Is Michelle Rhee the new face of education reform?
The chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools puts teacher performance at the center of a controversial bid to remake one of the nation’s most troubled urban school districts.
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Lately, in fact, she has been embroiled in some politicking with the local teachers union over a new contract. At the heart of the dispute is the most radical element of her reform plans – performance-based salaries for teachers.Skip to next paragraph
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Rhee would like to see people in the classroom paid a lot more – six figure salaries in the case of some veteran teachers. It’s a prospect many teachers relish. But in exchange for the highest salaries, she would like teachers to surrender their coveted tenure protection so they can be fired if they don’t bring up test scores – something most don’t like.
As Rhee sees it, money will motivate teachers to do better and those who don’t will be (and deserve to be) let go. She believes there’s nothing wrong with the kids. “It’s the adults,” says Rhee. [Editor’s note: The original text said Rhee sees teachers, administrators, and in some cases parents as the main problem. But she never identified parents as part of the problem.]
Yet quantifying teacher performance, especially in a poor district like Washington D.C., can be problematic. Some teachers inherit a class of underachieving students. Moreover, the district has difficulties recording the most basic statistics accurately. When Rhee took charge, for instance, she didn’t have an accurate count of how many children with special needs attended her schools.
She says teachers will be evaluated through a number of lenses – student performance,
classroom observations, general professionalism.
Yet not all the teachers she’s fired so far have inspired plaudits from members of the Washington Teachers’ Union and some local parents. Some fault her for acting too hastily, others for jettisoning good instructors.
Questions persist, too, on whether Rhee can recruit enough qualified teachers to fill the vacancies that would be created by any massive turnover. “You can fire people who aren’t doing a good job, but if you then don’t have good people to put in their place, it can backfire,” says Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan who serves on an advisory board with Rhee. “I think it’s frankly more than just finding good teachers and paying them enough. You can pay people as much as you like, and they still couldn’t teach a kid to read.”
Still, many people in education circles praise Rhee for bold moves and for tackling entrenched interest groups. “I think Michelle’s strategy is the only coherent strategy to try to reform these [urban] systems,” says Rick Hess, an education expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “These are not well-run systems.”