Educators Talk Back: Answering the Scapegoaters

The current wave of teacher-bashing may not have crested yet, but it has evoked a strong countercurrent of well-argued rebuttals from leading educators and education researchers. The latest case in point is the response to a recent “manifesto” published in the Washington Post on behalf of the superintendents of 16 major urban school districts. Their manifesto claims that the difficulty of firing incompetent teachers “has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.” The superintendents’ solution: give them unfettered discretion to fire teachers they deem ineffective and to use “merit pay” to reward teachers based on their students’ test scores.

One telling response came from a superintendent who was supposedly herself a signer of this statement. Arlene Ackerman, chief of the Philadelphia school system, wrote that though listed as a signatory in fact she never signed the manifesto and rejected its simplistic approach. Ackerman said she believed school reform should be tackled through collaborative efforts. She wrote: “The truth is our public schools have been asked not only to educate children but also to solve many of the ills that the larger society either cannot or will not fix. I am speaking of issues directly related to poverty like hunger, violence, homelessness, and unchecked childhood diseases (asthma and diabetes) to name a few. In spite of these challenges there are thousands of dedicated and committed educators who are working hard to make access to a quality education for all children who attend public schools a reality.”

Ackerman closed her critique of the manifesto with some “stern, unsolicited advice to all of us who care about fixing our public schools: Be careful in this time of polarity not to get caught up in the scripted political agendas of individuals or organizations who seek to divide rather than bring us together. A collaborative approach to reform may not be easy, glamorous or movie-worthy, but it is a stronger and sustainable solution that is likely to outlast the tenure of individuals or politicized agendas.”

While 15 superintendents evidently did sign the manifesto targeting teachers as the culprits responsible for low student achievement, it turns out that at least 50 others chose not to lend their names to this statement. One of those, Jonathan Raymond of Sacramento, explained his stance: “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. I know how hard teachers work to educate every child and challenge students at their ability level. We need to work equally hard to give our teachers the tools and supports they need to be successful. Let’s stop scapegoating and come together to find solutions that work.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten had a chance to answer the superintendents’ manifesto directly on the opinion page of the Washington Post, and she put the opportunity to good use. She wrote: “Let’s come together–teachers, superintendents, principals, parents and community members–and develop a joint manifesto about how to best educate all our kids. After all, superintendents have a responsibility not only to demand excellence and accountability from others, but also to ensure that teachers have the resources to help their students succeed.” The focus, she said, should be on “solving problems, not winning arguments.”

In that spirit, Weingarten offered a set of core points that should guide the common effort. Among them: Teamwork and shared responsibility are essential. Great teachers can be developed. A good framework for teacher evaluation and development is needed to help teachers reach their full potential. Teachers need tools and support. High standards are important, but they’re just a start. High standards are meaningless without training and assessments aligned to them and without time for teachers to prepare for them and for students to achieve them. And teachers can’t do this alone–overcoming socioeconomic disadvantages that beset so many students requires a community response with “wraparound services,” such as safe and enriching after-school programs, health services, and tutoring.

We don’t have space here to give Weingarten’s forceful statement of the AFT approach its due. So we encourage you to read her article in full. You’ll find it here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/15/AR2010101502847.html.

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