Michelle Rhee and the DC School System

October/13/2010 20:29PM
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Everyone admits the US educational system is broken. We spend more money educating our kids and rank 23rd in the world on test scores. There is plenty of blame to go around. Pick your villain.

Michelle Rhee came into Washington DC as a school reformer. She did big things to reform the system. She negotiated a new contract with the union. It included bonus pay for good teachers and eliminated tenure in return. She fired over 200 non-performing teachers. Now, a new mayor is in place in DC and Rhee will be a causality. She will land somewhere else, but DC will go back to the old ways.

Here is an article from the Atlanta Post that offers an editorial opinion on Rhee and her work. Is the job of changing the school system in this country too big and will our kids and grand kids continue to be the victums of inertia?

“Yesterday, the Washington Post posted a “manifesto” from over a dozen public school district superintendents about what they feel should be at the heart of reform for the nations’ 97,000 public school districts.

Touting the need to shed entrenched practices, which have held the education system back, the education professionals wrote that two major reforms need to happen to ensure student achievement: first, more charter school choice in neighborhoods with failing schools and, second, the need for performance based evaluation of teachers.

In other words, those teachers, who perform well, are rewarded financially while those teachers who fail to ensure student achievement are shown the front door.

On an interesting side note, one of the many signers of this “manifesto” is Michelle Rhee, soon-to-be-former D.C. Schools Chancellor and current face of education reform in America. For those unfamiliar with the name, you might recall Rhee from her role as a shining example of education reform in the documentary, “Waiting for Superman” or her appearance on last week’s Oprah, in which Winfrey hailed her as an education warrior.

Rhee, who got her start in education as a Teach for America teacher in the Baltimore school district, is founder of the New Teacher Project, which is a non-profit organization that has assisted school districts with its recruiting and training of new teachers. Through the success of that program, Rhee was tapped by soon-to-be former Mayor Adrian Fenty to replace chancellor of D.C. public schools Clifford Janey.

In her tenure as chancellor, Rhee became one of the most polarizing figures in the city, drawing praise and ire for the negotiation of teacher’s contracts, which basically exchanged tenure protection for performance base bonuses for performance base bonuses. She also became notorious for laying off 266 teachers in budget reductions and labeling many of the discarded teachers as pedophiles and physically abusive.

With 59 percent of white voters in the last election believing D.C. public schools have improved over the past four years while a combined 56 percent of African Americans believing that public schools were unchanged, if not worse than before, it should come as no surprise that Rhee would be the one of the main reasons behind Mayor Fenty’s termination in the last election.

And it should also come as no surprise that Rhee would sign off on a manifesto, which not only values teachers as resource commodities but also ill-conceivably places them at the cornerstone of any reform efforts. There are many more infrastructural reasons why public school education in American is a dismal failure, none of which were mentioned in the piece.

And even the most dedicated and best trained teachers among us will still fail at the goal of educating children if issues such as the imbalanced student/teacher ratio per class and antiquated curricula continue to persist throughout the public school system as well as the over-reliance of standardize testing, which often restricts teachers on how and what they can instruct.

The most ironic part of this manifesto is that Rhee, along with the 15 other education professional signers, whose sole job is to improve the public schools system are urging parents to jump ship in favor of charter schools, which often rely on non-unionized (and sometimes unaccredited) teachers, student selective practices and for-profit business models to ensure above average achievement.

As the chancellor of D.C. schools, Rhee sought out funding through private foundations of many corporate partners including Walmart, Inc, to help finance the performance based raises and bonuses for D.C. teachers she had instituted. In a speech given before the D.C. primary elections, Rhee said that she had planned on using similar performance based evaluations to determine whether or not a teacher would maintain her job.

There definitely seems to be a for-profit agenda underlying most of what is being touted as education reform in this country and there is no doubt that Michelle Rhee is happily the face of it.”

The Atlanta Post takes the normal position that tenured teachers are not part of the problem. If you buy that, I’ve got some swampland in Florida to sell you.

All it would take is a word from Obama or Arne Duncan to save Rhee. The silence is deafening.

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