Do We Have the Courage and Conviction to do What Needs to be Done in Our Schools?

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In the November Edition of TIME Magazine “Rhee Tackles Classroom Challenge”, Amanda Ripley reports on, Michelle Rhee, the controversial Superintendent of Schools from Washington D.C. The article contains some important points that our community should consider. Thank you Mr. R., for bringing this article to our attention.

Rhee is convinced that the answer to the U.S.’s education catastrophe is talent, in the form of outstanding teachers and principals. She wants to make Washington teachers the highest paid in the country, and in exchange she wants to get rid of the weakest teachers. Where she and the teachers’ union disagree most is on her ability to measure the quality of teachers.

Kevin Huffman, head of public affairs for Teach for America said:

Most people think about their own longevity, about political considerations.” He adds, “Very few people genuinely don’t care about anything other than the end result for kids. Michelle will compromise with no one when it comes to making sure kids get what they deserve.”

Rhee is aware of the criticism, but she suggests that a certain ruthlessness is required. “Have I rubbed some people the wrong way? Definitely. If I changed my style, I might make people a little more comfortable,” she says. “But I think there’s real danger in acting in a way that makes adults feel better. Because where does that stop?”

She frequently sounds exasperated. “People come to me all the time and say, ‘Why did you fire this person?'” she says. The whiny voice is back. “‘She’s a good person. She’s a nice person.’ I’m like, ‘O.K., go tell her to work at the post office.’ Just because you’re a nice person and you mean well does not mean you have a right to a job in this district.”

The data back up Rhee’s obsession with teaching. If two average 8-year-olds are assigned to different teachers, one who is strong and one who is weak, the children’s lives can diverge in just a few years, according to research pioneered by Eric Hanushek at Stanford. The child with the effective teacher, the kind who ranks among the top 15% of all teachers, will be scoring well above grade level on standardized tests by the time she is 11. The other child will be a year and a half below grade level–and by then it will take a teacher who works with the child after school and on weekends to undo the compounded damage. In other words, the child will probably never catch up.

The ability to improve test scores is clearly not the only sign of a good teacher. But it is a relatively objective measure in an industry with precious few. And in schools where kids are struggling to read and subtract, it is a prerequisite for getting anything else done.

“What I’m finding is that our principals are ridiculously–like ridiculously–conflict-averse,” Rhee says. “They know someone is not so good, and they want to give him a ‘Meets expectations’ anyway because they don’t want to deal with the person coming into the office and yelling and getting the parents riled up.”

IN THE VIEW OF RHEE AND REFORMERS like her, the struggle to fix America’s failing school system comes down to a simple question: How do you get the best teachers and principals to work in the worst schools? In her quest to figure this out, Rhee has already suffered a major setback. Earlier this year, she proposed a revolutionary new model to let teachers choose between two pay scales. They could make up to $130,000 in merit pay on the basis of their effectiveness–in exchange for giving up tenure for one year. Or they could keep tenure and accept a smaller raise. (Currently, the average teacher’s salary in Washington is $65,902.) The proposal divided the city’s teachers into raging, blogging factions. This fall, the union declined to put Rhee’s proposal to a vote, and its relationship with her has become increasingly hostile.

For now, Mayor Fenty says he still has full confidence in Rhee, and he claims that Washington residents share his enthusiasm. “Regular people love the fact that for once someone is making tough decisions for D.C. schools,” says Fenty, who attended the district’s public schools.

One of the things that make school reform so wrenching and slow is that schools become embedded in people’s hearts. This is true in rich neighborhoods and poor ones, with good schools and bad.