The opinion piece in Sunday’s Washington Post by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and 13 other school leaders was titled “manifesto,” a word I find a little unnerving. It suggests certain arrogance, a we-know-what-you-need-even-if-you-don’t kind of attitude. Plus, it’s inevitably colored by the work of two 19th century German theorists, who got some things right about capitalism but a lot more wrong.
So it didn’t’ strike me as a particularly stellar PR move. However, it turns out the name “manifesto,” might have been attached by some Post editors because other papers that picked up the piece called it something different. Still, judging by it’s tone, you couldn’t quite title it “All Together Now: Let’s Improve our Schools.”
No, the piece is an argument against the status quo and the power of teacher unions. And I must say I agree with much of it; personally, I believe principals should be able to hire and fire pretty much whomever they please, without having their hands tied with cumbersome seniority rules. What if a principal has a bias against a certain teacher and treats him unfairly? you ask. My answer: The same thing that happens in the private sector: if he’s good, he’ll go somewhere else, with a better boss.
The problem with the “manifesto” is it suggests that personnel rules are the only problem, that little else is holding students back in poor urban schools, and this is simply not the case.
Here is part of a rebuttal from Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute:
Making teacher quality the only centerpiece of a reform campaign distracts our attention from other equally and perhaps more important school areas needing improvement, areas such as leadership, curriculum, and practices of collaboration, mentioned above. Blaming teachers is easy. These other areas are more difficult to improve.
But most important, making teacher quality the focus distracts us from the biggest threat to student achievement in the current age: our unprecedented economic catastrophe and its effect on parents and their children’s ability to gain from higher-quality schools.
Rothstein has long argued that, while school reform is important, issues of housing, hunger, and health care must be addressed for poor children to have any chance of closing the achievement gap. He says studies show that school quality can explain about one-third of the achievement gap, “but the other two-thirds is attributable to non-school factors.”
But even school reform needs to go beyond the admittedly counterproductive employment policies of some districts. In testimony before Congress last spring, Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, said “there are at least a dozen things one needs to get right to successfully turn around a school. That is why turnaround is so difficult and our success rate has been low.” He goes on to list three main challenges: academic, engagement (attendance), and poverty. The testimony includes some of the best ideas I’ve heard for approaching this critical and multifaceted — problem.
Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor