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.