Willingham: 'Manifesto' more like a job wish list
By Daniel Willingham
Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and 14 other big-city school system heads have published a “manifesto” in The Washington Post. The reforms suggested ought to surprise no one who follows these issues.
1. Eliminate rules of retention and promotion based on seniority and advanced degrees.
2. Evaluate teachers based on their effectiveness in the classroom.
3. District leaders should be able to use financial incentives to recruit and retain teachers.
4. Technology should be used to make instruction more effective.
5. Parents ought to have school choice, and charter schools ought to play a role in that choice.
With the exception of #5, this is tepid stuff.
Does anyone really want to stand up and defend the way retention decisions are currently made? Teacher support for differentiated pay is mixed, but most do not see the possibility as the end of the world.
The strong reactions to the manifesto on the Post’s website have little to do with what it says and much more to do with the details of how these leaders (mostly Klein and Rhee) have tried to effect these reforms (and pursued other goals) in their districts.
To me, what’s left out of the manifesto says much more than what’s in it.
In a document titled “How to Fix Our Schools” there is no mention of curriculum. Or the role of principals. Or local boards of education. Or state government. Or schools of education.
The manifesto boils down to this: “If district leaders had more freedom to do what we want, things would improve.”
Even the idea of ensuring parents greater school choice is followed by this sentence: “That starts with having the courage to replace or substantially restructure persistently low-performing schools that continuously fail our students.”
School choice begins with the district leader closing schools?
This juxtaposition is, I think, symptomatic of the problem with the manifesto, and perhaps signifies a larger problem.
The problem with the manifesto is its narrowness. On the one hand, I appreciate that district leaders are focused on the levers that they can move, rather than heaving sighs and shaking sorrowful heads at problems (e.g., unsupportive parents) they can do little about.
On the other hand, the call for these reforms would be a lot more persuasive if it were shown to be a piece of something larger. Do these leaders really believe that curriculum can be left to chance? That once the fabled “great teacher” is in the classroom that will just work itself out?
The evidence for effectiveness of teacher preparation at schools of education is no better than the evidence that years of experience is a good guide to teacher quality. Are we going to do anything about that problem?
I am confident that Klein, Rhee, and the other signatories have opinions worth hearing on such questions. Perhaps they feel that issuing declarations on matters so far removed from their spheres of influence would be pointless. I would say, on the contrary, influential voices from all quarters are needed to address all urgent matters.
And comments on matters beyond the immediate job description of district leader would help us to understand their vision of the larger whole of education. Absent that, how can we be sure that these leaders have anticipated how the changes they advocate would reverberate through the system?
Indeed, that’s what one expects a manifesto to be: a broad statement of intentions, or aims.
This document feels less like a manifesto and more like a job wish list.
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| October 11, 2010; 11:10 AM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform | Tags: dan willingham, daniel willingham, fixing schools, how to fix our schools, joel klein, klein and rhee, manifesto, manifesto and post, michelle rhee, reform manifesto, rhee klein, school manifesto, school reform
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