Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Revisiting Rhee

Charlotte Williams's picture

On Monday, Slate featured an excellent article by Richard Kahlenberg that focused on the problems with Michelle Rhee’s credo and his dismay at the continued media endorsement of her efforts. In critiquing Rhee, the article also provides cogent arguments dealing with anti-union fervor (a timely topic in light of current events in states like Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio) and how this can serve to push into the background the singly most problematic element the education industry deals with:  disadvantaged prospects and likelihood for achievement among students, stemming from race and income inequalities

 While Kahlenberg acknowledges that Rhee made some significant improvements to DC public schools—such as ensuring that students got textbooks on time and making efficient use of space by closing under-used schools—he asserts that contrary to popular claims, “she didn’t revolutionize education in DC.”

First, Kahlenberg points out that Rhee’s primary arguments are “seductive” because they are so simple and optimistic. She argues that unions serve the twofold purpose of protecting bad teachers and disallowing incentives that could be brought about by paying great teachers more. In fact, according to Rhee our education system’s general problems are due to teacher failure rather than poverty. Kahlenberg writes that “it indeed would be wonderful if poverty and segregation didn't matter, and if heroic teachers could consistently overcome the odds for students whom everyone agrees deserve a better shot in life”—but this simply is not the case.

Kahlenberg does not focus on this, but I will concede that it makes more sense to focus on teacher performance in affluent schools where chronic issues like student truancy, discipline problems, hunger, community acceptance of dropping out,  and lack of family and community support for achievement are much less  an issue . But it is indefensible to unilaterally blame teachers for lack of student achievement in low-income schools.

Kahlenberg provides evidence for this: he asks if firing bad teachers and paying great teachers more are all there is to education excellence, “why haven't charter schools, 88% of which are nonunionized and have that flexibility, lit the education world on fire?” He points out that the most comprehensive study of charter schools so far—conducted by Stanford University and sponsored by pro-charter foundations—found that charter schools only outperform regular public schools 17 percent of the time, and in fact 37 percent do significantly worse. He also asks why schools in southern states don’t fare better, since they typically either have weak teachers’ unions or lack them altogether. Further, research indicates low-income students in affluent schools are on average two years ahead of the same cohort in high-poverty schools, and this is primarily attributed to the effect that better-performing students from more opportune backgrounds have on lower-performing/lower-income ones.

Second, though poverty rather than teacher quality is the greatest cause of education breakdown in the nation, the major unions recognize the validity of maintaining a good teaching force, and have offered plans to get rid of bad teachers in fair ways. One of the problems with Rhee’s firings were that they were done haphazardly, often for unclear reasons, and sometimes without following proper protocol—assertions supported by a recent decision by a DC arbitrator to reinstate 75 educators whom Rhee fired without due process.

And Kahlenberg points out that while Rhee has been dismissive of using collaboration between educating parties, using collaboration can be highly effective in getting rid of bad teachers in a way that benefits remaining teachers rather than concerning them with the possibility of arbitrary dismissal. For example, some communities—like Montgomery County, MD and Toledo, OH—use a peer evaluation system in which excellent teachers to come into schools and help struggling educators. However, they also provide recommendations for some to be terminated. Kahlenberg writes that “teachers were tougher on colleagues than administrators had been because the 7th-grade teacher is hurt when the 6th-grade teacher is incompetent.” The AFT supports peer review, even though in some cases it removes many more teachers than occurs under other evaluation systems.

Kahlenberg ends his article by asserting that Rhee’s “war on teachers’ unions was a sideshow that distracted from the more important effort to give more low-income students a chance to attend middle-class public schools.” And he is disappointed that with her StudentsFirst initiative, she is simply redoubling her approach and allying with anti-union politicians. He concludes by asking how long it will take for the press to recognize that this approach “won’t bring about the civil rights revolution in education that’s so sorely needed.”