Sunday, September 7, 2008

Washington D.C.’s New Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee Highlights the Primary Problem in Contemporary American Education...

Michelle Rhee, Washington D.C.’s maverick Schools Chancellor is looking to change the world!

No, not in any impractical, "social-worker way," but in perhaps the most practical way a person can change the world – making America’s currently broken education system serve its customers/children better.

In that regard, Rhee, who “accidentally” became a teacher via her entrance into the “Teach for America Program” she entered from Cornell University back in 1992.

Now, education experts like Thomas Sowell have long noted that the problem with America’s public education system is that it’s flooded with incompetent teachers. Sowell has long lamented that “In the U.S. a major in education is one of the easiest, least taxing degrees to get and that’s why teachers tend to have some of the lowest SAT scores of any major field of study.”

Rhee knows this all too well.

Ms. Rhee, the daughter of an Ohio physician describes herself as “a relatively high-achieving kid through high school and college. So nobody tells you to go into education, you know, people are telling you to be a doctor or a lawyer, or a stockbroker. They are not telling you to be a teacher.”

As many have noted (it’s hard NOT to notice) the average SAT score of would-be elementary school teachers taking a popular licensing exam is woefully BELOW the average for all college grads.

For that, among other reasons, Rhee has chosen to take on the Teacher’s Union in D.C. and has set up a plan that seeks to pay good/effective teachers six-figure salaries, while eliminating tenure protections for teachers, enabling administrators to simply fire non-effective teachers and open Charter Schools in those districts.

In “Teach for America” she began her entry into American education teaching in an inner city Baltimore 2nd grade classroom.

She recalls an event, one second-grader falling down, while on line at the cafeteria and all the other children walking by, taking turns kicking the kid that was down. “I was like, ‘What are they doing?’ But it was second nature to them. The kid was down, kick him.” She was unable to stop them, or control the children the rest of the semester, she went home that Christmas break with symptoms of severe stress anxiety.

Determined not to be driven out of teaching by a group of eight year olds, she, in her own words, “became obsessed.”

Over the next couple years she and another teacher working with seventy at what she called “sock bottom on standardized tests” to “absolutely at the top. She became convinced that the key to success is SWEAT mainly on the part of the teacher, but also on the part of the student, as well.

She noted, “Those kids, where they lived didn’t change. Their parents didn’t change. Their diets didn’t change. The violence in their communities didn’t change. The ONLY thing that changed for those 70 kids was the adults (teachers) in front of them every single day, teaching them.”

Rhee is now locked in a war with the D.C. teacher’s union. She has proposed a new contract that will eliminate tenure for teachers, in exchange for money for D.C. teachers. She notes. “If they are willing to go on probation for a year - giving up their job security – and can successfully prove their talent, they can earn more than $100,00/year and as much as $130,000/year after five years. If not, they still get a 28% raise and keep their tenure, though all new teachers must sign up for the first option and go on probation for four years.

Rhee is betting that more than half the teachers will be willing to take their chances on accountability for higher pay.

The union has shown that it too can play hardball. When Rhee recently tried to reclassify some central administration workers so they could be terminated without cause, the union began running radio spots assailing Rhee with the O’Jays “Back Stabbers” in the background.

One of the sticks that Rhee carries is that the D.C. public school system is shrinking. About a third of D.C. parents now opt to send their kids to Charter Schools, which are public schools, but where teachers are non-union.

The teacher’s union has lost about 1,000 of its 5,000 teaching spots over the past decade. Rhee has let the union know that she is NOT interested in “protecting turf.” She’s made it known that she’d be perfectly happy to let the old failed system simply wither away and be completely replaced by the growing Charter system.

In those charter or KIPP schools kids perform significantly better on all standardized exams and that’s probably because teachers work from 7 am to 7 pm and on Saturday. Summer vacation lasts only about a month. Some not that “in Rhee’s world many teachers finding themselves working hard, burning out and moving on.

As Kati Haycock, President of Education Trust and a long-time education reform advocate says, “What we need to do is change to the idea that education is the only career that needs to be done for life. There are a lot of smart people who change careers every six or seven years, while education winds up with a bunch of people on the low end of the pile who don’t want to compete in the job market.”


Here’s hoping Michelle Rhee’s reforms take hold and make America’s schools a better place for its STUDENTS as well as those effective teachers.


WomanHonorThyself said...

I wish I could be optimistic but as a student of private schools my entire life, I find it unimaginable that the public school system will improve anytime soon my friend.......!:)

JMK said...

I don't know about how optimistic we can be BUT this is a very positive devlopment.

What's even MORE positive isthat the Charter school option is growing in D.C. with 7am -7pm clss days, Saturday sessions and one month's summer vacation for those non-union teachers who are paid MORE.

Michelle Rhee is the best news to come out of the American educational system in years, in my view.

Mike said...

Holy cow. I love the simplistic mindset of so many Americans, their holy outrage directed at the so many lazy, incompetent teachers jamming our schools and keeping our students down. Their damn summers off and their damn tenure, that's the problem with education today!! Not the communities the kids are coming from, not the "I-could-care-less-about-my-child's-education-as-long-as-you-dont-bother-me" mentality of so many parents...its the teacher's sweet benefits causing all this. Not the public schools they allow out-of-control students to do what they like when they like.


I'm a 28 year old public school teacher and I've been doing this since 22. Know how many fresh-faced teacher corps, teach-for-america colleagues have come an gone the past 6 years? Too many to count. If they don't have nervous breakdowns they get their subsidized Master Degrees and quit to be lawyers or marketers or trust fund babies or whatever. They leave 'cause their done with the kids and they're done with teaching. Many leave to write morally-outraged manifesto's attacking people who make a career out of teaching; they call us suckers as they go out the door because we stick with it for most of our lives, while to them it's a youthful hobby, a temporary adventure they can make condescending comments about at dinner parties.

I love teaching, I work my b*lls off on a daily basis, I love my students...I have to deal with more emotional abuse/trauma from my adolescents than anyone can begin to imagine. And I still love it and break my back doing it.

But continue to stomp on me from your comfortable blogging nests. Continue to pick away at whatever perks I have. Continue to cheer these ridiculous idiots (rhee, klein, etc.) who treat us like mildly retarded hired help in often impossible situations.

At the end of the day, I'm responsible for the faults of the educational system. Me and my damn tenure.

JMK said...

Mike, failing doctors have their medical licenses revoked, failing lawyers are disbarred...failing schools should be shuttered and the teachers in those schools fired, after individual review.

No one has "a right" to work in a field they like, even though they're not any good at it.

Barack Obama's choice for Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) has closed failing schools) and demanded higher standards from teachers, much like Ms. Rhee.

The problem with American education has been outlined in great and painstaking detail by Thomas Sowell. Education is one of the easiest degrees to get in College. Today education majors have SAT scores among the lowest of all College majors!

Education is a major in which, too often, students who don't particularly care for math and the "hard sciences" (chemistry, physics, and biology) as opposed to the "social sciences (psychology, etc.) go to complete a degree.

Ineffective teachers are usually ineffective because they lack the requisite skills to be effective. You might say, in the crudest possible way, that "Failing teachers are dumb teachers."

Whatever the reason, ignorance (lack of skills) or dumbness (the inability to master such skills), ineffective teachers are a danger to children because they are unable to educate. Miseducation is a form of child abuse.

In my view, ineffective teachers should be doing other jobs, like driving a truck or laying bricks.

JesseAlred said...

I am a veteran teacher in Houston seeking a dialogue with Teach for America teachers nationally regarding policy positions taken by former Teach for American staffers who have become education leaders across this country. These neoliberal elites from privileged universities are seeking to wage cultural and class war on our public school traditionn and on our middle-class corps of teachers.

Having won school board elections in several cities, and securing the Washington D.C Superintendent's job for Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, and her allies clain that teachers are to blame for student failure. They imply student habits do not matter, family commitment does not matter, social inequality does not matter, and family disfunction does not matter--or at least that these can all be overcome if we did not have these frightful teachers from the lower middle class.

By suggesting that our public-school teachers and community schools cause student failure, Teach For American, and their offshoot groups, KIPP Academy and Yes Preparatory Schools, ensure that corporations wanting to undermine confidence in any common government efforts will provide them with generous contributions.

The marriage between corporate American and Wendy Kopp began when Union Carbide initially sponsored Kopp's efforts to create Teach for America. A few years before, Union Carbide's negligence had caused the worst industrial accident in history, in Bhopal, India. The number of casualties was as large as 100,000, and Union Carbide did everything possible to minimize its responsibility for this horrific catastrophe. Union Carbide's CEO, Warren Anderson, indicted on "culpable homocide" became a fugitive from justice, and a moral leper, when he refused to return for his trial as he had promised and went into hiding.

When TFA encountered a financial crisis, Ms. Kopp joined forces with the Edison Project, which sought to get rid of public schools governed by elected school boards and replace them with Tennesseee-based corporation. Richard Barth, was an Edison executive before taking over as CEO of KIPP's national foundation, where he has sought to eliminate teacher organizations from KIPP schools.

D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee's school reform recipe includes three ingredients: close schools rather than improve them; fire teachers rather than inspire them; and sprinkle on a lot of hype. On the cover of Time, she sternly gripped a broom, which she presumably was using to sweep away the trash, which presumably represented my urban teacher colleagues. MY URBAN SCHOOL COLLEAGUES ARE NOT TRASH MS. RHEE.

TFA teachers provide a public service, but when this group of ambitious TFA organizers imply that schools, and not inequality, family disfunction and bad habits are the cause of the achievement gap, they are wrong, and they may be lying for purposes of self interest.

Our society has failed the neighborhood public schools by not defending the middle class with national health insurance, pro-American trade policy and pro-family behaviors. It's not the other way around. Economic inequality and insecurity produces ineffective public schools. It's not the other way around.

Manhattan Wendy Kopp claims TFA carries the civil rights torch for today, but Martin Luther King was a voice for empowering the average citizen, not the elites. His last book, Where do we go from here?, argued for some measure of wealth distribution, because opportunity alone would lift only a few from the underclass to the middle class.

TFA teachers, your hard work and struggles every day gives TFA executives credibility. It's not the other way around. They have rode your backs into the American elite. I would like a dialogue about what I have written here with TFA teachers. My e-mail is

Jesse said...

Wendy Kopp--like her friends, our nation's selfish corporate bosses, and the people Teach for America has placed in school-district leadership positions--preaches, but does not practice, accountability when she claims Teach For America and its branches, the KIPP and YES charter schools, have done anything of substance to close the achievement gap.

Education professors argue whether 40% or 20% of TFA teachers remain in school past the required two-year period of service, but neither advocates nor enemies of TFA have presented ANY evidence of them improving the academic results of significant numbers of students. Michelle Rhee's desire to fire hard-working teachers, and replace them with spoiled short-termers, represents interest-group politics rather than common sense.

The only argument they have comes from the outstanding perfomance of kids at KIPP and YES, and these students attend charter schools after their families have made application to schools they know have longer school days; extended school years; mandatory Saturday classes; and loads of homework.

Teach For America performs a public service by placing good students in poor communities, no doubt; and its spinoff charter schools provide a quality education for kids whose ambitious families. But the theory that TFA youngsters, and firing the teachers we have, will make all inner-city students high achievers, well, how stupid do you Ivy Leaguers think the rest of us are?

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