Making Demands

If you were regional sales manager for, say, washing machines, auto parts or lawn fertilizer, you might insist on performance guarantees from your sales reps, perhaps with the promise of bonuses for superior performance.  But suppose you were a school superintendent?  What guarantees would be appropriate to demand from your principals?

I pose the question because some former principals in Washington, DC, recently shared their correspondence with former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.  Here are two examples, one of which uses ‘safe harbor’–a gain of at least ten percentile points–as the target.

On September 27, 2007, Chancellor Rhee wrote Carol Barbour, principal of Rudolph Elementary School, “You are guaranteeing me that you will see a bump in test scores from 29.2% in English and 26.9% in math (proficient and advanced) to ‘safe harbor’ in the coming year. I plan to hold you accountable to these goals.”{{1}}

One day later the Chancellor wrote Lucia Vega, principal of Powell Elementary School, “You are guaranteeing me that you will see a bump in test scores from 22.7% to 27.7% in English and 22.0% to 37.0% in math of students who are proficient and advanced. This is a substantial amount of progress to make in one year, and I plan to hold you accountable to meeting this goal.” {{2}}

Those one-on-one meetings were tense affairs, according to former Associate Superintendent Francisco Millet, who sat in on many of them.{{3}} “In that 15-minute period she would ask each one of the principals, ‘When it comes to your test scores, what can you guarantee me?’ And she would write it down. And you could cut through the air with a knife, there was so much tension.”

As I read those emails, I found myself wondering what I would want school principals to guarantee in writing if I were their superintendent.  Here’s my thinking: Because what we choose to measure reveals what we value, I would use performance guarantees to send a clear message to my principals about what matters:

Dear Principal Smith,

In our meeting we established the following eight goals for your school.  Please understand that I am going to hold you accountable for achieving them, just as I expect you to hold me accountable for providing you with the resources you need to achieve them.

1. Daily recess of at least 30 minutes for every child;

2. Art and/or music at least three times a week for every student;

3. Detailed records of pupil and teacher absenteeism, including patterns and your strategies for dealing with problems;

4. At least one opportunity per week for every teacher to observe a colleague’s teaching;

5. At least four evening events involving parents and interested community members, such as a student talent show;

6. A maximum of one week of ‘test prep’ activities;

7. Evidence of ‘project-based learning’ and other group projects using technology to involve others schools, either in-district or out;

8. Reliable evidence of academic improvement, including student performance on our district’s standardized test.


John Merrow, Superintendent

Every one of these goals is measurable.  Perhaps some should be more specific. Perhaps I have omitted goals that you would insist upon. Feel free to edit them.

I leave you with two big questions: “Is it reasonable for superintendents to enter into this bargain with their principals?”  And “Could setting multiple and varied goals, such as the ones I chose, be a healthy giant step away from our current obsession with test scores?”

Your thoughts?


[[1]]1. Principal Barbour ‘resigned under duress,’ according to a grievance she filed in August, 2008. Rudolph did not achieve the ‘safe harbor’ gains. It improved from 29.23% to 36.45% in reading but declined in math from 26.92% proficient to 16.82%.[[1]]

[[2]]2. Principal Vega made both goals. Her students went  from 21.97% to 48.94% in math and from 22.7% to 34.04% in reading. However, she resigned under pressure in the spring of 2008–before the test results were announced.  According to sources, about two dozen principals, including Ms. Vega, were offered a choice between resigning or being fired. Ms. Vega wrote in her undated letter to the Chancellor, “It is with great sorrow that I am hereby tendering my resignation to you effective July 15, 2008. Although there is much to say, I believe the reasons leading to this decision are known by you, and I will therefore leave them unsaid at this time.” [[2]]

[[3]]3. For more, see “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error”[[3]]

30 thoughts on “Making Demands

  1. Love it, John! It’s evident, when comparing your expectations with Rhee’s demands only for a specific percentage of increased test scores, that you are a genuine educator and she is an imposter posing as one.

    Off the top of my head, I would suggest also including time for teachers to collaborate with colleagues each week, in addition to that time allotted for observing them.

    I would want to work in your district anytime!


    • That’s a valuable addition. It could include a kind of ‘grand rounds’ where everyone who teaches kid X can share their insights about connecting with him/her.


    • This is better John . We are in the Quanta Age and there are many solutions to better preparing our youth , see what these principals and superintendants have to say


    • I am exercising my freedom to rescind my affirmation of you and your plan, because I did not realize at the time that your following statement concealed your continued support of high-stakes:

      “8. Reliable evidence of academic improvement, including student performance on our district’s standardized test.”


  2. So Vega was held “inversely accountable”, ie fired despite having met the goals set? Or do we think that there were other, non-student-related reasons for her firing?


  3. John,
    I remain a bit troubled by the statement that you plan to hold a principal “accountable” for producing evidence of improvement on standardized test scores.

    What does that accountability mean, exactly?

    Obviously, in the case of Rhee, it meant meet her benchmarks or hit the road.

    I would have a few reservations. First of all, the scores at a given school can go up or down for all sorts of reasons that are independent of the effort and quality of work of the principal and his staff. There could be an influx of English learners, as happened at my school in 2002, resulting in a decline in the scores for our Latino subgroup. The test could be mismatched with our curriculum, as was the case with the MAP tests that teachers boycotted in Seattle. We could get students transferred from another school where cheating had occurred. A big spike in neighborhood violence could mar the test taking environment.

    What I would want, as a principal, is some understanding that we would look at student data, and investigate — whether it went up or down, to find out why. I would want a superintendent capable of making qualitative as well as quantitative inquiries into the reasons our scores turn out the way they did. I would NOT want to be held accountable for constantly increasing the scores, because life is not a steady climb upwards. Life is a bumpy ride — as everyone in the business of planning education reform ought to know very well by now. Reality intervenes and kicks you in the ass sometimes, and we need to be able to learn and move forward. Accountability ought not to mean “punishment if everything does not go as we hoped.”


    • I had a similar response to #8, based upon my own experiences “unpacking” data. In those collegial conversations, we were not permitted (administrators watched and controlled most of our meetings) any discussion about test scores that included those issues “beyond our control” like most of those you mention above. As such, the only conclusions we were allowed to draw were those that could be answered, “WE succeeded because WE _________,” or “WE failed because WE __________.” We could not address the issues you raise, or any change in cut scores or point distributions for short-constructed response. WE (the teachers and principal) either succeeded or failed–period.

      Of course, such conversations might not be true of all schools, but it’s interesting to me that it was true of both of the urban schools I served in two different districts in the last six years.

      Still, John, an interesting start on a list.


  4. It may seem just a nuance, but those – frankly nasty – “accountability” metrics by Ree suggest she never hired those principals, and was giving them a deliberately “short leash” prior to a more comprehensive – and presumably ruthless or adversarial – review. In the few times I’ve worked with large city school districts there were usually other, less blatant and more negotiable means of both collecting data and enforcing goals set in a more mutual and more multivariate mode. Your eight goals imply that kind of collegial management more common in school systems (and in other professional settings – law, medicine, science, etc.).

    Incidentally, I would add some other data options – meetings with parents, supervising student teachers, professional development attended and/or delivered – to balance that classroom-only bias that was so testy with Ree. I might encourage teacher writing – to peers, parents and others – as well as look at changes in attendance and in late arrivals, to see if or how teachers engineered change. And finally, I’d make your offer of resources needed to accomplish these goals more tangible – responding to school-based proposals with time, personnel, cash or other incentives. I might make some of those incentives Ree,, cite (salary, bonus, etc.) more professional, for example, by negotiating adjunct college faculty status for some principals or exemplary teachers, etc. Perhaps the biggest error in k-12 education is that kind of “tunnel vision” that ignores the other players in town….


  5. What supports did she provide for the schools of Wahington,DC.? There is one question and that revolves around how to run a good school. Did Rhee know how to do this?


    • Her history suggests that she did not even know “how to run a good classroom”, let alone a school or an entire district.


  6. Dear John,

    I am glad to see that we share common goals and that you are so committed to reaching them that you will be supplying the resources I will need to meet them. In addition to professional development time, some additional supplies and assistance in developing assessment tools, I will need help in opening the doors to my colleague’s class. I haven’t been in there in 10 years!

    In your letter you are supporting an already positive environment (at least I think so). The question is how to motivate administration and staff to move their schools in that direction. And how to do that in many, like thousands, of schools.

    Some will need just a little help. Others will seem hopeless. And even if you could sign people up on the goals, in some cases providing the resources may be overwhelming.

    I am asking how to motivate Superintendents (and others) to move in this direction when certainly Supts are often looking at how to survive year to year.

    Good goals need adequate resources and rewards. Just as with kids, the rewards should come from within.

    But I would love to hire that superintendent tomorrow !


  7. Evidence of efforts to tap and to promote the instrinsic motivation and diverse passions of students. A corollary: Evidence for ‘self-directed learning’ by students — an increasing amount the higher the grade level.


  8. So I’ve been thinking a little more, and the approach still seems a little top-down and heavy-handed. In those moments when I found the better of my teaching, I said to my students, “Here are three different ways you could show me you can analyze text for theme. You can choose one or make a suggestion.” Then I might say of another assessment, not on the list, “This one’s not negotiable because… ,” and though the temptation was often there to propagandize my rationale, because of the heat on my back, I held myself to a standard of honesty as to why that assessment would not be negotiable.

    What if the superintendent offered some choices then told the principal to go back to his/her school and have a conversation with teachers (perhaps parents and students, as well) about what they thought were the priorities for their school. If they had other suggestions, they could offer them. If the superintendent thought something non-negotiable, s/he would need to provide a genuine rationale for that position…not something that would prove insulting as a crock of propaganda that teachers could see straight through.

    It’s a complicated issue, but I think it’s time that schools again own what defines them, in the same way we ask students to own their learning and its processes. It would return some respect to professionals who, oft times, have worlds more educational expertise and experience than the superintendent.


  9. How about holding the superintendent and chancellors accountable and firing them if ..

    1- students are turned off to learning because they think learning is test taking
    2- students do not get PE, music, art and social studies regularly because “it is not on the test”!
    3- students take field tests during their learning time soley for helping the testing companies prepare new tests.
    4- students don’t learn English quick enough to master their coursework in school.
    5- students come to school not ready to learn due to poor living environment, poor diet, lack of medical care etc…
    6- teachers are forced to implement failed curriculum connected to NCLB/RTTT/ Common Core and who can forget Balanced Literacy and so on and so forth
    7- When a certain percentage of students fail don’t blame the teachers… blame the “CEO’s also or formerly known as superintendents and chancellors.

    Time to give credit where credit is due … go right to the top!


  10. Of course I would want my children enrolled at a school where music, recess, P.E., art, and evening events are a given. Of course I would. But if the school could only promise me that 27% of students would be proficient or advanced in English, and only 37% proficient or advanced in math — even with the enrichments you mention — I would yank my kids out of that school so fast! Isn’t anyone else bothered that we just accept these incredibly low academic benchmarks for our kids?


    • Those are not “benchmarks;” they are scores seen in schools where there is high poverty, and the achievement gap between low income and higher income students is evident in all countries:

      Such scores reflect the out-of-school factors impacting impoverished children –lack of prenatal, health and dental care, hunger, homelessness, living in dangerous communities with high crime, violence, gangs, drugs, alcoholism, etc –all beyond the control of teachers Often, it’s Art, Music and P.E. that bring joy to children’s lives and disadvantaged children are in need of that just as much as, if not more than, other kids. And all young children deserve Recess.

      The sad truth is that what no one is bothered by is our nearly 25% child poverty rate –the highest of industrialized nations– and US teachers are expected to address poverty all by themselves, usually in under-resourced schools.


      • Thanks TeacherEd… so true that the effect of poverty on learning is ignored in this country!


    • But if the school could only promise me that 27% of students would be proficient or advanced in English, and only 37% proficient or advanced in math — even with the enrichments you mention — I would yank my kids out of that school so fast!

      Until recently I was a teacher, but for 19 years I am also a mom. My sons have grown up in urban schools, though, with the disappearance of any genuine neighborhood school, my sons opted for a magnet school that did not dwell long on standardized tests and emphasized a citizen’s responsibility to this world (International Studies program). At the time, the school did not offer P.E. or art because all of its available resources went to travel opportunities for students without the necessary financial resources for such experiences.

      To be honest, I have no idea the school’s breakdown in proficiencies. It was NEVER an issue. Here’s what mattered: My elder son traveled to Kenya and France and participated locally in a number of projects. As a freshman, aware that the school did not have an environmental club, he started one. He came out, gay, at 16 and didn’t miss a beat. Went on to become “Head Boy,” receiving various awards for his service to the school. As for the state’s test, my son generally did very well, though I was often perplexed by the positive results of his writing scores; content was usually strong, but his mechanics were/are dismal; I didn’t need a test to tell me what I already knew, and, in fact, I thought the test lied. In his final state test in 10th grade, he came home indignant about a writing prompt he considered propagandized. It was an environmental question that offered only two possibilities for consideration; neither, to my son, was acceptable, but he’d been taught, even at his excellent school, to stick to the prompt. That year, he got Advanced for his writing and he regretted it. Today, he would tell you that he is going to be the first gay president, and he warns me that he will probably be assassinated because he will NEVER sell out again (I resist the temptation to tell him that he won’t make it to the presidency UNLESS he sells out). I can’t tell you how much MORE important it is to me that my son think critically about the issues that concern him than whatever the numbers happen to be on a test.

      Until recently, my younger son hasn’t cared much about his performance in school at all. He did the minimum to pass and he’s been below proficient on a number of his state tests though I know, in fact, that he is more linguistic in his capabilities than his older brother. Again, I don’t need a test… Why does he suddenly care about school? Because he’s discovered himself a pretty decent drummer (music, anyone?), and he’s thinking he wants to go to a good college to continue honing his skills.

      My children, Kathy, are little different from others. Your comment betrays how little you know about what it takes to engage a child in the learning process. WHAT we teach is the very purpose children need to tap into their skills so they can develop their own passions, not a rote set of meaningless standards delivered in a See-Dick-run curriculum. ALL of our kids deserve more.


  11. If I were a parent in a school where few kids are learning to read at normal levels for their age, I would not be impressed by a strategy that involves more music and art. I would hope the superintendent would ask the principal:

    How would you go about raising the kids’ learning level?

    How can I help, via:
    professional development
    new materials
    staff changes
    relief from regulations

    What inputs will you need from teachers and parents to raise students’ learning level? How will you get these?

    How will you judge whether what you are doing is working midyear, before the next testing season?

    If the test scores don’t reflect improvement what other hard evidence of student performance should we look for?

    If this doesn’t work in a year, what would suggest I do? You should know that I can keep supporting school leaders who have reasonable approaches and are following them, but can’t leave school leadership and staff in place if they really don’t think they can make a difference for the kids.


    • John’s recommendation for Art and/or Music at least three times a week is what was typically provided in public schools when I attended them and began working in them, in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Ever since the shock doctrine of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, under the Reagan administration, and the call then for “back to basics” (i.e., a focus on reading and math), in the beginning of this era of “reform,” whenever budgets are slashed, Art and Music tend to be eliminated first. So this is maintenance of a minimum requirement.

      After 40 years of education “reform” focusing on reading and math, one would think that by now the powers that be would realize the ineffectiveness of such a narrow curriculum. Besides enriching the lives of kids, such learning experiences are motivators for students. I never particularly liked school as a kid, but you can be sure that on the days when Art, Music and PE were scheduled, I made a concerted effort to get there.

      John, did you forget about PE?


  12. “If you were regional sales manager for, say, washing machines, auto parts or lawn fertilizer, you might insist on performance guarantees from your sales reps, perhaps with the promise of bonuses for superior performance. But suppose you were a school superintendent? What guarantees would be appropriate to demand from your principals?”

    Partly because the premise of a “performance guarantee” from principals to their superintendent is based on a bad analogy, your list is seriously flawed. Principals aren’t running a business that has an easily measured bottom line. In fact, the whole idea of performance guarantees (and similar traditional management practices) has come under sharp attack, and for good reason. The return on investment of American business has been in decline for years, workplace satisfaction is dismal, and so on. Standard management practice is based on “Taylorism” which has reared its ugly head in the current “school reform” frenzy.

    Education policy, even more than business practice, is vulnerable to Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor” (Wikipedia). Campbell’s Law, as Diane Ravitch and others have pointed out, is at work in all high-stakes testing regimes, and its implications call item #8 on your list into serious question. For a nice debunking of standard business management practices and a proposed alternative scheme, see Stephen Denning’s The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century. (While looking up Campbell’s Law on Wikepedia, I learned another apt phrase–“policy-based evidence making”–especially relevant to the advocacy “research” being funded by certain prominent foundations these days: .)

    A better approach for superintendents would be to charge principals with the task of creating a community in which teachers, parents, and support personnel work together for the overall well being of the students. The primary goal should be to make school a place where everyone feels welcome, feels valued, and has fun. Your list ignores the most important determinant of school success, which is the social and emotional development of the child. Schools that systematically go out of their way to foster the happiness and well being of children will graduate kids who score well on any outcome you care to measure. (I wish I could remember the name of the researcher who did a longitudinal study that showed this–he appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered quite a few years ago.) The kind of “accountability” favored by NCLB, RTTT, and the current crop of “reformers” (and by some of the items on your list) is misguided at best.

    In case you think I’m just advocating a bunch of fluff and frolic, I’ll refer you to another book: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. If we really want to challenge students, teachers, and administrators to do their best work, we ought to pay attention to his findings. (See Wikipedia!) His research methods are instructive, too. He uses an ethnographic approach, which would be a far better way of studying students and teachers than relying on tortured analyses of questionable results derived from bad tests. By the way, the author didn’t have much good to say about the way schools operate (and that was before high-stakes testing took over).


  13. John’s suggestions mark a shift away not only from test results as the primary focus of education, but also from the management style implemented by Rhee, Duncan, Broad et al. The latter use McGregor’s Theory X management approach, which is top-down and based on a fundamental belief that workers are lazy, don’t want to work and need authoritarian leaders to dangle carrots and threaten with sticks, to make them tow the line.

    John is not quite there yet, but seems to be moving towards McGregor’s Theory Y, which is a belief that workers enjoy their work, are intrinsically motivated and want more responsibility. Managers implementing this model recognize worker competencies and value their creativity, give them more autonomy and involve workers in leadership and decision-making capacities. As mentioned by another poster, John is still taking a top-down approach. However, what he values is so much more in keeping with the best interests of students, teachers, schools, parents and communities than those of non-educator corporate “reformers,” that it has the feel of the beginnings of a shift in education management away from the draconian CEO corporate playbook that has been so demeaning to educators. (We have to remember that superintendents are themselves managed in a top-down fashion, taking their marching orders from legal mandates, politicians and school boards.)

    Even more ideal is Ouchi’s Theory Z –especially if districts want educators to develop loyalty to their schools and stay there throughout their careers:


    • Thanks for the link. If we assume that autonomy and collaboration are keys to doing great work, then it looks like the people behind the mandates and punitive accountability schemes are either not very smart, or they’re interested in something other than great work.


      • I think they are clever and have been attempting to pull the wool over people’s eyes with their pro “civil rights” claptrap. But you don’t demean, starve, shut down and give away what you prize and want to save, help, and grow. They are neo-liberals with a business plan to privatize public education, so that entrepreneurs and corporations can feed at the public funding trough.

        The biggest clues are the increases in regulations for what they disdain and want to dismantle, i.e., public schools, traditionally trained, experienced career teachers, and traditional Teacher Education programs, as opposed to decreased regulations for what they value and want to expand, i.e., charter schools, minimally trained, inexperienced teachers like TFA, and home-grown teacher training programs like Relay and Match, which prepare people to become military style drill sergeant teachers.


  14. I brings tears to my eyes when I think of the numbers of our children who we convince are failures because they can’t “successfully” fill in a dot or write a five paragraph essay. Standardized tests do that to our students every year, as well as destroying the morale of an entire school which is working hard to teach the children of parents who don’t come to parent conferences because of the traumatic “failure” they, the parents, experienced when they attended school. In most cases, standardized tests don’t boost the successful student’s place, they often don’t help the teacher recognize the specific needs of a student’s learning, they don’t allow teachers the space to address a student’s individual learning style which might be outside the conventional box. Mostly, the waste teaching time with “test-prep” and build an industrial conveyor belt for teaching and learning.

    Frank Smith in his book, “Insult to Intelligence,” years ago wrote, if you want children to learn to read you have to establish a “literacy club” in your classroom. A club the children want to join. If you want to be in a club, you have to follow certain rules of the club, if it’s a literacy club the child will read to become a member, it’s a requirement. They will also write. Another requirement. They almost don’t have to be taught to read and write, they discover it themselves so they can join. I know this works because it did in my classroom of third graders. It also works with all areas of the curriculum, not just literacy. If the student is engaged in the learning club, they will learn. If everything is focused on some adult specification, totally excluding the student’s needs, interests and development, too many will continue to “fail.”

    Our schools should be a place our children want to be, all of them. Too many criteria of “successful” learning only stifles it.


  15. Michelle Rhee is likely not stupid so we can safely assume that she understood that these exact test gains could not be guaranteed if the tests were given as directed (no “invalidations”). She probably knew, and the principals knew, that she was forcing them to raise the scores “in any way you can.” The tension was thick because principals likely knew that if they gave the tests without “invalidating” them, they would lose their jobs. On the other hand, they probably felt the way most people do when they are being pressured to do something wrong. They felt trapped and afraid. If they behaved ethically, they could lose their jobs; if they “invalidated” the tests, they would be cheats and could be prosecuted if found out. It upsets me just to think about being in such a dilemma. I’m glad some of those people are beginning to talk.

    In my 42 years of teaching I had only a few excellent principals who were interested in the progress of my students. These administrators visited my classroom in the fall, sat with students, looked at their cum folders, and continued to visit throughout the year. They encouraged all teachers to keep student portfolios so we could demonstrate progress for the parents. Most teachers keep very careful records of student progress and are proud to share this information with parents, administrators and other teachers.

    So if I were a superintendent, I’d ask the following of my administrators:

    Remember that the safety of the students and staff are always first. Make certain each classroom is as safe as possible for everyone at all times.

    Encourage and cultivate a joy for learning. Each classroom should reflect the joy that comes when children are fully engaged with the learning process.

    Be able to show the progress of any child at any time through portfolio assessment.

    Do your best to get volunteers into each classroom.

    Provide a well-rounded education (art, music, PE, science) for every child.

    Have a plan in place for every child who is not demonstrating adequate progress.

    Promote collaboration among the faculty, especially in teaching and grading compositions.

    Remember that a standardized test is a snapshot of how the child is doing compared to other children his age. Give it as directed, which means no peeking and no preparation, except for that provided by the testing company (usually one page on how to fill in bubbles).

    Hire fully credentialed teachers with experience, especially in challenging schools. Work with these teachers closely during the probationary period.

    Have a plan for the continued development of all the professionals on staff, including yourself.

    Show how you share governance of the school with parents and faculty (and with students at secondary level).



  16. Rhee was a terrible leader, plain and simple. It takes a simple minded leader to resort to such a simple minded management tactic as “produce or else” It’s emotionally satisfying for some people to fire to “hold people accountable” like Donald Trump on the Apprentice, but in reality, it’s a weak minded attempt at leadership. A true leader would use his/her leadership ability to get people behind a vision. A true leader would support the staff, including principals, central office, teachers, clerks, janitors, parents, students, etc…and get them to a better place. Rhee went backwards.


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