Misleading Manifesto

October 8, 2010 | Blog

I’m sorry, but the “manifesto” published in today’s Washington Post really pisses me off because it is built upon a false premise. It is authored by a number of urban school superintendents, including Chicago’s Ron Huberman, New York City’s Joel Klein, Washington DC’s Michelle Rhee, and New Orleans’ Paul Vallas. And it — intentionally? — misstates educational research.

“[T]he single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher.”

No. That is patently false.

Now, listen here. I work for a teacher-focused, non-profit organization, the New Teacher Center (NTC). Wouldn’t it be powerful to go out and say that teachers matter more than ANYTHING else? But they don’t. In terms of school-based variables, they do. But in terms of all variables that impact students, they simply do not. No research says that. In our messaging at the NTC, we are always careful to say that teacher quality is the most important school-based variable for student achievement (examples here and here (on page 4)). That’s accurate, honest and powerful in its own right.

So why not make the case for improving teaching in a honest fashion? There is an incredibly strong case to make that improving teaching quality is a critically important and policy amenable part of the solution to increasing student achievement and closing achievement gaps for disadvantaged students. But it’s only part of the answer which requires solutions beyond the educational system. Let’s not lose sight of that.

At the Shanker Blog, Matthew Di Carlo explored this same issue last month and took journalists to task for making similar claims. Back in July, he summarized existing teacher quality research.

September 16, 2010:

The same body of evidence that shows that teachers are the most important within-school factor influencing test score gains also demonstrates that non-school factors matter a great deal more. [emphasis added] The first wave of high-profile articles in our newly-energized education debate not only seem to be failing to provide this context, but are ignoring it completely. Deliberately or not, they are publishing incorrect information dressed up as empirical fact, spreading it throughout a mass audience new to the topic, to the detriment of us all.

Even though the 10-15 percent explained by teachers still represents a great deal of power (and is among the only factors “within the jurisdiction” of education policy), it is nevertheless important to bear in mind that poor educational outcomes are a result of a complicated web of social and economic forces. [emphasis added] People have to understand that, or they will maintain unrealistic expectations about the extent to which teacher-related policies alone can solve our problems, and how quickly they will work.

July 14, 2010:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). [emphasis added] Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

Let’s take Di Carlo’s and Joe Friday’s advice. Just the facts, please.


  1. Reply


    October 8, 2010

    I worked in Kansas City through Teach For America, and it frustrates me that the superintendent--another Broad Foundation hack--has signed on to this manifesto.

    There are dozens, if not hundreds of factors that affect a child's performance in school, and the teacher is only but one factor.

    In my limited experience, I found that the family background had the largest impact. It was almost 100% accurate in my school to say that good students had good parents and bad students had bad families.

    Of course, that wouldn't be much of a problem if schools would remove students who refuse to behave and place them in alternative settings. But that's an entirely different topic.

  2. Reply

    Mr. Kadin

    October 9, 2010

    So the statement isn't entirely accurate. There are certainly important school-external factors that speak to how likely a student is to succeed in school.

    All that aside, teachers ARE the most important in-school factor. The manifesto calls for making sure good teachers are rewarded and bad teachers are discouraged or eliminated. How could that hurt kids?

  3. Reply


    October 10, 2010

    "It was almost 100% accurate in my school to say that good students had good parents and bad students had bad families."

    In my 10 years teaching in Louisiana public schools, I can't tell you how many times I have heard statements like this. The thing is, I have NEVER heard an effective teacher say it.

    Attitudes like that are precisely what this "manifesto" and similar statements aim to counteract. And while I agree with the case you've made to state it accurately, precisely and without hyperbole, I find it kind of shocking that anyone needs "scientific" proof that teachers matter a lot.

    The anonymous commenter, and the millions like him or her, are exactly why such proof is needed. I don't think they realize just how far back they set the struggle for educational equity when they use their 1, 2, 5 years of experience to gain credibility when they make harmful, counterproductive, and most of all false statements like that.

    There are abusive and neglectful families in the world, and I don't suggest we ignore that. However, outsiders are too quick to slap "bad parent" labels on parents who don't share their middle class values, or who live in poverty, or who simply don't trust precocious and judgmental young teachers from far away, but who are loving, supportive, and deeply caring parents.

    To say that a "bad student" (whatever that generalization means) is a sign of a "bad family" is an all too common attitude that alienate parents of struggling students from schools. It accomplishes exactly nothing and, when muttered by thousands of bitter teachers or ex-teachers, it causes incalculable harm.

  4. Reply


    October 10, 2010

    To anonymous:"the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors OUTSIDE of SCHOOLS AND CLASSROOMS.

    Just like it isn't ALL about teachers, it isn't ALL about parents either.

    "poor educational outcomes are a result of a complicated web of social and economic forces."

    Just as blaming parents accomplishes nothing and makes them angry, so does laying all the blame on teachers.

    Teachers can and have always helped some students rise above their circumstances. But we can't save them all. I do agree that "if schools could remove students who refuse to behave and place them in alternative settings" that it would help those left behind to be more successful.

  5. Reply

    Mathematically Healthy

    October 10, 2010

    As a former teacher in an urban charter school in Los Angeles I can agree with some points of the manifesto but disagree with others. It is easy to place the blame on teachers because after all at the end of the day we are the primary ones responsible for how students perform. However, where is the accountability for administration and districts to supply the necessary resources, appropriate class sizes, and administrative support to ensure that all teachers can and will be successful? A friend of mine teaches 6 classes, each with 45-50 students, some students without desks.

    Speaking from my own experience working within a popular charter school in Los Angeles, I can truly say that Charter schools are NOT the answer to our nation's public education problems. It was extremely difficult to produce high results in a school with no teacher support from administration (I was visited 4 times over the course of 2 years as a NEW teacher, but thankfully had the support of veteran teachers), no supplies (as every teacher at my school would attest, we all purchased our own supplies - even having to purchase our own reams of paper to make copies at times), and a poor facility.

    In addition, during my first year at the school, many of the teachers who taught literature heavy classes were forced to copy books in packets because our administration failed to provide books to our students. Students in algebra 2 classes were not given textbooks until March because the principal failed to order them after repeated pleas from teachers and students. It took posting letters around the school, phone calls home, and student activism for textbooks to be ordered. How can a teacher be set up for success when they are not even given a textbook for a student to use? More importantly, how valued will a student feel when they KNOW the school doesn't care enough to order them a textbook? Or when they are forced to read entire books from a photocopied packet? I am willing to bet next month's salary that their wealthier peers, from suburbia to beverly hills, are not reading books from a packet or missing textbooks. For Obama to say zip code is not a factor is absolutely ludicrous and is just avoiding another big problem our nation faces: poverty, because if were to accept that schools are performing differently based on zip codes, that would be mean the wealthy giving up more of their fat pay check. It's easier to blame the teachers, then it costs nothing to them.

    As anonymous said above, "bad students" do NOT come from "bad families". That is a generalization to the extreme, but I would not say they are the words of an ineffective teacher, just an inexperienced one. Bad students come because a system failed them that has not been properly maintained or supported. By encouraging the opening of more charter schools our education system is doomed to fail because the massive funding received to run one seldom trickles down to the teachers, but instead is used to market the school and attract more unaware students and families. Until Obama can ensure that all schools are properly resourced I think it is unfair to deem teachers without high test scores ineffective.

    Another important thing Charter Schools lack is funding for extracurriculars and elective courses. Students at my charter were forced into a gym class, that was shared with another school, that was taught by a spanish teacher (who also taught yearbook - and this was not by her choice). Bless her heart because she worked her ass off to make sure students would get some sort of physical education class without the use of any equipment or proper facility. Also, students were not encouraged to stay after school, as it should be in an urban setting where the alternative option is to be on the streets, because there were no available activities to partake in. Charter schools are unable to adequately fund the education they insist they are providing, so how can they be the answer? The answer is, they are NOT!

  6. Reply

    Dorothy Neville

    October 10, 2010

    I am also put off by the first anon's comment, the TFA volunteer who is quick to label kids and parents as good and bad.

    One main noble goal of NCLB was to stop this simplistic notion and look beyond the stereotypes. And the TFA youngsters are supposed to be all about social justice and bring effective teachers to the poor and downtrodden?

    But what really struck me was the line about wishing to remove the behavior problems. Alas, wouldn't it be easier to dump all problem students in some other place out of sight and teach the easy kids? That'd be awesome, wouldn't it? That's what TFA is teaching their elite corps of volunteers?

  7. Reply


    October 10, 2010

    If you have the time and make the effort to read about each of the four people (Vallas, Huberman, Klein & Rhee) several facts make a blinding statement, the most important being: each of these people focused on and made political connections the MAIN THING in their primary efforts to rise to the top of SOMETHING. How unfortuntate that they preyed upon the profession of education...exactly what each of them has accused teachers' unions of doing.

  8. Reply

    Melissa Westbrook

    October 11, 2010

    "The manifesto calls for making sure good teachers are rewarded and bad teachers are discouraged or eliminated. How could that hurt kids?"

    Oh for God's sake, with that thinking are you two? Or do you think we're two-year olds? Of course, it is better to exit low-performing teachers and reward good ones.

    But you miss the point. This "manifesto" is only about teachers (oh yes, and how charters will save the world). How can all ed reform revolve around teachers (and their unions)? It is not plausible to lay everything within a school at their feet.

    Do they take care of their buildings? No. Pick curriculum? No. Pick testing? No. Amount of time of testing? No. Textbooks? No.

    Where is this laser focus for administrators both within school buildings and at district headquarters? Where is their accountability? Nope, always about teachers.

    I am not a teacher by the way and I know there are some bad teachers out there but there are a lot more in the middle who might do better with more support (not more technology as the manifesto says) and professional development.

    The manifesto rightly says that with large class sizes and a wide range of abilities, it is hard for teachers. Their answer? More technology. Teachers? Is that really going to help? Unbelievable.

    Ed reform cannot just be about one way - teacher beat-down and charters. And I find the charter question puzzling - there are charters in 40 states. If they are so great and available, what's the problem?

  9. Reply


    October 11, 2010

    As a DCPS teacher who was also a parent, I have tasted my share of frustration on both sides. Yes, my children sometimes had teachers who clearly needed help in the classroom. But they also had more than their share of outstanding teachers who could have used more support from their administrators. Yes, my fellow parents were too often ignored when decisions about the education of their children were being made. But I also witnessed my share of parents who needed to invest more time and energy into the education of their child. The problem with broad labels is they tend to dirty everyone. It's the teacher's fault. No, it's these bad children and their stupid parents. Excellence will only be achieved when we all sit down together, disarm the put-downs, and get to work. For more on my experiences as both parent and teacher in DC, please see my blog at teachermandc.com.

  10. Reply

    La Mama Loca

    October 16, 2010

    Bad students come from bad families? Wow. I have seen some bad parents, in the community and during my internships in public schools (I have to admit I have not worked as a full time teacher but only a sub, since I stay at home and home school my own kids), but truly bad families are few and far between. Too often, "bad" parents have ADHD or other learning and mental health problems, which are the same ones causing their children to be "bad students." Or "bad" parents have to work more than one job to keep food on the table and have few resources left to help with education, even when they value it. Or "bad" parents can't afford to buy books, nor have time to read themselves, and in some areas (like mine) public transportation is so horrific that even visiting the library may be a difficulty. Or "bad" parents had poor education themselves, thus contributing to their earning ability and poverty, and can't help their children with homework.

    Being a good student isn't everything. For the most part, my husband and his siblings were "good students." Yet the abuse going on in the home wasn't apparent since they were a white, middle class family. A controlling, manipulative, physically abusive sexual predator is a bad parent. Don't apply the same label to people who are simply unlike you, have more pressing concerns than their children's homework, such as ensuring they can eat and have a place to stay, and who don't have the same opportunities as you.

  11. Reply

    La Mama Loca

    October 16, 2010

    Please excuse my rant. Please allow me to address the issue of the actual blog post, rather than that ignorant comment.

    This manifesto has gotten so much wrong, that it is difficult to know where to begin. Now, I am coming from a very different place from most of you. While I have an education degree and spent a couple years interning in public schools, and some time working as substitute, I stay at home and homeschool my own children. I'm sure that some of you consider me put of the educational problem. ;)

    The teacher IS very important. I still recall the beginning of my own disillusionment with school, when my kindergarten teacher insisted to us that we did NOT know how to read, even if we think we did. She was wrong, I was reading quite well, and I began to learn that many teachers were ignorant. My teacher for second and third grades was a great teacher, who encouraged me, lent me some of her own personal books that were at my reading level, and was overall fantastic at a time when I felt excluded and different from my peers. My sixth grade teacher didn't even know how to pronounce "interrogative." My 7th grade math teacher encouraged me and recognized my inherent abilities despite my low performance, and helped encourage me to move into the advanced math track.

    Teachers are important, not only in their knowledge and ability, but primarily in their connection to students. That is my experience and my firm belief. For a student to do well in school he has to value doing well, and having a connection with an individual who values education is essential. A good teacher is a mentor as well as a teacher. A teacher will never connect with all students, but they can be fair and passionate and open to the students in the classroom, in the ideal circumstances.

    Unfortunately, schools today are far from the ideal circumstances. Our very idea of success, performance on standardized testing, is measuring a consequence of good teaching, but not the core of good teaching. But good teaching - being a mentor, being inspiring, giving children hope, having high expectations for them - takes time to show up on a test of skills. Moreover, teachers are handicapped by lack of support from administration, lack of support and in fact adversarial relationships with parents, lack of basic resources. I don't think focusing on technology is the answer, however cool that technology may be.

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Leave a Reply

© 2013 The EduOptimists. All Rights Reserved.