The online professional network, LinkedIn, recently hosted a conversation with former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Corporate America loves Rhee’s ideas for “education reform,” like dismantling the unions. You could say that LinkedIn moderator, Steve Cadigan, and the audience were receptive to her.
Nonetheless, the conversation raised much food for thought and fodder such as the “last hired, first fired” policy guiding school layoffs during tough economic times. Also, are there ways to evaluate teachers? Is there a way to allow low-performing teachers to train and prove themselves that won’t negatively impact students? What can be done about the achievement gap between low-income minority students and everyone else? Here is what Rhee had to say about this and more — I added my own thoughts and comments throughout the piece:
Steve Cadigan: What do you hope to achieve with (your organization) StudentsFirst?
Michelle Rhee: The concept behind the organization is a simple one. Our education system is ruled by special interests. You have the text book companies, the teachers union and testing companies…and there is no group advocating for children….It is time to start a movement in this country that is dedicated to putting kids first and to fixing public education in our country.
Steve Cadigan: Have you found receptivity? Are people joining your cause?
Michelle Rhee: We launched this initiative on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the power of Oprah is amazing. The first week (after we launched on the Oprah Show), we had 100,000 members. Now we have more than 340,000 members….In California alone we have 55,000 members. It’s our most popular state by far.
Steve Cadigan: I was curious what the demographics are of the members?
Michelle Rhee: One of the demographic groups we are interested in is teachers. About 15% of our members are teachers. We want the teacher voice….Right now we have a monolithic teacher voice in the country and that is the teachers union. But a lot of the teachers I talk to don’t (agree with) the teacher union leadership. Parents of school-aged kids are frustrated with the system. But we also have grandparents and people who used to be an educator a long time ago. This is a diverse group of members, and they take action….Our open rates and click rates are much, much higher than the industry standard.
Steve Cadigan: We do have many thousands of teachers on LinkedIn. How have you been able to leverage social media in your campaign and reach out?
Michelle Rhee: I have to say I am very technologically not savvy. I’ve had special needs I’ve had to overcome. (laughter) When I was Chancellor, I didn’t do Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn….So when I came out of that job, my staff immediately got me signed up for all of those things. I remember saying something on Twitter and getting slammed for it. People told me I wasn’t supposed to do that….(OTOH), I had a chat online with a group of special education teachers. It was a great way to engage with a large group of people across the country…I was impressed with the level of respect people engaged with back and forth. We covered a wide range of topics in a short period of time. For example, for the teachers out there, almost always a teacher will come up to me and say, “I am with you, but I am a teacher and I can’t say I am with you. You’ve got to speak out and be vocal.” A lot of the teachers feel that way. They don’t want to speak out. They don’t want to be ostracized. I think that social media can really be a transformational force for that.
Steven Cadigan asked her about StudentsFirst’s “strong advocacy” around its “Save Great Teachers Campaign”.
Michelle Rhee: We wanted to start a national issue campaign on one thing we can get lots of people to agree on. We targeted the “last in, last out” policy, or “LILO”. You have to be the last teacher out, regardless of quality. But it has a detrimental impact on kids: you end up firing the best teachers. You end up firing more teachers because the junior teachers tend to be paid less. This impacts schools in (struggling areas) like the inner city where the newest teachers tend to work, and their teaching staff is decimated. (Layoffs) should be based on quality and not seniority if we are going to put kids first.
Elisa’s Note: Okay, I have to stop right there. Considering that StudentsFirst aims for 1 million members and to raise $1 billion, can’t local parents and Rhee’s organization raise the money to keep teachers? I feel the same way about vouchers, by the way. If you support vouchers, which Rhee does, why not give money to a private school and earmark it for low-income students?
Steve Cadigan: What is the goodness they are trying to realize with that policy?
Michelle Rhee: I have no idea….People oftentimes ask me, “What are we going to do about the teachers union? We have to get the teachers union to (embrace change).” The point of the teachers unions is to protect their members. When school children start paying union dues their interests will be met. The teachers unions are effective because they have millions of dollars and millions of union members. They can get politicans elected….We need a counter to that….As chancellor, I ran it as a mother. I have two children, and put them in the DC public schools. When I made decisions I knew they would impact my own kids….I’ll give you an example. I was meeting with legislators and someone said, “We want to give people who are ineffective in the classroom three years in a row to improve.” So here’s the thing. I made the decision to let go of ineffective teachers after one year…I told the legislator that, “If what you want to keep those people in the classroom, then you need to do what they did in Florida, which was to warn parents that their teacher was deemed ineffective.
(The legislators) are coming from a different perspective in terms of job security and training.
Steve Cadigan: That’s great. You’ve got union issues, differences district from district, state to state, federal issues. We are always looking for someone to blame, whether it’s the economy or the climate. How do you decide on where to make change?
Michelle Rhee: Everyone is always looking for the silver bullet…”What is the reason for the problem?” it’s never that simple. There is no one thing….In terms of when I started StudentsFirst, what I decided to do was focus on…human capital, making sure there was a quality principal leading every school, and making sure that there was a quality teacher in every classroom; school choices so that families don’t feel that they are (stuck); and accountabilty in tax dollars we were spending.
Steve Cadigan: When you’re going after something as entrenched as the education system, how do you find the courage or conviction to keep going forward?
Michelle Rhee: When I first got to DC, I was told that you have a honeymoon period. Mine was about 11 weeks. A columnist in the Washington Post wrote a column saying, “I like Michelle Rhee. I just wish she would be nicer.”…During my first 100 days on the job, I announced I wanted to close 23 schools in the district, and people went nuts…There were protesters outside my office. I got in at 11 o’clock at night and my mother says, “Are you okay?” “I’m fine. I’m making myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”…I’ve always been one of those people. I’ve never been concerned (about what others think of me)….One of the things that drives me crazy is how much we are willing to compromise away just to get along. We are willing to turn a blind eye (to problems) in the name of harmony among adults….If we know this is better for kids, why are we willing to go halfway? As you can see, I will never be a politician. (Laughter)
Elisa’s Note: Her answer was much longer, but I actually appreciated her passion for change, even if it means pissing off people. As someone whose husband’s job revolves around making waves — he, too, is frustrated with our insistence on “compromising away” on issues like healthcare — I did feel kinship with her here.
Steve Cadigan: Great answer. What did you think of the documentary Waiting for Superman, (in which Rhee was featured)?
Michelle Rhee: I had no idea what that movie was going to be about. My mother and father, who throughout my career could never figure out what I was doing — “Could you please go to lawschool now, or be a doctor?” — my mother’s comment was like, “Did you not know they were filming? Could you have combed your hair?” (Laughter) When (film director) Davis (Guggenheim) approached me about participating in the movie, I told him at first that I was not interested. My fiance (and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson) said, “You gotta do this.”…I was very skeptical. I didn’t know how you were going to do a documentary on education in 90 minutes. He far exceeded my expectations. He made it very easily understandable to normal people. You see actual kids and families. It shattered the expectations that people had about inner city parents.
Elisa’s Note: Have you seen Waiting for Superman? I am doubly curious now.
For the last 15 minutes of LinkedIn’s conversation, Rhee took questions from the audience.
On measuring teachers:
Michelle Rhee: That’s a good question. A lot of what you hear is that we don’t have a problem measuring teachers, but we don’t have a perfect tool. There is no perfect tool for measuring anything in the world. The evalutaion tool (we used in DC) was that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation is based on the academic growth of their kids, 40% based on observations of classroom practice, some done by surprise and some by outside experts, 5% on community approval and 5% contribution to their community like leading extracurricular activities.
Whether Rhee has encountered teacher opposition to the evaluations:
Michelle Rhee: You know I run across a lot of teachers who are angsty right now. There is a lot of rhetoric that teachers are being attacked and being blamed. “When you move to an evaluation system, you just want to evaluate based on test scores.” What I tend to see more with teachers is not that people are opposed, but they want to know is it going to work? It makes sense to a vast majority of teachers when we get beyond the scare tactics and get to the nuts and bolts of how things would work.
A man who has continuously voted “yes” on tax parcels, wondered why taxpayers aren’t seeing a return on investment:
Michelle Rhee: If you say it’s for the kids, it’s hard to say you are against it. We have more than doubled the amount of moeny we are spending per child, and the results have gotten worse. The U.S. along with Belgium is in the quadrant you don’t want to be in that it spends a lot of money, but doesn’t get results.
Elisa’s Note: Yes and no. We are No. 3 in terms of per pupil spending, but this is an average and does not take into consideration more affluent areas that are able to collect more money in property taxes, and thus, have more resources for students and better reputations. Depending on where a student lives, there are many kids in this country receiving less than the $7,000 per year.
More telling to me is what little priority education is in this country. We are No. 37 in terms of our GDP — 5.7% — devoted to education spending. Cuba is No. 1, devoting 18.7% of its GDP on education.
I thought I would clear that up and get to the second part of Rhee’s answer:
Michelle Rhee: Where are we spending the money? We spend billions and billions of dollars compensating teachers for their Master’s degrees. There is no correlation between having a Master’s degree and effectiveness in the classroom.
Elisa’s Note: I was actually surprised to hear this. My understanding is that many people choose not to teach because they graduate with too much debt, and can’t afford to work for such low wages. Then again, as someone whose kids attend a school, in which the faculty largely has degrees and credentials from other countries, I find the credentialing process for teachers in this country quite onerous and superfluous. The Spanish immersion programs in this country, for example, would benefit from the expertise of native Spanish teachers who studied and taught in their home countries. Unfortunately, many are prohibited from teaching in U.S. schools because they don’t have degrees or credentials from the U.S. and/or don’t speak English — which, minus some communication issues with English-only parents, has not been a problem at our school.
At the end of the LinkedIn event, there was a softball question on whether students should get to evaluate their teachers. Rhee thought their opinions were important.
In terms of training teachers in technology, she said there were “infrastructure” problems at the public schools. For example, she remembered during her first year of teaching, no one was able to use the thousands of computers delivered to the school because the outlet plugs were incompatible. But even if this were not the case, the building’s circuitry couldn’t handle that many computers plugged in at once.
How to help StudentsFirst:
Michelle Rhee: One, you can help us raise some money and get us more members. We want people to become engaged. I’ll give you a specific example. If you look at school board elections, they are usually off-cycle elections…These are people who drive school policy. We need more people to run for office, willing to put politics aside and put students first…I often talk to groups, in which someone says, “What she’s talking about is problems with the inner city, minority kids.” This is a national problem that we have. The top 5% of our students, these are the students who go to the tony private schools, they rank 23 out of 29 in the globe. We have to make people understand that this is something that impacts your world today.
Elisa’s note: I couldn’t find any information about this, not even on the StudentsFirst website. My understanding is that we do have an achievement gap in this country between minority and white students, but that our more affluent (and white) students were on the same playing field as students abroad. What do you all think? Have you seen the statistic Rhee espoused about our top students?
Finally, Rhee was asked by a teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District about the achievement gap. In this case, the teacher has noticed a gap in performance between her African American and Pacific Islander students and Caucasian students. Rhee gave a very candid “Tiger Mom” response. Check it out:
Michelle Rhee: It’s not any one thing. Our poor minority kids are attending low-performing schools. If you are a poor African-American child in this country, you have a 47% chance of being in a failing school. The second thing is we have a very, very low expectation (of these students). These don’t come from bad places….Our poor minority kids are coming from tough home environments….I think one of our things as a nation is that we have gone soft. We have lost our competitive edge and competitive spirit. I have two daughters, 12 and 9, and they play soccer. They suck, like bad. But if you were going to their rooms today, you would see trophies and ribbons that you would think I was raising the next Mia Hamm. “You actually aren’t good at soccer. You have to practice every day.” They look at me like I’m crazy because they can’t square that with everyone telling them they’re great….If we continue to build a culture in which we are allowing kids to celebrate mediocrity then we are going to lose overall as a nation. This lowered expectations is a significant part of the problem.
Yes, Michelle Rhee really did broadcast to the world that her daughters “suck, like bad” in soccer.
In related news, she considered Teach for America the catalyst that got her into the field of education. Here is easily the best story on Teach for America that I have read, courtesy of Teacherken on Daily Kos. Enjoy!
Oh, and feel free to talk all things education in this post.