Michelle Rhee has been everywhere that education is discussed for the past few months. Oprah declared her a “warrior woman.” She appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine, holding a broom, presumably to sweep the trash out of our classrooms. Her trajectory faltered a bit when the mayor who appointed her chancellor of schools in Washington, DC, was defeated -- and many voters cited Rhee as one of their reasons for their choice. But two weeks ago she launched her latest venture, a website that aims to build a movement to support her vision of change, Students First. She proclaimed the intent of raising a billion dollars and recruiting a million members. On January 10, she offered her detailed plan to “fix America’s broken education system.” This plan is positively Orwellian in the way in which it turns things into their opposites.
Let’s take a look at the elements of this plan and their likely outcomes.
Priority One: Elevate the Teaching Profession by Valuing Teachers’ Impact on Students.
Under this plan, the way to “treat teachers like professionals” is to
Base the following things on test scores (euphemistically described as “student results.”)
- Evaluations of teachers
- Evaluations of principals
- Evaluations of teacher preparation programs
- Teacher pay
- Hiring, transfer and layoffs of teachers
Furthermore, we should eliminate due process (referred to as tenure.)
It is bizarre to portray this as a way of elevating the teaching profession. Under the system Rhee describes, teachers will be subject to annual reviews based on their test scores, and if these scores are unsatisfactory, teachers can be dismissed. In the absence of due process protections, an administrator can use test data to “prove” that one is “ineffective” and that is the end of your career. As has been recently shown, the “value added” methods used for these purposes are highly unreliable, and are likely to result in many good teachers being mislabeled as ineffective.
There is so much wrong with this, it is hard to know where to begin. As has been shown time and again, teachers are not the primary reason for the disparity in achievement between students in wealthy versus poor schools. Poverty itself is the culprit, and it will do no good to “hold teachers accountable” for things beyond their control. What it will do is intensify the process underway as a result of No Child Left Behind, where classrooms in impoverished communities are turned into places where teachers use every available minute to teach students the material that will be on the test. And if we evaluate teacher preparation programs in this fashion, it will ensure that this narrow mindset is part of every incoming teacher’s induction to the profession.
Priority Two: Empower parents with real choices and real information.
This section advocates making public the test scores of schools and individual teachers, and calls for giving parents the right to choose the teacher and school for their children based on these scores. I asked parent activist Leonie Haimson, one of the founders of Parents Across America - and the Executive Director of Class Size Matters, for her thoughts in response to this. She replied,
Parents want the most basic choice of all: a good public school that their child has the right to attend. All children need the guarantee of a quality education, not just for a select few. That means improving all of our schools by providing them with sufficient and equitable funding, small classes, experienced teachers and a well-rounded curriculum.
Michelle Rhee's organization is not supporting any of these important goals, but is undermining them by offering the promise of false "choices" through the further expansion of charter schools and vouchers, that starve our public schools of resources by taking taxpayer money to fund schools run by private organizations that are not accountable to the public. Charter schools do not take their fair share of the neediest students, suffer from extremely high student and teacher attrition rates, and in national studies, have no better results.
A strong public education system is essential to our democracy. The proliferation of charters and private schools will undermine the health of the public schools as a whole.
Priority Three: Spend Taxpayer Resources Wisely to Get Better Results for Students.
This is where things get really nasty. We are told,
Over the past 40 years, per-pupil funding has more than doubled, but students have little to show for it. Student achievement has remained flat. This funding/achievement disconnect exists because in many cases states have spent money on some "feel good" things that have not been proven to increase student achievement, such as smaller classes or raising salaries based on advanced degrees instead of effectiveness.
According to Rhee’s plan, "...funding decisions must be made through the prism of student learning and family empowerment rather than adult political and parochial interests.” The plan says, “All spending should tie to student achievement and the structures in place should be directly accountable for the results.”
Once again, as if it were not obvious, the “prism of student learning” and “student achievement” actually mean “based on test scores.”
Some of the strongest education research available supports small class sizes as being crucial for meeting the needs of all students. Private schools attended by the wealthy have, on average, class sizes roughly half those of public schools.
Teachers currently receive higher levels of pay for gaining more education themselves. When teachers collaborate with their districts, they can find interesting ways to improve compensation systems, to align them better with meaningful growth - as was done in Minneapolis. However, systems that base teacher pay on test scores have NOT been shown to work -- even for that narrow purpose.
Lastly, Rhee suggests: “Ensure that the government exercises discipline in pension and benefit programs. “
In today’s fiscal climate we know what that means. Rhee’s idea of elevating the teaching profession is to make every single facet of our working lives entirely dependent on test scores. Teacher’s retirement funds are rather difficult to justify in this regard. Many of us have chosen to work in a relatively poorly paid profession for deferred compensation in the form of our retirement. Never mind that, it doesn’t help the test scores, so forget about it.
Who will choose to work in America’s neediest schools under this regime? Rhee herself is an alumni of Teach For America, but this organization only provides a few thousand teachers to our schools every year - and we need millions. Furthermore, we need people to choose teaching as a career, not a two or three year-long temporary gig before going on to Med school. I have worked as a mentor for many Teach For America interns, and they are just getting on their feet in their second year. By their third year, those who stick around are becoming very good teachers. By their fourth year, however, 75% of them are gone, at least in Oakland. This is no way to “elevate a profession.” Many baby boomers will be retiring soon. Who will take our places? If teacher pay and evaluations rest entirely on test scores, the corruption of our school system will be complete. Perhaps we teachers and parents need a grassroots movement of our own! (see here where we are doing just that.)
What do you think? Will Rhee’s plan elevate or degrade our profession?
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.