This time she got a cover and personal essay in Newsweek. Her goal? To sign up 1 million members for her new non-profit StudentsFirst and raise $1 billion in its first year of operation.
But first she took a swipe at the “special interests” in education — er, the teachers unions — and used her prominent pulpit to ask everyone to take to the streets and fight against the “bureaucracy” plaguing our public schools.
The teachers’ unions get the blame for much of this. Elected officials, parents, and administrators implore them to “embrace change” and “accept reform.” But I don’t think the unions can or should change. The purpose of the teachers’ union is to protect the privileges, priorities, and pay of their members. And they’re doing a great job of that.
What that means is that the reform community has to exert influence as well. That’s why I’ve decided to start StudentsFirst, a national movement to transform public education in our country. We need a new voice to change the balance of power in public education. Our mission is to defend and promote the interests of children so that America has the best education system in the world.
I have a couple questions for Rhee. One, is if we were to break up the teachers unions, what would happen? Would people stick with the profession — ideally in the same schools — or would there be a lot of staff turnover and even more insecurity for students?
My other question is more of an observation. Whenever we talk about education reform, we tend to imply that all schools need to be improved to catch up to the rest of the world. There is a problem with that and it is called the achievement gap. Our white students fare very well, even compared to their European counterparts. Our minorities — and even when that is further broken down, Latino and African-American boys — are more prone to low test scores and dropping out. It seems that if we are serious about raising everyone to academic excellence then we must talk about the students who really need the help rather than paint the picture that it is systematic of all American students and schools. It’s not.
We then must create programs to target those goals, which is my next question. What exactly is the goal of reform? To send everyone to college? To create the world’s top scientists? To make sure our population has basic literacy and math skills? A combination of all these things by placing students in different tracks? These are all different goals that have to be defined by the schools.
From the moment I resigned, I began hearing from citizens from across this country. I got e-mails, calls, and letters from parents, students, and teachers who said, “Don’t give up. We need you to keep fighting!” Usually, they’d then share with me a story about how the education system in their community was not giving students what they need or deserve. I got one e-mail from two people who have been trying to open a charter school in Florida and have been stopped every step of the way by the school district. No voices have moved me more than those of teachers. So many great teachers in this country are frustrated with the schools they are working in, the bureaucratic rules that bind them, and the hostility to excellence that pervades our education system.
The common thread in all of these communications was that these courageous people felt alone in battling the bureaucracy. They want help and advocates. There are enough people out there who understand and believe that kids deserve better, but until now, there has been no organization for them. We’ll ask people across the country to join StudentsFirst—we’re hoping to sign up 1 million members and raise $1 billion in our first year.
Studentsfirst will work so that great teachers can make a tremendous difference for students of every background. We believe every family can choose an excellent school—attending a great school should be a matter of fact, not luck. We’ll fight against ineffective instructional programs and bureaucracy so that public dollars go where they make the biggest difference: to effective instructional programs. Parent and family involvement are key to increased student achievement, but the entire community must be engaged in the effort to improve our schools.
Though we’ll be nonpartisan, we can’t pretend that education reform isn’t political. So we’ll put pressure on elected officials and press for changes in legislation to make things better for kids. And we’ll support and endorse school-board candidates and politicians—in city halls, statehouses, and the U.S. Congress—who want to enact policies around our legislative agenda. We’ll support any candidate who’s reform-minded, regardless of political party, so reform won’t just be a few courageous politicians experimenting in isolated locations; it’ll be a powerful, nationwide movement.
I read all this, and I am still unsure what StudentsFirst hopes to achieve. I don’t think there is disagreement that the needs of students should come first. But the million, or billion, dollar question is how do we get there?
If I had one piece of advice for Rhee — not that she’d care — it is to be more specific as to what “reform” means. How do you tackle the “bureaucracy” of public schools, which here in Berkeley, California, I’ve heard referred to as the “democratic process”? Implementing curriculums that work — again, see my posts on IB — is mighty expensive, which is why even the most involved parents fight them. Would Rhee’s organization fund these programs in public schools? That would entail re-training teachers, who I am assuming wouldn’t fight it, unless there was no money to back it up. And that’s not an unreasonable expectation IMHO. I don’t think it is fair to ask a teacher to fly herself to Atlanta, Georgia, for an IB training, for example, without compensating her.
OTOH, I am all for allowing parents to start their own schools or do what they deem best for their children’s education whether they be traditional public schools, magnet schools, charter schools, independent schools, co-ops or homeschooling. Hopefully, this would provide parents everywhere with more choices.
In this sense, I share the frustration of Rhee and the Florida parents she mentioned in her letter. But in order for this to be a real movement, they would have to bring on board impoverished, minority families whose children are the ones really struggling. That’s the billion-dollar question.