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Patt Morrison Asks: Hard lessons with Michelle Rhee

In the name of reforming public schools, the onetime Teach for America teacher, depending on your viewpoint, either trailblazed or bulldozed her way through Washington, D.C.'s school system. Now she is extending her agenda nationwide with StudentsFirst.

February 11, 2012|Patt Morrison
  • Michelle Rhee is seen at Good Housekeeping's 'Shine On' Women Making History theatrical event at Radio City Music Hall on April 12, 2011 in New York. Credit:
Michelle Rhee is seen at Good Housekeeping's 'Shine On'… (Evan Agostini / AP Photo )

No one, it seems, is lukewarm about Michelle Rhee; she's a pass-fail figure, inspiring or polarizing.

In the name of reforming public schools, the onetime Teach for America teacher, depending on your viewpoint, either trailblazed or bulldozed her way through Washington, D.C.'s school system as its chancellor, closing schools, firing people and raising student scores -- and questions about the tactics.

Now she is extending her agenda nationwide with StudentsFirst, which supports culling bad teachers, school choice for parents and tightfisted budgeting — all of which she sums up with the word "accountability." She's in Los Angeles on Wednesday, on a public "listening tour" with her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Class will come to order!

President Obama says we have to embrace education reform and stop teacher-bashing. Is he right?

Absolutely. I personally have never heard someone teacher-bash, but teachers are definitely feeling a lot of angst, and part of what we have to do is strike a balance. Teachers understand change needs to happen. Reforms have to occur, in areas that deal with union contracts and that sort of thing. We have to deal with school finances. We have to get to a place where we can talk about these things without that coming across as being anti-teacher.

You've been called a teacher-basher yourself.

This is part of the problem. When I go out and talk, teachers every single time come up and say, “This is not what I was expecting. We've been told you're anti-teacher. You're actually very pro-teacher, and what you're saying is very reasonable. You're saying let's recognize the most effective teachers, identify those who are not effective and quickly develop them or move them out of the profession.”

If you say these sorts of things, you get framed as a teacher-basher. I was a teacher. My sister was a teacher. As a society, we have to respect teachers a whole lot more. But things about the profession need to be changed. When you point those things out, you can't be seen as a teacher-basher. It doesn't help the discourse at all.

Arizona may end collective bargaining for public employees. What is the role of collective bargaining for teachers?

I'm a die-hard, lifelong Democrat, so I believe in collective bargaining. I just think [it] has its place in some areas and not others. I believe teachers should be able to bargain around pay and benefits [but not] things that, when bargained away, could be extraordinarily detrimental to kids, [such as] the [length of the] school day and school year.

Where do you part company from Republicans on education reform?

I'll give you one example. I am a proponent of school vouchers for low-income kids who would otherwise be trapped in a failing school. Really right-wing people say, “This is great; she's a Democrat, a person of color, and she's for vouchers.” Then they hear why [I'm] for vouchers, and the [requirements], and they're like, “We don't like her anymore.”

I believe in vouchers for low-income kids only if we have strict accountability systems [and] kids are [improving] at higher rates. The right-wingers say, “Let the market correct itself; let's give every kid a backpack with the money in it and let them go where they want.” I don't agree. It has to be pretty heavily regulated. We don't let any crazy person with a propeller run an airline, right? There is a point at which the government has to ensure some things are taking place, or not taking place.

Schools start to sound like Congress -- Americans dislike Congress as a body but like their individual members.

About 80% [say] they think the public education system is bad -- C, D or F is the grade they give. But ask how they feel about their own schools: 80% of them give their own school an A or B.

How much are parents versus schools responsible for kids' performance?

That's the beauty of the value-added [teacher eval-
uations]. You can control for factors outside the control of teachers — socioeconomic status, attendance, things like that. Some teachers walk in on Day 1 and 90% of the kids are already at grade level. Another teacher walks in on the first day and 13% will be at grade level.

There is not a single person I know who's ever said, “Let's measure teachers solely on the basis of test scores.” And yet that's the rhetoric. The system we put in place in D.C. counts academic gains, but that's only 50%. The other 50% includes observation of classroom practices, how the school overall did, a teacher's contribution to the school community.

You've said charters are not the end-all and be-all; some haven't performed much better than public schools. What's the magic there?

Ask the highest-performing charters the most important thing, they'll say the ability to staff schools the way they need to.

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