The News is that it’s Not News

Folks are sure to buzz about the “Manifesto” in today’s Washington Post, penned by schools superintendents serving over 2.5 million children.  Signatories include those you would expect – Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee – and those you’ve probably never seen in national headlines, like LaVonne Sheffield from Rockford, IL.  Read the whole thing, but the piece describes many of the critical barriers to getting highly effective teachers in every classroom and making broad structural changes to schools.

Three thoughts on this.  First, I think the biggest news here is that the content of the piece isn’t really news anymore.  The notion that there are huge structural and contractual barriers to improving student achievement in school systems is basically assumed.  That was an important hump to get over.

Second, this piece does something important, namely to address those barriers in plain English.  It’s one thing to rile up the public with stories that create boogey-men out of the unions and other stakeholders, which has its limits as a motivator for change.  It’s another thing to illustrate the technical barriers in a way that the average stakeholder can understand.  “Us” vs. “them” doesn’t strike me as terribly useful if we’re talking about fixing schools.  But “everyone” vs. “arcane rules and antiquated practices” has some real potential.  It’s sort of refreshing, amidst a media and political climate that rarely assumes it can treat the public like grownups.

Third, the structural barriers to radically turning around failing schools doesn’t really get any play here, just the political ones that come with closing:

Closing a neighborhood school … is a difficult decision that can be very emotional for a community. But no one ever said leadership is easy

This primarily is a piece about attracting, retaining, and growing great teachers.  But it’s critical to acknowledge that closing or turning around a failing school isn’t just politically hard, it’s also technically difficult!

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One Response to The News is that it’s Not News

  1. john thompson says:

    I missed the part about attracting teaching talent. What realistic idea did they have for that?

    There is a difference between removing critical barriers and actually attracting teachers. The difference is about as large as, well, issueing more PR-speak and speaking candidly.

    Their simple PR statements still insult educators, by insulting our intelligence, even though we hear them over and over again.

    The exception was their definition of “seat time,” which they defined as the “arcane” rules requiring “a student to spend a specific amount of time in a classroom with a teacher rather than taking advantage of online lessons and other programs.”

    They did not explain that replacing seat time with online CYA is an incredibly destructive policy that primarily serves the purpose of padding statistics. I doubt they have a clue about the real structural barriers to changing those rules without damaging kids. After all, the fundamental purpose of the reform is simply padding statistics, and thus making the superintendent look good. Everyone in the system knows that, except perhaps some at the top who delude themselves into believing they just created a painless educational miracle when their grad rates soar.

    They asked how do teachers teach 25 to 30 kids with skills ranging from 4th to Tolstoy, and I’d have liked a real answer to that. They may not know it but teachers have kids below fourth grade skills in classes of over 30 with kids, including kids who are mentally ill felons off their drugs as well has Tolstoy-ready readers. The Tolstoy-ready may be the most extreme challenges. After all, why does a kid who is ready for Tolstoy end in the inner city classroom unless things have gone tragicall wrong in the life? Despite their call for charters, kids with the top skills already have all of the choices in the world. The real problem, for them, is the structural problems due to family breakdown, chronic illness, incarceration, addition, etc. that keep some from availing themselves of choices. (Too often those kids have internalized the blame game and blame themselves and not those structural barriers, but that’s another real-world dynamic thats below the supers)

    Address those structural barriers, and then you’ll be able to recruit more teaching talent.

    Regardless, their answer, technology, was laughably incomplete.

    They sure didn’t address structural barriers to turnarounds. Were we to accomplish all their recommendations, we’d still have the classic example of reform at the edges that would produce little change.

    To get real reform, they would have to take the risk of admitting that education is a people business. It requires trust. It requires relationship-building. And yes, it would requir tough love, including the firing of ineffective teachers. But people would need to accept that responsiblity, not accepting that data will do the job for them. They’ve need to face the hard fact that moving ahead on alternative schools, although absolutely essential, would be painful and involve vigilance and sensitivity. But then, they’d have to know something about the kids and the adults that they would have to have a relation with. And for many of those 16, it would require people skills that are alien to them.

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