Recently, Michael and I watched a fascinating “Frontline” about education reformer Michelle Rhee. She was the chancellor for Washington, D.C. public schools and her methods to improve schools and children learning are very controversial. Since leaving the schools (being forced out is probably fair to say), Rhee has created an advocacy group called StudentsFirst to counterbalance the teachers unions and promote her brand of school reform.
“Rhee embodies one extreme in the debate over public education. She believes that every child can achieve, regardless of conditions such as poverty, broken homes, underfunded schools. In her view, the main obstacles are weak teachers, bloated bureaucracies, union contracts. She is driven by data, convinced that learning and teaching can be measured with as much certainty as a dieter tracks progress on a bathroom scale.”
“Her agenda has provoked aggressive push-back from teachers unions and many progressives, who say that social factors have a profound impact on children and that Rhee’s policies unfairly scapegoat teachers. They say the worship of test data has created a “drill and kill” culture that has narrowed curriculum, sucked the joy out of the classroom and, in extreme cases, resulted in test scandals in Atlanta, the District and elsewhere….”
“Rhee, 43, aims to spread the kind of change she promoted in the District: closing failing schools, evaluating teachers based in part on how well their students perform, firing weak teachers and paying bonuses to successful ones. She also supports private-school vouchers for low-income children and says parents should be able to shut down weak schools through “parent trigger” laws….”
However critics like Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal-leaning research group, says Rhee’s premise is faulty.
“But, in fact, we’ve got two grand experiments of her theory,” he said. “The first is the American South, where teachers unions are weak and the schools are not lighting the world on fire. The other is charter schools, which are 88 percent non-unionized. In charters, you can do everything that Michelle Rhee wants to do — fire bad teachers, pay good teachers more. And yet, the most comprehensive studies looking at charter schools nationally find mediocre results.”
“So Rhee’s premise is faulty, he said. “But it’s a simple idea, and in the media, it’s powerful to have heroes and villains,” Kahlenberg said. “The fact that evidence doesn’t back her up doesn’t seem to prevent her from getting wide notoriety.”
However, Rhee’s ideas are taking off. The Washington Post reports that 38 states have implemented similar systems of using test scores to evaluate teachers.
The Post also reports that in 2012, Rhee’s organization StudentsFirst contributed to 105 political candidates in eight states and more than 80 percent of those candidates won.
The vast majority were Republicans, however, Rhee calls herself a Democrat and that her organization is bi-partisan. She says that these types of education reforms don’t have to be seen as right-wing.
So what do you think: Does Rhee has the right ideas?
Should we close failing schools, evaluate teachers at least in part on test scores, fire weak teachers and pay bonuses to successful ones?
Are teachers unions too powerful? Should reviews and bonuses be tied to performance? Does this put too much emphasis on testing and not enough on the joy of learning? Does it make it too tempting for schools to cheat on the testing?