I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Incoherent Reform of Michelle Rhee

Last Friday, Michelle Rhee was on Brian Lehrer's radio show. The segment, unsurprisingly, is a textbook example of the incoherence of the corporate reform movement.

I'll have more to say about the rest of the interview later, but for now, I want to focus in on a remarkable passage, starting at 18:19. I have transcribed it in its entirety because I think it needs to go on Rhee's permanent record (all emphasis mine):
Lehrer: So lets assume that you get all the flexibility you want principals to have and school systems to have to assign or remove teachers. I'll be honest: my impression, as a public school parent for the last 15 years, and still at it, is that that would only change things at the margins. And the much bigger challenge is to attract good people to the field in the first place, and then retain them, because a third of new teachers leave after five years. How much would you agree with that? 
Rhee: I absolutely agree with it. That's why what we think is important at Students First is for people to understand there is no one silver bullet solution. There's no one thing that if you changed it, it would transform everything. We think you have to have a much, much more comprehensive outlook and approach to what needs to be reformed in the system in order for it to be the kind of environment where every child can be successful. 
In this interview, Michelle Rhee agreed that the major changes she wants to impose on the firing of teachers will only have marginal effects; that really is the only fair reading of her statement. She is admitting that firing "ineffective" teachers is only going to have a small impact on student achievement.

This is simply stunning coming from a woman who has built her entire career around sweeping out what she calls "ineffective" teachers.

Further, she agrees with Lehrer that recruiting and retaining great teachers is important. Keep that in mind as Lehrer tries repeatedly to get her to tell us how she plans to do just that.
Lehrer: And yet, your style of reform seems to make teachers feel unsupported and demoralized. So make your pitch to the college students listening right now, deciding between education careers and something else, convince them it would be a higher quality of life than the current system to go to work in Michelle Rhee's world. 
Rhee: Well, first, what I would say is it's not going to be easy, and I say this having been a public school teacher in a low-performing school, it is the hardest job that you could possibly have. But it is also absolutely the most rewarding. Knowing that every single day, somewhere between 25 and 125 children are counting on you is incredibly important. And... 
Rhee was a teacher for only three years. Her effectiveness as a teacher is highly questionable; it appears she inflated her own abilities and results. But let's give her the benefit of the doubt and say she would have grown to be a good teacher; in that case, her career is actually an illustration of Lehrer's point. She didn't stay in the field. So the question still stands: how would she recruit and retain great teachers?
Rhee: (continuing immediately) I (unintelligible) want to end on this note. The social mobility rates in this country are amongst the lowest among all the developed nations in the entire world. Which means that if you are a child who was born into poverty in this country, the chances that you will be able to escape poverty are not great. That to me is the most un-American thing imaginable. That goes against every single value that we have as a country. Our country was founded on the ideal that every single person can have an equal shot in life and can live the American dream if you work hard and do the right thing. 
I can't think of a teacher working today who would disagree with that sentiment. But, Michelle, you are still evading the question: how do you get the talent you find so necessary for these children in front of the classroom?
Rhee: (continuing immediately) The way that we change this - and we have to change it - is through education. We have to know that schooling and quality of education that children are getting today is one of the key factors as to whether or not they can reach that goal. And so teachers play the biggest part of that in school and so from my vantage point, it's absolutely the most rewarding profession out there. 
Still no answer. Michelle, Lehrer is giving you the hypothetical world where you can fire whomever you want. You agree that's not going to make much of a difference. You yourself say the teacher is "incredibly" and "absolutely" important (she sure loves her some amplifying adverbs). Again: what are you going to do to get the talent we need into the schools? Tell them it's "rewarding"? That's the plan?
Lehrer: (continuing immediately) I find my kids' best teachers are the most creative, individualistic ones who hate the system the most. Do you think my experience with that is unusual? 
Rhee: No, in fact, you know I talk to teachers every day who are incredibly frustrated with the way that the system works. In fact, you know, a lot of people talk about ineffective teachers and what has to happen... 
Lehrer: (interrupting) But they're not frustrated with their union so much as they're frustrated with the increasing homogenization that they see in the Bloomberg system. 
Rhee: (pause) You know I actually don't think that that's true. From the teachers that I talk to what they are tired of is the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy that both allows ineffective teachers to stay in the classroom as well as the bureaucracy that says there is a one size fits all approach to things.  
Leave aside what is clearly an ill-informed opinion about the state and causes of teacher morale, especially under Bloomberg, who has said he'd be fine with getting rid of half of the NYC teaching corps. You still haven't answered the question, Michelle. Again, Lehrer gave you a hypothetical where you could fire "bad" teachers whenever you want. You admit that's not enough to change anything substantively. OK: what are you going to do? How are you going to get all of these great teachers in front of kids?
Rhee: (continuing immediately) And I think that you're right. Teachers are very creative, but the best teachers are very outcomes-oriented. They know exactly where every single one of their student stands, they know where they want to get every one of those students in terms of their academic outcomes, and then they work relentlessly in whatever way necessary to make sure their kids can achieve those goals.
Michelle, you still haven't answered the damn question! You've described what a good teacher is, in your opinion. You've described it in bromides that are meaningless, but at least you've described what you want.

What you refuse to say - what you and every other member of this corporate reform movement refuse to say - is what you want to do to get a great teacher in front of every kid!

Let's be very clear about the reform agenda of Students First and Michelle Rhee.

- They want to "reform" tenure so much as to make it essentially meaningless: if you can take tenure away without an objective hearing, it's like not having tenure at all.

- They believe in the Merit Pay Fairy, but they refuse to call for substantial additional funds to buy her new wands; this means they want to take away money from some teachers and give it to others.

- They want "accountability," which will be driven primarily by standardized tests, which leads to teacher evaluations with huge margins of error. And they want these error prone evaluations released to the public, no matter how disastrous the results.

- They want "choice" in the form of charter schools and vouchers for private schools, which show no evidence of doing any better than public schools when accounting for student differences, but have far more teacher turnover and de-unionized faculties.

And while Rhee pushes for all this, she's happy to stand in photo ops with politicians who are working hard to cut teacher pay, benefits, and workplace protections. If she really wants to recruit more talent into schools, she sure has a funny way of showing it.

Teachers and parents, know this: Michelle Rhee is "absolutely" wrong when she claims she champions children better than you do. She places primacy on the teacher, yet she supports policies, but her own admission, that will do nothing to get and keep great teachers in classrooms. Her entire agenda is designed to denigrate the profession of teaching and remove workplace protections, even as she claims to value the very profession.

She is incoherent, and she should not be driving the national dialogue about education; she should not be allowed to buy a seat at your table. Do not let her deep-pocketed backers drive a wedge between you. You have far more claim to represent the interests of students than she ever will.


Anonymous said...

They want "choice" in the form of charter schools and vouchers for private schools, which show no evidence of doing any better than public schools when accounting for student differences, but have far more teacher turnover and de-unionized faculties.

Let's try again to open your eyes. If charter schools and vouchers do about the same job on average, but with dramatically higher parent satisfaction and dramatically lower costs, then I'm for it. Who cares about union payrolls and teacher turnover rates except for the dwindling socialist dinosaurs in your bathroom mirror?

How about what is best for the KIDS? And, through lower property taxes, what is better for their families' financial security, savings, COLLEGE funds?

A Nonny Mouse said...

Um, trolly anon, why don't you post links to the peer reviewed studies that show "dramatically higher parent satisfaction" and "dramatically lower costs"? And then post the ones about costs for the students they kicked out and the parental satisfaction for THOSE families? And how about the costs for educating special needs students in charters?

Nope, you can't. They don't exist. Keep trying... I'm sure you'll find a study you can spin out there somewhere, you'll just have to actually start reading the studies themselves.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't answer questions, has little to offer but a "tough" persona . . . remind you of somebody? Ask not for whom the bell trolls . . .

Duke said...

Anon 5:19 - You've got it:


David B. Cohen said...

So she wants an America where hard work and education will provide upward mobility, and supports policies that will keep teacher pay and benefits lower? What's more middle class than teaching? Incoherent indeed! Yes, I know she says she wants to pay great teachers more, but I haven't seen her bring her lobbying influence to bear on any great revenue increases to accomplish that. Meanwhile, the list of GOP union-busting efforts she's supported continues to grow.

Anonymous said...

A savvy person would not allow herself to be photographed wearing black clothes, scowling, and holding a broom. At least she refused the pointy hat!
Was Time messing with her? (It's a cheap, sexist shot if they were.)

Teacher Mom said...

Thank you David, I was thinking the same thing. It sounds like, through her behavior and the policies she pushes, that teachers have to take less pay, less benefits, and less security, basically a huge economic step backwards, in order for our students to be upwardly mobile. WTF is that? I have to admit that coming from a working class single-parent family, teaching seemed upwardly mobile to me. Ha HA joke's on me. Still renting, still no college fund for my kids, barely making ends meet, and family members with barely more than a high school diploma making more money than me and my 1.5 maters degrees. I have to wonder where my American dream went and what is wrong with the world? You want to attract new teachers, give THEM the AMreican Dream. I predict that within the next 5 years there will be teacher shortage the likes of the 1970's.