Two superintendents who rejected the “manifesto”
Much has been written (including on this blog) about the school reform “manifesto” published in The Washington Post this week and signed by 16 big-city public school district chiefs. But little has been said about superintendents who refused to sign the document.
New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein gave the document to Michael Casserly, executive director of the nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit organization that is a coalition of 65 of the nation’s largest urban public school systems. Casserly then asked the chiefs in member districts if they wanted to sign on to the document. Fifteen did, including the soon to be departed Chancellor Michelle Rhee of Washington D.C.
But some superintendents found the rhetoric empty and the solutions highly limited.
I asked Jonathan P. Raymond, superintendent of the Sacramento City Public School District, why he did not sign the document. Raymond earlier this month issued an open letter (which you can read here) putting forth a different view of what is needed to fix schools than was portrayed in the Klein-Rhee manifesto.
After seeing the controversial education film “Waiting for Superman,” Raymond wrote in this letter:
“I came away from the movie with an overwhelming sense that we have to stop blaming teachers for problems that have multiple causes, ranging from poor administrative oversight and accountability to a lack of parent engagement.”
That’s a far more sophisticated, realistic vision of the factors that have to be addressed to improve public education than the manifesto portrays.
Here’s what Raymond said, in an email, about why he didn’t sign the manifesto:
“First, the piece speaks to the success of Race to the Top. My question is, successful for whom? Certainly not California’s 6.3 million students — the largest population of public school kids in the country – who were left out when our state’s application for RTTT [Race to the Top] funding was denied.
“Real reform can’t be pushed down from Washington. It needs to bubble up from the men and women who are accountable to the children and families we serve.
“Secondly, I felt the manifesto, while impassioned, was limited in its view of how schools are transformed. There are 1,379 words in the manifesto, but none of them are “family,” “collaboration” or “teamwork.” Parents are mentioned only twice, and only in connection with school choice and charters. The word “together” appears three times – all in reference to superintendents working together as reformers.
“Turning around struggling schools requires strong partnerships, and parents are a district’s most important partners. That should have been acknowledged.
“Finally, the piece omitted any references to the importance of connecting children to the reality of our globally competitive 21st Century world as a method of transforming education. Other sectors of American society long ago hooked into the excitement and possibilities – the innovative potential – of viewing the world on a global scale. Why hasn’t education? Children can only benefit by schools that prepare them for whatever interesting challenges they will face in the future. By looking outside the walls of our classrooms, we can change schools from the inside.”
Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent James A. Williams refused to sign the manifesto too.
In an interview, he said:
“It says, for example, that the public and our leaders in government are finally paying attention. Well, paying attention to what? To the ‘Waiting for Superman’ documentary? The defeat of [Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty], the $100 million that the Facebook founder [Mark Zuckerberg] gave to Newark schools?”
“Those things will not improve public education.
“There is nothing in the document that talks about structural changes. It talks about unions, and yes, unions in some cases are problems. But we have work-free states. Are those school systems doing any better? No.
“It talks about charter schools. You can’t say more charter schools are going to improve public education. Charter schools are hiring the same people we are hiring. From the research I’m reading, most charter schools aren’t doing any better than we are. Nobody speaks about the research.
“They should come out and tell the truth. If they want to privatize public education, they should say so.”
Yes, they should.
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…..Let me also note what I consider the most disturbing image in the film. It is used as a set-up to bash teachers. We see a teacher peeling back skulls and pouring knowledge into the heads of students. Later, as the words we hear are bashing unions and union rules, we again see the teacher pouring, only this time she – and it is a she – is pouring her “knowledge” onto the floor, somehow missing the open minds of the students.
This is a horrible model of education. It may work for drill and kill to raise test scores. It does not result in meaningful long-term learning or the development of an ability to continue learning independently. It may not be intellectually dishonest, but it is a distorted understanding of teaching and learning.
What is intellectually dishonest is what the film says about tenure. The film somewhat misrepresents the development of tenure in post-secondary institutions. It is totally wrong when it describes tenure for public school teachers as a life-time guarantee of a job. All tenure does is require due process according to contract rules mutually agreed to by unions and school boards. Note the two parts to this: due process, and mutually agreed to. The portion of the film with Jason Kamrad is used to imply that it is almost impossible to dismiss a tenured teacher. In fact it is not, rubber rooms not withstanding, if administrators follow the rules and document. This is no more difficult that convicting criminal wrongdoers in the justice system when the police and the prosecution follow the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Petty dictators and inexperienced leaders might not like following the rules. Michelle Rhee dismissed a batch of teachers ostensibly because the city could not afford them, but replaced some with people from Teach for America. When she got caught she talked about a handful who rightfully should have been dismissed (although that could easily have been done under proper procedures) while implying that all of the dismissed teachers had similar problems. That was not honest.
Her track record also is not as rosy as the film portrays, although on this I would refrain from accusing that portion of intellectual dishonesty, because the inconsistency of score performance became publicly apparent only after the film was in editing. Still, questions had been raised about the performance at the time Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee were touting the scores as proof that their approach was working.
Perhaps the most intellectually dishonest portion of the film is the presentation of Geoffrey Canada. Let me be clear: I believe Canada is absolutely correct in providing what are known as wrap-around services, including medical and tutoring and family support. What the film implies is that Canada is obtaining better results applying the same or similar resources, and somehow if others would take his approach, which includes his insistence on no union and the ability to fire any teacher, all would be well.
Let’s try the reality. As it happens, on this the New York Times has a recent piece that is quite appropriate, about which many have now commented. Titled Lauded Harlem Schools Have Their Own Problems, the piece appeared on October 12. In it we learn that the schools in Harlem Children’s Village have per pupil expenditures of $16,000 in the classroom and thousands more outside the classroom. The average class size in the Promise Academy High school is about 15, with two licensed teachers per class. Stop right there, and think about the image of most urban schools: how often do you see as few as 20 students per class? How rarely are there two adults to deal with what is often 30 or more students?
Despite that, Canada’s track record is spotty. In the film we hear about the commitment he makes to the parents, which in the Times piece is framed as “We start with children from birth and stay with them until they graduate.” Perhaps we should read about the first cohort of Promise Academy I, which opened in 2004:
The school, which opened in 2004 in a gleaming new building on 125th Street, should have had a senior class by now, but the batch of students that started then, as sixth graders, was dismissed by the board en masse before reaching the ninth grade after it judged the students’ performance too weak to found a high school on. Mr. Canada called the dismissal “a tragedy.”
Somehow dismissing an entire cohort does not bespeak a model that I would want to emulate. Nor does it demonstrate that Mr. Canada is the sparkling example the movie would have you believe. Allow me to quote what Walt Gardner posted about Promise Academy I in this blog at Education Week:
Even now, most of its seventh graders are still behind. Only 15 percent passed the state’s English test. Their failure to perform resulted in the firing of several teachers and the reassignment of others. Although 38 percent of children in third through sixth grade passed the English test under the state’s new guidelines, their performance placed them in the lower half of charter schools in the city and below the city’s overall passing rate of 42 percent.
As a piece of propaganda pushing a flawed vision of education, “Waiting for Superman” is brilliant – it manipulates emotions, it takes facts out of context, it misrepresents much of the data it uses and is less than accurate in its portrayal of key figures, most especially in its portrayal of Canada……
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TPS teacher who watched Obama sign bill is laid off Board not using $7.6M share to rehire workers
Ms. VanNess, 25, couldn’t be reached for this story, but the irony of her situation was featured in the Wall Street Journal last week and on television and talk radio.As Toledo Public Schools teacher Amanda VanNess stood in the Oval Office and watched President Obama sign an education stimulus bill, she already knew she’d lost her teaching job back home to budget cuts and low seniority. The $26 billion stimulus bill, designed to save 160,000 teacher and other government jobs across the nation, couldn’t save her position at Pickett Elementary. In fact, Ms. VanNess has been laid off twice from TPS this year. TPS hasn’t spent a dollar of the $7.6 million in teacher rehire money it received from the Aug. 10 bill, opting instead to save it for next school year to rehire or retain a myriad school employees – probably not teachers. The legislation allows the one-time money to be spent that way over the two school years. The hard-fought federal legislation was sold as a way for school districts to call back laid-off teachers or to save others from losing jobs. But as of Nov. 15, Ms. VanNess will be without a teaching assignment, according to TPS’ human resources department. The stimulus measure gave governors $10 billion in education aid to hire and retain certain local school district workers and about $16 billion to help cover increased costs for Medicaid, the state-level health-care program for the nation’s poor. More people access Medicaid in hard economic times. The bill was stalled in Congress, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) called members back from a break in August to push it through. The legislation has become a powerful symbol in the rhetorical battle over the wisdom of stimulus spending and debate over government’s proper size. And Ms. VanNess’ job loss has become political foil for the anti-Obama right as midterm elections approach. To set up the bill signing in the Oval Office, the American Federation of Teachers contacted local union President Fran Lawrence and asked if she knew of a Toledo teacher who could come to Washington to stand with the President. Ms. Lawrence thought of Ms. VanNess because she had been notified about her job loss. Ms. Lawrence said she doesn’t feel the situation is ironic because Ms. VanNess was already laid off when the stimulus bill was signed. The young teacher had received a letter in early July with an effective layoff date of Aug. 25. Ms. VanNess traveled to Washington Aug. 10, but her plane was late and she missed attendng a morning press conference when the President discussed the bill, Ms. Lawrence said. But Ms. VanNess arrived in time to watch congressional debate about the bill, which passed on a party-line vote. Later, as she and the other visiting teachers with their guides approached the Oval Office, the door opened unexpectedly. The President emerged, reached out his hand, and said, “You must be Amanda, you were MIA this morning,” said Ms. Lawrence, recounting what Ms. VanNess told her. Ms. VanNess, the other teachers, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan stood behind the President as he signed the bill. Ms. VanNess was officially laid off the day before school started, Aug. 25, about two weeks after her Washington trip. She fell prey to budget cuts designed to close a $39 million deficit last school year. About 400 employees, including 237 teachers, received pink slips. Student services were cut and bus service curtailed affecting about 5,000 students, and elimination of middle school and freshman sports. About 24,350 students are enrolled in TPS. Ms. VanNess was quickly reassigned as a second-grade permanent substitute at Reynolds Elementary School because a position opened up unexpectedly. But Oct. 1, she was notified again. With falling enrollment, 14 more teachers were let go, effective Nov. 15. According to the union contract, the district must continue to employ the teachers for 45 days after they are notified. “It’s terrible,” Ms. Lawrence said. “I wish they would have used some of that money not to lay off those 14 teachers because that disrupted those classrooms.” TPS released its head count for this school year in mid-September, down more than 5 percent. Many parents pulled their children because of cuts to services TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko said the district expects a $44 million deficit next school year. He said he’s scoured the wording of the federal legislation for permissible uses beyond rehiring teachers. As enrollment falls, the district doesn’t need as many teachers, and Mr. Pecko said he must balance all needs for students. He said the district might use the money to hire its own crossing guards, instead of using an outside company, and to hire more bus drivers to restore service to where it was before last year’s budget cuts.