My Michelle – Michelle Rhee and the union shuffle

Dylan Thomas said, “Don’t go gentle into that good night.” Chancellor of D.C. schools Michelle Rhee lives by those words.

Most of those who know of Michelle Rhee have one of two reactions upon hearing her name: gush with adoring praise or curse her name and spit on the ground. Personally I see her for what she really is, someone with ambitious ideas that puts children first, but who works poorly with others.

The Huffington Post ran a story yesterday, yes sometimes they actually do more than just post links, on Rhee’s crusade to turn around one of the worst urban school districts in the country. Half of the article is devoted to the tough accountability changes Rhee wishes to impose on D.C.’s teachers and the resistance from teacher unions. Rhee’s words make her sound more like General Patton than an education official.

from Huff Post

Rhee, a widely praised if controversial education reformer, has promised to raise student test scores. She told the Huffington Post: “We are going to impose the new evaluation tools regardless” of the outcome of talks with the union. “We are going to be moving people out who are not performing.”

Rhee’s comments stunned union officials. “I’m dumbfounded,” said a top American Federation of Teachers (AFT) official involved in the negotiations, declining to publicly identify himself.

“She is correct to say she has the power to unilaterally impose a teacher evaluation system,” the AFT official said, but “all you have to do to get her real agenda is to look at the language she used with you. Words like ‘impose,’ ‘unilaterally,’ ‘regardless,’ and ‘power.’ They all say the same thing. She wants to do it to teachers, not work with them.”

He contended that Rhee’s stance disregards the right of the WTU “to bargain the outcomes of the evaluation system. This obviously includes due process rights and compensation, if she wants to attach pay to the results of the evaluation.” In a plea to Rhee, the AFT official said, “If the chancellor is willing to collaborate with the union in developing a fair and expedient evaluation system, the Union is willing to use those results for performance pay and possible dismissal.”

Accountability is important. Good teachers should be rewarded. Tenure and bonus should be linked teacher assessments. Extra training, mentoring, and other assistance should be offered to teachers not meeting standards. Those who consistently perform under standards should be let go. We need these standards, that is non negotiable. What standards we set and how we assess those standards needs a great deal of work. This is where cooperation with teachers and unions are key.

Teachers are in the trenches so to speak. Their input on students is first hand, not just from statistics. If teachers are going to be involved in implementing these standards they have got to have input on what they are. There are so many pieces of this puzzle to consider. Special needs students, districts that already perform high, local factors, and so many other aspects need to be examined. To drop those standards down from on high would be inappropriate.

Though reformers like Rhee are hated by teachers, the numbers are showing they can get results.

from Huff Post

From 2002 to 2008, the percentage of 4th graders in New York City meeting the math grade standard rose from 52 to 79.7 percent. Over the same period, the percentage of 4th graders reaching the English standard rose from 45.5 percent to 61.3 percent.

“We’ve changed the situation on the ground, creating the conditions necessary to transform our schools and classrooms and results for kids,” Klein declared when the statistics were released last June. “We’ve set high standards, created strong academic interventions for struggling students, held schools responsible for results, and given educators the tools they need to assess how well they’re doing and how well students are progressing.”

There are many who would refute Klein’s gains and his methods. Numbers only tell half the picture. I still find Klein’s remarks promising. If the numbers haven’t been doctored by say stacking schools and keeping special needs kids out, then they back up a lot of the reform principles myself and others hold.

A study done by Paul Tough in 2006 questions that these methods alone can lift our students.

from Huff Post

Other studies, according to 8,500 word November 2006 NYT Magazine piece by Paul Tough, have found, however, that — teacher competence notwithstanding — it is extremely difficult to improve test scores in schools located in poor, minority neighborhoods, and point to family background as a leading cause of poor student performance:

“[The] data largely confirm that idea [that family background is the leading cause of student performance], demonstrating clearly that the best predictors of a school’s achievement scores are the race and wealth of its student body. A public school that enrolls mostly well-off white kids has a 1 in 4 chance of earning consistently high test scores . . . a school with mostly poor minority kids has a 1 in 300 chance,” Tough reported in the New York Times after examining a host of studies

Tough suggested that the problems of educating poor minority children lie not only in the family background of the students, but also in the structure of the public school system:

“The evidence is now overwhelming that if you take an average low-income child and put him into an average American public school, he will almost certainly come out poorly educated. What the small but growing number of successful schools demonstrate is that the public-school system accomplishes that result because we have built it that way. We could also decide to create a different system, one that educates most (if not all) poor minority students to high levels of achievement. It is not yet entirely clear what that system might look like …. but what is clear is that it is within reach.”

Race and family background are not excuses. They may be obstacles we must overcome, but ultimately all students can achieve no matter what their background. The school’s responsibility is not to right these social wrongs, but to give students the tools to right them once they have completed their education. Tough is correct, we don’t yet know what a new system would look like, but it’s not far away. In getting there we have got to remember why we are doing this. Not for unions, not for reformers, not for teachers, not for bragging rights, not for fame, not for fortune, but for the kids. It’s cliche, but it’s true. Everyone should repeat that every time we debate these issues. Kids come first.

Your view?


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