Thursday, November 13, 2008

Michelle Rhee is My Homie
The District of Columbia superintendent is trying something that, if it works, could fundamentally reshape public education in the United States: professionalize the teaching field, rewarding excellence and punishing incompetence. For some reason, this is seen as radical and dangerous; I guess it is, if you're inept or scared of accountability. From today's NYT:

Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging chancellor of the Washington public schools, thinks teacher tenure may be great for adults, those who go into teaching to get summer vacations and great health insurance, for instance. But it hurts children, she says, by making incompetent instructors harder to fire.

So Ms. Rhee has proposed spectacular raises of as much as $40,000, financed by private foundations, for teachers willing to give up tenure.

Policy makers and educators nationwide are watching to see what happens to Ms. Rhee’s bold proposal. The 4,000-member Washington Teachers’ Union has divided over whether to embrace it, with many union members calling tenure a crucial protection against arbitrary firing.
Ms. Rhee has not proposed abolishing tenure outright. Under her proposal, each teacher would choose between two compensation plans, one called green and the other red. Pay for teachers in the green plan would rise spectacularly, nearly doubling by 2010. But they would need to give up tenure for a year, after which they would need a principal’s recommendation or face dismissal.
In an interview, Ms. Rhee said she considered tenure outmoded.

Tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions,” she said, “but has no educational value for kids; it only benefits adults. If we can put veteran teachers who have tenure in a position where they don’t have it, that would help us to radically increase our teacher quality. And maybe other districts would try it, too.”

Ms. Rhee has significant public backing for her efforts to improve this district of 46,000 students, one of the nation’s worst-performing. Both presidential candidates lined up behind her in their final debate last month, with Senator Barack Obama calling her Washington’s “wonderful new superintendent.”

Emphasis mine. With apologies (not really) to Chris Matthews, I read this and a thrill goes up my leg...

If tenure were somehow a signifier of excellence, then Rhee's statement would not be true. But it's not: I can't find a link, but my recollection is that something like 95 percent of teachers who stay in the profession for more than three years earn tenure, essentially mirroring the widely disdained practice of social promotion of students among those who theoretically teach them. At that point, they're almost impossible to fire. I had more than a couple of these teachers in my (decidedly above-average) public school system; I suspect you did too.

NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein--someone I've long disdained, but am starting to come around on a little--favors some kind of assessment of teacher quality before a district makes decisions on tenure. That seems the minimum: taxpayer dollars pay teacher salaries, and some diligence on the part of administrators as to the return on that expenditure is appropriate. Maybe the eventual compromise is a periodic review--though it would have to be more than a pro forma wave-through, which is what I'm sure the teachers unions would seek.

The objections to Rhee's plan, in the linked article above and elsewhere, focus on the risk of arbitrary dismissal by vindictive principals and other punitive actions that have no educational justification. I'm sensitive to this; my mom is a teacher, and she's had some jerk-ass principals (by her telling, at least). But unless I missed this, I don't think Rhee is proposing to do away with grievance procedures; if a firing is unwarranted, let arbitrators determine that. And principals aren't protected from accountability either; as this excellent Atlantic profile of Rhee details, she actually went after the administrators principals first upon taking her job, firing 98 central-office employees and 24 principals.

Another criticism of her efforts is that they represent too much change, too quickly. We hear that about the NYC school reforms of this decade too. And there might be some validity to the charge. But the schools are so fucked up, and their importance to the future viability of local economies and national competitiveness so vast, that heroic doses of medicine are called for. Nick Kristof takes on some of this in his column today, pointing out that the U.S. is the only industrialized country where children are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents were. He cites a study by the Hamilton Project, a group within the Brookings Institution, that calls for easing teacher certification but making tenure harder to obtain, and awarding large bonuses to quality teachers who take assignments in more challenging classrooms. All of these steps, too, are met with resistance from the teachers unions.

Kristof's frame is that President-elect Obama needs to focus more on education than he has signaled thus far. I agree, and I think whether and how he supports Michelle Rhee--and risks the enmity of teachers unions that endorsed him--will send a very strong signal one way or the other. Here's hoping he's brave on what's arguably the single biggest challenge the country will face over the long haul.


The Navigator said...

Yeah, agreed. I'm instinctivly skeptical of anything that smacks of union-bashing, and teacher's unions have of course been a long-time favorite target of criticism for many things that are well beyond their ability to affect. But the schools are horrendous and some union policies seem to contribute to that in significant ways. I've STILL been reluctant to support changes, on the theory that the trade-off never shows up: the 'higher pay' that's promoted in exchange for more accountability never arrives - most on the right just want to smash the union and leave things at that.

But Rhee seems to be for real - she's talking about genuinely higher pay in exchange for an end to tenure, and various other things that make a lot of sense. It's pretty damn hard to oppose this and I don't. In fact I wish her well. The only thing I'll say is that I hope they keep their union, because a big one-time raise can dwindle down to nothing if you don't get further raises in the future, and then you're down to low pay again but this time without the job protetions - precisely what I feared from the beginning. You need someone to help you fight to keep the new good deal that replaced the old deal - arguably need it even more, with tenure gone.

The Navigator said...

P.S. I'm not accusing Dave of being "on the right" or of unfair union bashing - that was just a reference to where the criticisms of teacher's unions have usually, and traditionally, come from. Sensible Democrats - not exclusively New Democrats, but probably mostly New Democrats - have been talking about real change and a meaningful trade-off for a while; I think of it as one of the most promising breaks with old-line Dem orthodoxy that the New Dem movement has fostered.

David said...

I don't think she's calling for an end to unions--which I agree are necessary to maintain some balance in labor relations. But when I see jerks like Randi Weingarten constantly putting the professional survival of their lamer members ahead of education reform, it's difficult to start from a position of sympathy on other issues. Something has to change.

Brian said...

I always felt that school vouchers may be something worthwhile to try. The main idea being that improvements would be made mostly due to accountability since profits depend on customer satisfaction. I'm not saying to hand over the entire school system to the public marketplace, but I see you understand why there needs to be a better system than there is now.

David said...

My skepticism about vouchers mostly has to do with the fact that, when they've been tested, they don't seem to work as far as improving outcomes. But I'm increasingly open to being convinced otherwise...

Anonymous said...

Two things -

1. As someone who went to your high school, Dave, I'd be very interested to know who you thought tenure might have been protecting instead if their merits. While there was a clear range of quality in the teaching staff, I'd be hard pressed to point to someone incompetent enough to merit firing. Since we mostly had academic and honors track classes, I think we generally had pretty good teachers. And while we were there, Cheltenham had a great reputation for academic excellence and high college acceptance outcomes - one of the reasons my mom was so determined to move us there, and also the reason (she told me) that teachers endured years of service as substitutes in order to gain the privilege of getting hired permanently.

2. I wouldn't claim to be an expert, but I've been through public and private schools myself, participated in a CMU research project that focused on education issues, read Freakonomics, developed more than a nodding acquaintance with my school board member, talked to other parents, sent my own kids to private and public schools, and have relatives and high school / college friends who have been school teachers and administrators. Once the microphones are off, everyone says pretty much the same thing - schools are nice, but what really overwhelms virtually every other factor, for the vast majority of kids, are the parents and other aspects of the kid's family and home life - which the school can't control and has only minor ability to influence. There are many things you could say after this, but to Dave's point, I essentially agree that voucher programs, whatever their merits might be, are not likely to substantially impact educational outcomes. The authors of Freakonomics found that parents and kids who applied to private, voucher, charter and magnet programs did better academically than those who did not - EVEN IF they did NOT get in and ended up attending their default neighborhood public school with everyone else. It was the desire and motivation that were indicators of what made the actual difference - not the schools. Other books I've read have commented that this notion, when floated publicly, generally meets with widespread cries of outrage - because it defies that sacred myth that the school system and teachers and education dollars (things we can fairly readily change as a society) accomplish the transformation, and it risks painting parents of underachieving kids as irresponsible bad guys, which is clearly not always true.

I personally believe that the public school system in this country is on a path to collapse and that money will not fix the problem. Voucher programs generally would have the impact of accelerating the self-selection (or self-segregation, if you prefer) that is helping drive the collapse.


David said...


Probably most of the teachers I thought merited dismissal were the ones I endured in non-Honors science courses--guys whom you, of course, being a better student than I, missed out on ;)

To the point about parents and home influences more broadly mattering most... I can't argue with that. It's the point my mom makes every time we have this conversation. As a Head Start teacher whose charges are 3, 4, and 5 years old, she encounters students whose parents are pretty much the sole influence, and generally she can tell very quickly who is likely to succeed and who is on a worse path, solely by her experience of the parents.

My mom sometimes will make fairly outrageous, I think only half-serious suggestions like having parents submit to mandatory instruction or even some kind of screening. While this is both unworkable and (in our system) pretty much unconscionable, it certainly does point to the core problem. And if you listened to Obama at different points during the campaign, he often talked about the importance of parents "shutting off the TV and helping their kids with the homework"--which is probably about as much as any pragmatic politician can say on the subject, unfortunately.

But having no real capacity to make up for "bad parents," the question is how the schools can best support their children. The current system, in which teachers and their unions too often seem to put professional self-perpetuation ahead of the educational mission, can't be the best answer.

Anonymous said...

The unions are an interesting issue. No doubt there are plenty of examples you can point to of tenure or other union protections working to the benefit of some teacher who's otherwise would be fired. However, the contention that the parents/home/family are the real issue leaves me scratching my head about the ways in which we evaluate schools (and therefore, the teachers and their unions). I suspect there are relatively few schools where you can point at teacher unions and peg them as the source of inadequate academic progress. Bloated payrolls or pension obligations, perhaps, but academics is a stretch.

The idea of screening or instructing parents is interesting, more so since I became a foster parent this year. Forster parents are basically licensed by the state to care for children whom the state has removed (in theory, temporarily) from their biological families. In addition to an extensive (and invasive) application process, their is plenty of training, mandatory continuing education, and all kinds of rules. I didn't know when I signed up that you get paid to do it, though I will also say that the pay is only slightly more than what it probably costs to have the child be part of your home, so I don't feel like we're really making money at any rate that would be enticing. There are many aspects of the foster system that are inane and frustrating, and I wouldn't want them to be the norm for all parents and children. But our society pays an enormous amount, financially, socially, and otherwise, for substandard parenting.

I guess the problem is figuring out what the punchline is. I don't think I'd want a system in which you had to have a reproductive license. The thought of the government critiquing my parenting makes me squirm. So much of what happens in a family would be very difficult to observe or enforce from the outside. And the reality is that families have bad days, kids misbehave, and parents sometimes get tired or cranky and they yell or spank or slam doors. I've had so many little moments of failure as a husband or father - I'd have to really know another family pretty well before I was comfortable making judgments about some other family...especially if the potential consequence was the Goverment swooping in to break up the family or apply other sanctions.

Frankly, our society needs a larger supporting structure for healthy marriages/partnerships and healthy parenting. Government and religious entities try to provide these, but not perfectly or uniformly - and in all but the most extreme cases, submitting yourself to these is voluntary.


David said...

This isn't more than a partial answer... but what you're talking about, strictly on a voluntary/advisory basis, is fairly close to what I've long seen as the ideal role for "faith-based social services." Probably this is just because it's easier or somehow more palatable to imagine people taking parenting or marriage advice from a religious authority figure than a bureaucrat.

(As someone personally more inclined to trust institutions of representative democratic government than institutions of organized religion, I'm not saying this is necessarily justified. But I do think it holds up for the world in which we live.)