map. (Don’t look behind the curtain, now…….)

Maybe the real lesson here is that it IS time we create a REAL manifesto of lasting strength and enduring impact. (A more democratic sounding word such as declaration would be a better choice, though.) Something like…………

In knowing the great strength and legacy of public education in the United States, we the American people seek to implant these principles ….(this is where “best teachers,” “best principals” and “excellence” come in…)

#1 Principle: Children are our most important treasure. The education of children in our public schools will be based on egalitarian, democratic principles, and built on community, not “supply and demand.”

#2 Principle: Teachers are our most important human resource. We will develop, empower, support, and sustain the best teaching force on the planet. We will ensure that they are highly educated, led by exceptional instructional leaders, and evaluated in fair and comprehensive ways.

#3 Principle: Public schools are our most important avenues for creating and sustaining a healthy society and vibrant economy. Our public school system in partnership with families and communities will work to educate our children by meeting their individual needs, unleashing in them creativity, resourcefulness and their own unique abilities, instilling in them rich knowledge across subjects and expertise in the arts and world languages, and equipping them with the skills needed to think, innovate, contribute, and lead fulfilling lives. Standardized testing will be one tool among many, NOT a singular, disproportionate way of measuring success.

#4 Principle: Community is our most important civic framework for protecting, supporting, engaging and empowering our children. To provide the conditions for success, we will work to ensure that all children and their families, no matter where they live, will have access to green parks, nutritious food, high-quality health care, bountiful books, robust communication networks, safe transportation, vital commerce and strong community infrastructure.

It could be a document that most or all school leaders would readily sign. Teachers, parents, and students would sign too, as would national, community and business leaders. It could be an encouraging shot in the arm for teachers, saying: “We are behind you, we value you, we want to make sure you succeed. We are all in this together. This IS all about our children, their future and our future.”

It could create a healthy buzz, a positive energy, a rocket to the moon …. We then could TOGETHER create the road map, the “how,” of putting those principles into action.

President Obama, are you listening?

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1 Comment »

  1. Excellent and do take time to read carefully the part on cyber schools, for this is where we are headed. K12 Inc just signed another contract in MI.

    Danny Weil

    Comment by weilunion — October 18, 2010 @ 2:12 pm | Reply

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