Superintendents’ School Fix Plan Challenged

An October 10 Washington Post article detailed a manifesto entitled “How to Fix Our Schools” by 16 school superintendents from across the nation, including Baltimore City Public Schools Chief Executive Andrés A. Alonso.  Citing the federal Race to the Top funding program, the manifesto argues that teacher evaluation reform and charter schools are important methods for improving student performance.

Yet, for too long, we have let teacher hiring and retention be determined by archaic rules involving seniority and academic credentials. The widespread policy of “last in, first out” (the teacher with the least seniority is the first to go when cuts have to be made) makes it harder to hold on to new, enthusiastic educators and ignores the one thing that should matter most: performance. …

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. …

District leaders also need the authority to use financial incentives to attract and retain the best teachers. 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. …

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.

The manifesto produced challengers. An October 20 Washington Post education blog post registers six areas of concern, including:  (1) toning down the rhetoric; (2) the problem with “cleaning house”; (3) being careful of the “big idea”; (4) focusing on instruction; (5) privileging youth over experience; and (6) downplaying poverty.

The collective “we” is used here, but it’s pretty clear rhetorically that the signatories believe that they are already on the side of the angels. Anyone who is not on board with their reforms is acting out of self interest. …

Reformers are often driven by a big idea, a grand process or structure that will transform the status quo. Not too long ago, the big idea in education reform was turning large schools into small ones. For No Child Left Behind it was a system of high-stakes tests that would drive achievement. One appealing big idea today is charter schools. …

Merit pay could be related to experience, though many merit pay schemes link pay to test scores. The original Race to the Top proposal did mention professional development and career trajectories, though I haven’t read much more since. This cult of the new is interwoven with the reformers’ attempts to remove seniority and to not consider teachers’ academic credentials.

An October 21  Baltimore Sun commentary responded by arguing that teacher “pay-for-performance” methods had been considered in the past and rejected:

The bankruptcy of their solution in education is most evident in the mechanism that is recommended to accompany it: pay for performance. This idea goes back a long way, gets trotted out every couple of decades — and each time it fails. A basic problem is that it is a statistical impossibility to figure out how much of the gain in student achievement is actually caused by teacher performance. Students’ test scores are the result of literally dozens of factors. …

The superintendents say “we have to change the rules to professionalize teaching.” But new rules made up by administrators are the very opposite of professionalization, which has to come from the teachers themselves. …

Teachers need to be treated as professionals, with commensurate pay and considerable say over the means by which they are evaluated. Given the right attitudes and working conditions, they can and will police themselves. And we need superintendents with a much broader vision of education than offered in the “manifesto.”

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