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The Politics of Education: Why AAPS Needs Its Own Michelle Rhee

Dr. Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the Washington, DC public school system for the past three years, is once again in the news. If you’ve never heard of Rhee, have no fear, I’ll catch you up. Michelle Rhee is a heretic, an educator who believes that public schools exist to educate our children, rather than provide employment for the women and men who work in the public schools. Moreover, Michelle Rhee worked to implement policies within her school district that led to a simple, yet monumental, change: excellent teachers were compensated very well, struggling teachers were mentored, and poor teachers were fired.

Mona Charen writes in a piece posted recently to the web site of the National Review:

Rhee got and used the authority to fire incompetent teachers and principals. She brought in young, idealistic teachers from the Teach for America program, and closed 23 failing schools altogether. Convinced that good teachers and principals were the key to improving performance, she instituted a teacher-evaluation program that required five observations per year of each teacher combined with a record of his or her pupils’ test scores. 

In fact, just this past Fall, Rhee dismissed 100 failing teaching from the Washington, DC district she heads. Dr. Rhee was able to implement her particular brand of school reform by pushing the notion of merit, and challenging the system of teacher tenure. Unless you’re actually a public school teacher with tenure, this might seem like a no-brainer. Even at McDonald’s the servers who are go-getters, provide the best customer service and stand out from the pack move up, not the servers who’ve simply been there the longest. 

I’ve admired Michelle Rhee’s desire to bring public K-12 education into the age of accountability since the first time I read about her—a piece that outlined her struggles with the Washington Teachers Union. Shortly after the FBI wrapped up a long-term investigation, and several WTU union executives were indicted for embezzlement, Michelle Rhee was hired. This synopsis of the case comes from a round-up of legal briefs compiled by the United States Department of Labor Office of Labor-Management Standards:

On May 22, 2006, and June 5, 2006, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, James Baxter, former treasurer of the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU), and Gwedolyn Hemphill, former assistant to previously-convicted president Barbara Bullock, were sentenced following their jury trial conviction for conspiracy, embezzlement, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, false statements on LM reports, and falsification of union records. Baxter was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $4.2 million and perform 900 hours of community service. Hemphill was sentenced to 11 years in prison and ordered to pay $4.2 million in restitution. These cases were the result of a joint investigation by OLMS and the FBI.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was not among Michelle Rhee’s admirers. In fact, the AFT, it was revealed on Politico.com today, spent over $1 million dollars to unseat DC’s sitting mayor and, most likely, Michelle Rhee, who serves at the pleasure of the District’s mayor. Politico.com’s Ben Smith broke the story about the AFT’s spending. Smith writes:

The American Federation of Teachers spent heavily to unseat Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and to put the brakes on his aggressive efforts to shake up the city’s schools system.

The national union spent roughly $1 million in contributions to a labor-backed independent expenditure campaign — also supported by the public workers union AFSCME — and on its own extensive political operation, a Democratic political consultant familiar with the details of the spending told POLITICO. The spending suggests that the vote — while not a referendum on Fenty’s attempt to shake up the school system — was deeply shaped by that policy. And while the teachers union has been careful not to claim the scalps of Fenty and his schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, the election may serve as a political shot across the bows of other urban officials considering similar policies.

Why the animosity between AFT Prez Randi Wengarten and Michelle Rhee? In a September 15, 2010 blog entry posted to The Atlantic, writer Natalie Hopkinson explains exactly why the AFT was gunning for Rhee in a piece posted to the magazine’s web site:

This Spring, Rhee negotiated among the most revolutionary teacher’s contracts in the country, which essentially broke the union, loosening tenure protections in exchange for the potential for teachers to make more money and earn performance bonuses. D.C. is being hailed as a model in urban education reform, and there are plans to replicate this model; The Obama Administration is putting more than a billion dollars behind a “performance-based” rewards system similar to the one being tested in D.C.

It was well worth a cool million dollars to the AFT to protect tenure, stamp out performance bonuses, multiple teacher evaluations, and the use of student test scores in the mix of materials used to determine whether teachers are successful in their jobs. A million dollars was, in fact, very little to pay to get rid of Michelle Rhee and her heretical notions that education reform should begin with re-thinking the way teachers are compensated, evaluated and retained. In 2009, the AFT took in almost $200,000,000 from its 850,000 members. To compare, the AFL-CIO took in $193,000,000 during the same year from its 11.3 million members. Between 2006 and 2009, Michelle Rhee’s closure of failing schools and dismissal of ineffective teachers cost the WTU local $700,000 (35 percent of its total revenues) and 400 members. The corresponding loss of revenue payable to the national AFT office from the WTU affiliate wouldn’t be at all significant. However, think about Rhee’s reform program going viral, and now the AFT national office stands to lose significant revenue from affiliates shrunk by the dismissal of poor teachers, and the closure of failing schools.

I’m writing about Michelle Rhee because this past week I attended two Ann Arbor Public Schools curriculum nights. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about what to expect in the upcoming school year. It’s also an opportunity to experience, first hand, the results of the local Ann Arbor Education Association’s union contract. It’s exactly the kind of contract Rhee worked to reform. I listened to one teacher at curriculum night announce that, no, she hadn’t planned out her curriculum just yet, and had not ordered her supplies so the students could begin their classwork. The meat of the class could not begin, this teacher explained without the least bit of hesitation, because she hadn’t cleaned and organized her room completely—two weeks into the school year. She had been moved into that class, I discovered by talking to my tot, thanks to the latest round of budget cuts. This teacher told parents she’d been out of the classroom for 15 years. She wasn’t teaching that class because she was an organized, prepared, enthusiastic or inspiring teacher, or even because she wanted to be there. That woman is there because she needs a job and, obviously, had more seniority than the young guy who’d taught there last year, a popular, inspiring educator, a guy who moonlighted at a local pub for extra cash.

The Ann Arbor School Board is preparing to hire yet another Superintendent, and I urge them to choose for our next superintendent a woman or man who is much more Michelle Rhee and much less George Fornero and Todd Roberts. I’d like to know that when I write to the superintendent and the principal of the school and ask how in the name of Socrates a teacher can show up for curriculum night without, well, a curriculum plan, that there’s someone there who really believes that public schools exist, primarily, to provide a quality education to the students. 

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Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=4373

9 Comments for “The Politics of Education: Why AAPS Needs Its Own Michelle Rhee”

  1. Correction to above: first sentance of paragraph 3 should read “Teachers are NOW hog-tied…”

  2. Michelle Rhee’ tenure as DC’s Schools’ Chancellor is a portrait in efficiency–that is the elevation of efficiency to a virtue or an end in itself. The closing of schools has been a catastrophe and the merit system is based on the taylorization of education imposed by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) regulations. These regs are the ruin of every school system that relies on federal funding (i.e. all public schools).

    The DC schools have some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country and the shuffling around of the students has broken up any chance of reintegrating the schools with the neighborhoods–which, I would argue, could help create sustainable improvement in DC schools. NCLB is not about education, though. It is about the appearance of education, it is about dumbing down education to pavlovian procedures. Here accountability is not about responsibility. It is about teaching to the tests and the tests are about learning how to take tests. The winners are the human equivalent of golden retrievers. Yeah, Michelle Rhee has done a great job of promoting the mechanization of education. Ann Arbor’s “enlightened” parents will surely welcome such an administratrix here and become evermore prideful of our educational excellence.

    As for the unions, they are not THE problem. Teachers are not hog-tied by administrative meddling into how they conduct their lessons. There is very little leeway for a teacher to improvise in the classroom to make the lessons work for the particular students in a class. Text books are a crime against education and much of the curriculum coordination is detrimental to education. Imagine yourself coming into the job with enthusiasm, creativity and dedication only to have it all trampled under the hooves of a herd of bureaucrats. No thanks.

    One thing a super administrator like Rhee would never consider is the relocalization of the schools. To go in the opposite direction from that imposed by the educational policy wonks. She is not about education, but about the manufacturing of results. And this is where all public schools are headed unless parents and voters insist they get the real thing for their money.

  3. I’ve got two kids in the AAPS and we love our local elementary school. Thus far, the kids have had great teachers. I agree with #6 that the AAPS is facing some pretty scary financial problems and for the life of me I can’t quite understand how all the money gets spent (who can or who wants to?) I don’t know much about the interim, but I agree that it would be in the best interest of the AAPS to have a very comprehensive search for a new superintendent. As for hiring someone with the desire to reform like Michelle Rhee I’m open to new ideas and I suspect alot of parents would be too.

  4. Well there is an ‘interim’ sup. now. We’ll see if the search process turns anyone up who can blast the interim out of there. It’s obvious that promoting from within in the district isn’t solving the financial and managerial problems that the AAPS is facing. We have good schools being marketed as great. A new sup. from the outside would be welcome in my book.

  5. Michelle Rhee was born in Ann Arbor and raised in Ohio.

    She is currently engaged to former NBA star Kevin Johnson.

  6. AAPS hired Robert Allen as interim superintendent, and while he protests he doesn’t want to stay there, power is addictive. He has a good reputation, and mentored with a good guy, so we’ll shall see.
    I would be the last one to support MEA, but the truth is, I ultimately blame management for the way a place is run, union or no union…

  7. Wouldn’t it be great to get Michelle Rhee as a Superintendent! Wouldn’t good teachers like to earn $150K/year?

    Fenty got turned down by trying to fix too many things at once. He also had the cabbies howling, as my every trip for the past few months involved hacks complaining about the inspectors. When Fenty’s predecessor was elected a man came up to him and thanked him profusely because his street had been plowed for the first time in thirty years. The mayor turned to a friend and said, “Just how low is this bar set?” (Marion Barry was mayor for some time (DC’s Kwame)).

  8. A2P,

    Rhee holds teachers accountable but who holds administrators accountable? Tenure was established to prevent abuses by administrators. There are no easy trade-offs.

  9. Mona Charen? Now there is a voice of reason for you.

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