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Education’s Ground Zero

Ohanian Comment:
NOTE: The headline for this piece seems lifted from a November 2008 Atlantic.com piece: Washington is now ground zero for education reformers.

Mr. Education Hot Air erupts again. Nicholas D. Kristof insists that "education reform could be the most potent antipoverty program in the country." Not when your love affair with Michelle Rhee represents reform, Mr. Kristof. And no matter how one spells 'reform,' the most potent antipoverty program is jobs with a living wage. These education hot air specialists always leave poverty out of their equations.

Kristof calls Michelle Rhee "the most unlikely figure in the struggle to reform Americaâs education system." Why? Because she's Korean? Certainly her Teach for America connections make her most likely to be worshipped by a credulous, ill-informed media who have no hesitancy pontificating about education. The media are convinced that education reform must come from people who have no experience in the schools. Michelle Rhee's two-year stint as a Teach for America teacher fits the bill. Depending on what press buzz you read, she taught second or fourth grade in Baltimore. According to an article in The Washingtonian, her first year as a second grade teacher was a disaster, so the second year she assigned two hours of homework a night and student test scores jumped. She told The Washingtonian that TFA people "worked harder and longer than anyone else," she says. "Before school, after school, weekends. No silver bullet. It was sweat."

Note the arrogance. Does anybody believe that Ms. Rhee knew how many hours other teachers in the city worked? I don't know a teacher who doesn't work before school, after school, and weekends.

In any case, after her brief stint as a teacher, Rhee earned an MA in public policy from Harvard. And then she founded The New Teacher Project: "Under her leadership as CEO and president, TNTP worked with more than 200 school districts in 23 states and recruited, prepared, and/or certified approximately 23,000 new teachers." Hey, why not? She already knew all about teaching. Read this snippet from Rhee's bio at National Council on Teacher Quality:

Ms. Rhee is a change agent who had already transformed many urban public school systems through her work with The New Teacher Project (TNTP) which she founded in 1997, and is now a nationally recognized leader in understanding and developing innovative solutions to the challenges of new teacher hiring.

Consider Rhee's bedfellows on the advisory board of NCTQ. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the funders.

The hubris here--both Rhee's and Kristof's-- is breathtaking and alarming. Children deserve better. Teachers deserve better. The complicity of the press is more the troubling. The results are likely to be tragic.

"I think Joel Klein and Mike Bennet and Arne Duncan are some of the best superintendents around, and they were never teachers. "

âMichelle Rhee, Atlantic.com, Oct. 3, 2008

By Nicholas D. Kristof

The most unlikely figure in the struggle to reform Americaâs education system right now is Michelle Rhee.

Sheâs a Korean-American chancellor of schools in a city that is mostly African-American. Sheâs an insurgent from the school-reform movement who spent her career on the outside of the system, her nose pressed against the glass â and now sheâs in charge of some of Americaâs most blighted schools. Less than two years into the job, she has transformed Washington into ground zero of Americaâs education reform movement.

Ms. Rhee, 39, who became Washingtonâs sixth school superintendent in 10 years, has ousted one-third of the districtâs principals, shaken up the system, created untold enemies, improved test scores, and â more than almost anyone else â dared to talk openly about the need to replace ineffective teachers.

âItâs sort of a taboo topic that nobody wants to talk about,â she acknowledged in an interview in her office, not far from the Capitol. âI used to say âfire people.â And they said you canât say that. Say, âseparate them from the districtâ or something like that.â

But pussyfooting around difficult issues hasnât helped Americaâs schoolchildren, and Ms. Rhee is equally candid about the challenges she faces in a district where only 8 percent of eighth graders meet expectations in mathematics.

âD.C. is known as the most dysfunctional and worst-performing school district in the country,â she said, noting that the failures are particularly acute for poor students and members of minority groups. A black child from a low-income family in Washington enters kindergarten at the same level as a comparable child in New York City but is two years behind by the fourth grade, she said.

âPublic education is supposed to be the great equalizer in this country,â Ms. Rhee said, adding, âThatâs not the reality we have in D.C.â Instead, she said, children who grow up in Georgetown and those who grow up in the poor, mostly black neighborhood of Anacostia âget two wildly different educational experiences. Thereâs a lot of data showing that weâre utterly failing our children in this district.â

This is Ms. Rheeâs second school year, and there is upheaval and recrimination â but also progress. Test results showed more educational gains last year than in the previous four years put together.

Her aim is for Washington to become, in just six years, one of the best-performing urban school districts in the country, while drastically reducing the black-white achievement gap. âA byproduct of that,â she added, âwill be that we will take away from all the other school districts and schools across the country the excuse that because the kids are poor, minority, whatever it might be, that they canât achieve at the same high levels.â

Ms. Rheeâs weakness is her bedside manner. Her transition from rebel to chancellor has been a little rough, and she is often perceived as trying to mount a cultural revolution in a way that antagonizes teachers and itself can undermine education. Surveys show that when teachers leave their jobs, itâs not just because of low pay but also because of unhappiness with their bosses or work environment. Perhaps recognizing the problem, Ms. Rhee lately has reached out to teachers to try to explain her ideas.

The reform camp is driven partly by research suggesting that great teachers are far more important to student learning than class size, school resources or anything else. One study suggests that if black kids could get teachers from the professionâs most effective quartile for four years in a row, the achievement gap would disappear.

As a result, Ms. Rhee has proposed that teachers surrender some job protections in exchange for the chance to earn more money â up to $131,000 annually, more than double the average salary for an American public school teacher. But teachers worry, not unreasonably, that their performance is difficult to measure, that they will be judged by incompetent principals, and that promised bonuses may later dry up. For now the two sides seem stalemated.

âIf we come to an impasse, weâre going to move forward with our reforms anyway,â Ms. Rhee said. âThen it potentially gets uglier.â

Sheâs right on both counts â it could get very ugly, and Washingtonâs children shouldnât suffer indefinitely in broken schools just because of a collective-bargaining stalemate. It would help if President Obama firmly backed Ms. Rhee.

Education reform could be the most potent antipoverty program in the country, and Ms. Rhee represents the vanguard in this struggle to try new tools to revive American schools. Unless we succeed in that effort and get more students through high school and into college, no bank bailout or stimulus package will be enough to preserve Americaâs global leadership in the long run.

Kristof invite you to comment on this column on his blog, On the Ground.

— Nicholas D. Kristof
New York Times


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