A host of nationally prominent school leaders (notably NYC’s Joel Klein and DC’s Michelle Rhee) presented a “manifesto” via the Washington Post this past Sunday that has led to a predictable avalanche of criticism from those opposed to the teacher-centered human capital reforms pushed by these school leaders and the Obama administration.

The “manifesto” opens itself to this criticism by stating (rightly) that all the adults in our school systems share the responsibility in changing our schools for the better, then launching into another attack on teachers and how more of them should be fired. What happened to all the adults sharing the responsibility?

The truth is that the “manifesto” does point out some clear problems with how incredibly non-selective schools are when it comes to who gets to teach and who gets to keep teaching. We’ve created layers of statutory and contract protections for the worst of our profession to the point that it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and (in some cases) years to remove a teacher, even if there is clear evidence of poor performance or unacceptable behavior. This fact, coupled with the irrationality of “last hired – first fired” approaches to layoffs if student outcomes are really your first priority, are clear problems that beg confrontation and meaningful change. It’s time we stopped ignoring the worst educators and started taking direct action to improve them or move them along.

With that said, we can’t fire our way out of this problem. Even if we assumed that “firing bad teachers” was part of the solution to improving schools, its a strategy that effects only the lower tail of the teaching distribution. A much more comprehensive strategy, one that involves supporting teachers with meaningful professional learning and spreading the knowledge and impact of exceptional teachers, is necessary to really shift the distribution of teacher effectiveness.

The “manifesto” focuses nearly entirely on firing bad teachers as the strategy for improving education. Necessary as this may be, it ignores that there are a number of other adults in the education system who deserve the same level of accountability, and the same level of supports, that teachers do. Practically no one can argue that building principals aren’t a critical part of great schools. Further, I would argue that the tactical and strategic decisions set forth by boards, superintendents, and other central administration members are a crucial components in the ultimate success (or failure) of schools.

We also must also acknowledge that the role of parents and community are key factors to kids’ success. While these shouldn’t used as an excuse that kids can’t or won’t learn, they clearly play an important contextual role and great schools would do well to engage both parents and the community in the efforts of improving kids’ learning.

The “manifesto” states that the single most important factor in determining whether students succeed in school is the quality of their teacher. This statement should have been qualified that the most important factor in student academic growth is the quality of their teacher. The home and community context and the effects of other adults in the educational system have a tremendous impact on student achievement.

Recognizing that its’ important to support all teachers, and engaging everyone in who contributes to kids’ lives, would go a long way in framing this debate appropriately and fairly sharing the blame and responsibility improving for student successes.

Jason Glass
Columbus, OH