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What Are These Superintendents Thinking?

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A group of school superintendents have just published a guest column in The Washington Post titled How to fix our schools: A manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other education leaders.

It’s appalling.

One would think that with recent events like the electoral defeat of Mayor Fenty in Washington, D.C. and the subsequent anticipated departure of Rhee and the recent test score fiasco in New York City that some of these superintendents would have gained at least a slight dose of humility.

Nope.

Not only do they inaccurately state research by saying that “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” when, in fact, research shows that family background—aka socioeconomic status—is by far the most influential factor in a student’s academic achievement, they also focus the main energy of the article on the importance of giving them the power to fire teachers. There is literally a “throw-away” line near the end where they say “Of course, we must also do a better job of providing meaningful training for teachers who seek to improve.” It is a sentence you can imagine one of them suggesting at the last minute to include to show that they needed to sound vaguely evenhanded. As I’ve written in The Washington Post, that kind of emphasis does not inspire confidence among teachers to support changes in the teacher evaluation system.

It seems to me to be a badly written column, a poorly thought-out political strategy, and an unwise message to send to teachers in their districts if they are hoping to develop a cooperative relationship (which you’d think they’d have concluded by now that they’d need).

(“Misleading Manifesto” by Liam Goldrick shares more details about how the column misrepresented research)

What do you think they’re thinking?

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

13 Comments

  1. Sounds like business as usual…blame the teachers.

  2. I wonder for how much longer the USA can keep its educational standards in free fall and continue to survive.

  3. Larry – I am very much in agreement with your opinion about the Washington Post guest column; I think it rests on a faulty basis (that standardized testing is the “be-all and end-all” in determining student achievement). But, I do think the point about the quality of their teacher being the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school has merit. When a student enters school at age 5 or so, we need to take them as they come, no matter what the family background, and do our best to work with them. From that point forward it is the quality of the teacher that has a huge influence on achievement. The problem as I see it is twofold – differing opinions as to how to measure a teacher’s effectiveness (test results? instilling a love of inquiry and learning?) , as well as what do you do to improve that effectiveness (fire them or work with them)

    • Jeff,

      There’s no question that the quality of the teacher is the greatest in-school factor for student success. In that context, your points make a lot of sense. I am just disappointed that the superintendents not only didn’t make that distinction, but they dismissed it.

      Larry

  4. Larry,
    My thoughts exactly. It comes down to test scores. The easiest and quickest way to “show” progress is through increased test scores. Their comments about evaluating teachers based on student performance are just a manifesto for more testing and finding cheaper, less meaningful ways to evaluate the performance of teachers. I am all for evaluating, supporting and rewarding great teaching, but when the indicator of that performance is a standardize test I fear that is just an all too simple and thin method for doing so.

    I was especially offended at this line:

    “But the transformative changes needed to truly prepare our kids for the 21st-century global economy simply will not happen unless we first shed some of the entrenched practices that have held back our education system, practices that have long favored adults, not children.”

    The reference to a 21st-century global economy was their attempt to get those buzzwords into their writing. There is not 21st century about standardized tests.

  5. Larry – the saddest thing to me about this article is that when looking at the names of those that lead our nation’s largest school districts, the majority have zero classroom teaching or school management experience and a substantial number have only backgrounds in practicing law. It’s no wonder that they are way out of touch with the realities of being in a classroom day in and day out. But the true fault lies with the municipalities and local officials that hire them.

    This topic might make me a bit too opinionated for public commenting, but I really appreciate your voice and you bringing such important topics into mainstream conversation :)

  6. Pingback: What Are These Superintendents Thinking? | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day… #crazy « Transparent Christina

  7. Larry – After reading your post and the WA Post article, I am getting a clearer picture of the two sides of this debate. As a new teacher, my position is simply this: If they want to judge teachers by performance, then the incentive CANNOT only be to keep our jobs. There needs to be a monetary incentive to motivate performance.

  8. Thanks for linking to my post, Larry!

  9. “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is lose oneself.”
    Soren Kierkegaard

    This long overdue debate on how to resurrect our public schools needs to be further expanded. What, for instance, is a quality teacher? How are quality teachers to be identified and rewarded? Will student evaluations be included? Will creativity and new technologies be encouraged, measured, or suppressed?

    Let’s be clear: most of these standardized exams fail to capture the range of excellent teaching practices. Many just recently added real writing assessments, and far too many standardized exams focus far too much on passive skills such as listening and reading instead of speaking and writing. Adding portfolios and videotaped lessons into the evaluation criteria would add far greater realism and reduce teacher animosity. Rewarding the use of creative use of new technologies should also part of the evaluation since our students will live and work in a rapidly changing technological environment.

    Yet I’d also like to see a few other changes beyond the eternal standardized test debates. Let’s also consider making schools more modern, comfortable, and bespoken for our students as much as possible. Why not start the school day at 10:00 and ending at 5:00 given the abundance of research on children’s sleep patterns? Why not move students from cold, steel chairs into comfortable, ergonomic chairs with small tables? Why not learn from the widespread discontent among students, teachers, and parents in Japan, South Korea, and China about their school systems that fail to teach critical thinking and develop creativity? Why are we looking backwards instead of seizing the amazing possibilities to individualize instruction with modern technologies?

    Is firing inept teachers a legitimate goal? Yes. Yet we must move beyond the obvious and ask far more fundamental questions. What is the goal of a quality public education anyway?

    As Aristotle noted long ago, “education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.”

  10. In my opinion, it’s offensive that some feel a monetary incentive for teachers will solve any problem. Teaching is not a profession one enters in order to make money, teachers are in a classroom for a larger purpose. Thankfully my husband loves me enough to share his income with me, otherwise I’d be just above the poverty line for my state with my salary alone. I didn’t choose to be a teacher for the glamour of the pay check.

    I feel like I owe it to my students to teach them in any way possible, no matter what I’m paid. Like some others have said, I also think that students and their home-lives need to be accounted for as well. I take great care to plan differentiated and challenging lessons, only to be dismayed when students aren’t prepared with basic supplies (something to write with and on). Or I’m berated with, “do we HAVE to do work?” My favorite: “Um, miss? ‘Jersey Shore’ is on tonight, so I won’t be doing any of this reading.”

    It’s also challenging to combat a family’s lack of value of education. When I call home to let a parent know that their child is failing my class, I get told that it’s not that big of a deal – that they’re just waiting for the kid to turn 16 so he won’t have to go to school anymore. That they don’t care if their child earns enough credits to graduate or not. And that I should consider just leaving their child alone, that they won’t cause any problems in the classroom for me if I don’t cause problems for them. It’s sickening.

  11. Apparently, their thinking about their own jobs….

    There are examples, some in my own family, of how excellent teaching can help students overcome other obstacles and reach success in school and life. But why should students and teachers have to struggle over obstacles that could be removed, or at least lessened?

    Putting high quality teachers into dysfunctional schools or systems only leads to more burned out, pushed out, frustrated teachers. Rotating potentially high quality teachers through such settings every two years or so, only destablizes them more, and does even greater harm to their communities. This country can and should have effective, safe, quality schools for every child. But not with this type of misguided leadership.

  12. That manifesto makes me sick to my stomach.

    Even more disgusting is that Ron Huberman, CEO of our very own Chicago Public Schools, signed and possibly helped write this manifesto. This guy hasn’t been on the job for two whole years, has never worked in education (most recent job was top guy at the CTA–our transit system), and has already announced that he plans to leave the post in a few months.

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