If Bill McGurn Won’t Mention It, I Will

 

Since Bill is too modest to mention his column in the Wall Street Journal this morning–and I’ve given the man all day–I’ll mention the column myself.

In “Giving Lousy Teachers the Boot,” Bill reports on Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the District of Columbia’s public schools. Ms. Rhee just fired 241 teachers for scoring too low on an evaluation that measures them according to student achievement. She put another 737 teachers on notice. That’s almost a quarter of all the teachers in DC whom Ms. Rhee has either put on notice or shown the door–probably the most dramatic step toward holding teachers accountable that has every taken place in any public school system.

Bill writes:

[W]hy has Ms. Rhee succeeded where others have come up short? One huge reason is the advance of school choice and accountability throughout Washington. Though reform has come fitfully to D.C., today 38% of the district’s students are in charter schools. Until the Democrats killed it, there was also a voucher program for a few thousand more. The result of all this ferment is that the teachers union is feeling pressure it has never felt before….

Another way of putting that is this: Ms. Rhee is smart enough to know that when she negotiates with the unions, the shift to charters and choice in the district gives her more leverage for the reforms she needs.

Ponder that. Whereas we hear over and over again that school choice—that is, the creation of charter schools, private schools, and voucher programs—would harm the public schools, the truth is just the reverse. Force the public schools to compete and they’ll do just that. Lousy teachers may pay a price, but students will only benefit.

Keep an eye on Michelle Rhee. If she can hold her ground—her action has provoked a firestorm of protests and legal threats—she’ll be able to bring true reform to DC schools, turning around one of the worst school systems in the country. And if she does that, Michelle Rhee will become a figure of national importance.

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  1. Profile Photo Contributor
    @UrsulaHennessey

    Thanks for posting this, Peter! I agree, it was a great column. My favorite part was how Ed. Sec. Arne Duncan’s office couldn’t even muster up any serious support for Rhee. They waffle back and forth in a series of emails with Bill:

    When I emailed a spokesman for [Duncan] asking if the administration supported Ms. Rhee’s decision to fire the teachers not measuring up, the answer came back that “we have not weighed in on D.C. specifically but we support the use of student achievement as one factor in teacher evaluation.” When asked if I could say that meant the secretary supports Ms. Rhee, the answer was “No,” because “we do not know the facts.” Two emails later, the clarification: “This is basically a staffing decision executing on their new labor agreement — something that is happening all across America — which is a local issue.”

    As Bill then points out, the Obama administration “deserves credit for contributing to a climate that challenges the status quo … on the other hand, when a brave reformer such as Ms. Rhee actually makes a tough decision, it can be shy with the backup.”

    • #1
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    @TheMugwump

    Thanks for the pat on the back, Peter. I’ll settle for a beer at the local watering hole if we ever get a chance to meet.

    As stressful as teaching can be, you should understand that a good day in the classroom can leave you drained yet exhilarated. Every now and then a teacher enjoys the magical moment when the light bulbs start popping all over the class. It’s very gratifying. The best of us do not teach for the money. It’s a calling.

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    @TheMugwump

    Ursula: “Thanks for posting this, Peter! I agree, it was a great column. My favorite part was how Ed. Sec. Arne Duncan’s office couldn’t even muster up any serious support for Rhee.”

    My current principal claims to be a personal friend of Arne Duncan. My impression of both men is that they are social climbers, not unusual for those who spend a lifetime in the bureaucracy. The disconnect between “administration” and what actually goes on in a classroom could not be more profound. Administrative mandates are the bane of teachers everywhere. I’m betting it’s Ursula’s experience as well.

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    @MatthewGilley

    My oldest son started kindergarten in the first class of the first charter elementary school in our area. Thankfully, the school is hanging in defiantly despite many efforts to derail it. Here’s a few points for everyone:

    1. Pay attention to charter school and school choice legislation in your states. Charter school legislation is often drafted in a way to award a Pyrrhic victory to school choice advocates, who then discover things like impractical governance requirements, debilitating application processes, and funding nightmares.

    2. Hold your local public schools accountable when they try to keep charters and other options out of the market.

    3. The refrain you will always hear from public schools is we don’t have enough money, money, money. Hogwash. DC spends more per pupil than just about any district in the country, and to what result? Mitch Daniels said it best in the Weekly Standard when a reporter commented how attractive all the public schools seemed to be in Indiana. He replied, “Yeah, it’s a problem.” School superintendants are more construction foremen than educators these days. The problem is the money isn’t going to classrooms. Charters spend less and spend it on instruction.

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  5. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Ursula Hennessey: My favorite part was how Ed. Sec. Arne Duncan’s office couldn’t even muster up any serious support for Rhee. They waffle back and forth in a series of emails with Bill:· Jul 28 at 4:28am

    To be fair, there is some history here. The president came out with praise for the Rhode Island district that fired all its teachers when the schools failed (per conditions of NCLB). Then the district went and hired them all back and the president and Department were left embarrassed.

    The teachers unions are hitting them pretty hard for being anti-teacher and so it is understandable that they would be reticent in this case. Truth is that Duncan has done more than Spellings or Paige to take on teachers unions in a practical way. You can’t rail against them and then expect to be effective politically in moving the needle in a positive direction.

    The more insidious policy direction pursued by the president/Duncan in K-12 is the way they are trying to consolidate spending and power through the Race to the Top program. Arguably more effective in driving reform, but giant step toward greater federalization of education.

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    @TheMugwump

    Trace Urdan: “The more insidious policy direction pursued by the president/Duncan in K-12 is the way they are trying to consolidate spending and power through the Race to the Top program. Arguably more effective in driving reform, but giant step toward greater federalization of education.”

    This initiative will fail just as NCLB failed, and for the same reasons. No one size fits all solution from the federal government can work because the problems in education tend to be local and specific. An individual school is a reflection of the community around it. An inner city school will suffer all the pathologies of the local neighborhood just as a middle class community that values achievement will demand and get results. The belief that bureaucrats in the federal government could possibly have the answers to such varied and complex problems is institutional arrogance at its worst. We can start by dismantling the US Department of Education for which there is no constitutional mandate anyway. Much dead wood could probably be hacked out of state departments of education as well. The next step would be to privatize education through voucher initiatives.

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    @
    ~Paules: We can start by dismantling the US Department of Education for which there is no constitutional mandate anyway. · Jul 28 at 7:19am

    I’m confident this will be one of the early priorities of the Long Court.

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    @BillMcGurn

    I see Michelle Rhee has struck a chord. She’s like Chris Christie — calling a bluff. I think folks are so used to teachers and government workers having jobs for life no matter how they perform, and are so beaten down, they are encouraged when someone just doesn’t accept the miserable status quo and changes it.

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    @UrsulaHennessey
    ~Paules: The disconnect between “administration” and what actually goes on in a classroom could not be more profound. Administrative mandates are the bane of teachers everywhere. I’m betting it’s Ursula’s experience as well. · Jul 28 at 4:56am

    I fully agree, Paules. Although, I am one of the very, very, very, VERY rare teachers who was lucky to work for 2 different schools where my direct heads were incredibly supportive. And, I tended to be strict and ask a lot of students. You know, repercussions for not doing HW, lower grades for poor grammar/spelling (within reason.) Naturally, some parents pushed back hard, especially when I first started. However, I’m VERY grateful for my bosses who stood up for me. It makes a massive difference to be supported in that way. It was a lot of us taking risks — me by being strict in the face of whiny kids/parents (not easy), my administrators for listening patiently while parents complained, and those same administrators for standing by me. But, trust me, every one of my teacher friends have horror stories of wacky administrative demands and how it cramps their style, and, hence success.

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    @TheMugwump

    Booyah! The only thing you neglected to mention, Peter, is that public education has become a jobs program for the incompetent, the lazy, and the unqualified. Bring on the vouchers, baby. Hell, yes! Let the market determine what a good teacher is worth. If supply and demand works everywhere else in our system, then why not teaching? I could use the pay raise.

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    @TheMugwump

    Ursula: “I am one of the very, very, very, VERY rare teachers who was lucky to work for 2 different schools where my direct heads were incredibly supportive.”

    I worked under one such principal. Alas, the great lady died in office. It was a terrible shock. She was unfortunately followed by a Bolshevik and feminist who did her best to keep the staff on the boil with threats and intimidation. She claimed some scalps before moving on. We now have a careerist in the chair who upon arrival decided to summarily abandon the cell phone policy, the school bells, and the dress code. The result, quite naturally, is total chaos. Four of five of our most senior teachers resigned including myself. I’m currently thinking about going private.

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    @MelFoil

    At the time that some of these teachers started teaching in DC, no doubt the skills they needed most resembled those of a prison guard. Thank goodness the job has changed over the years. Too bad they didn’t change along with the school.

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    @AdamFreedman
    ~Paules: We can start by dismantling the US Department of Education for which there is no constitutional mandate anyway. Much dead wood could probably be hacked out of state departments of education as well. The next step would be to privatize education through voucher initiatives. · Jul 28 at 7:19am

    Amen. But of course, the DOE has important things to do, like publishing this study guide for watching President Obama’s address to students last year. As you might recall, the study guide directs teachers to ask students tough questions like “How will he inspire us?” and “Is President Obama inspiring you?”

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    @PeterRobinson

    If you’re a teacher, Paules, may we stop right here? Because I need to give you a salute–and an i.o.u. If we ever met, I’ll either shine your shoes or buy you lunch, whichever you (or the kids in your class) would prefer.

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    @RobLong

    My favorite Michelle Rhee quote: “I’ve got two children in the system, and I don’t want a ‘minimally effective teacher’ and I don’t think anyone else does, either.”

    Those “two children in the system” give her the credibility to make some major changes.

    • #15
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    @MollieHemingway

    It looks like the New York Times is advocating pay increases for public Kindergarten teachers. Up to $320,000 a year?

    • #16
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    @SteveMacDonald

    Bill’s article was super – may we have more Ms. Rhees please. My sister works multiple jobs in order to send my niece to a private school where she can get a decent education. The public schools in her area have dumbed down to the lowest common denominator where a student doesn’t have to study to get straight As and learn nothing.

    The more we can get competition into the system, the quicker our kids will start back up the scale in global test scores.

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