It looks like a dream come true, the story of Michelle Rhee: a clear-thinking upper-level adminstrator in Washington DC schools who makes unannounced visits to school offices and classrooms, evaluating as she goes. With the backing of her mayor, Adrian Fenty, Rhee determines what’s working and what’s not, gets rid of the bad and generously rewards the good.
Well, isn’t that what we have all have secretly wished for? Cut out adminstrative privilege, identify and get rid of waste , utilize resources better, and (hardest of all and most incisive) remove bad teachers.
Question is: how does Rhee know what a bad teacher is? Rhee equates good teaching with data, which leads us to the whole wearisome discussion about testing. As an art teacher, I don’t test and I don’t do formal pre-assessment (though plenty of casual, observational pre-assessment). The good work I do is not particularly measurable with data. Does this mean that good teachers who don’t show up with good data would be excluded from the aggressive, attractive plan of merit pay that Rhee proposes? or worse, that they could lose their jobs?
It is easy to understand that many inner-city children grow up short-changed. Although our challenges in rural schools may look a little different, problems with low budgets, overcrowding, and cultural difficulties seem to be universal. Still, no matter where you teach, it’s easy to make a snap judgment about who is teaching well and who isn’t. Not everyone will agree, though, and firing a teacher (not to mention closing a school!) is a mighty act, a final act, a hugely influential act. And Rhee is the first to acknowledge that she may make a mistake. Quoted in The Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200811/michelle-rhee/3), Rhee says, “Does that mean every decision is going to be right? No,” she said . . . in a measured pace that sounded well-practiced. “Have I made some wrong decisions? Yeah. But the bottom line is, the reason I can sleep at night, really soundly every night, is because I know that even if I didn’t make the right call, I made it because I believed at that moment that it was the best thing for kids.” In our state, we are experiencing a shortage of teachers. What would it mean to get rid of some of the teachers we have, even if they aren’t performing well, in such a market?
Rhee seems to be convincing. For example, she points out that school districts are hugely political (which is true): “I think part of the problem of how the district has been run in the past is that decisions have been made for political reasons, and based on what was going to placate and satisfy adults instead of what was in the best interests of children.” The political nature of school districts makes change ponderous, slow, and often difficult. However, this same nigh-immovability may prevent hasty decisions that could prove problematic down the road.
What can we say? Congratulations to Michelle Rhee who has the courage to undertake a seemingly impossible task. At the same time, red flags and warning bells should sound when one person (or one office) can exercise this kind of power.