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Former D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee pushing for big changes to schools

Michelle Rhee has been in the trenches fighting for education reform and has the scars to prove it.

The 41-year-old former teacher became chancellor of the embattled Washington, D.C., school system in 2007. She embarked upon an aggressive campaign to improve a system that, while among the nation’s leaders in terms of per-pupil spending, produced students who struggled to perform even basic skills.

In addition to closing two dozen schools, Ms. Rhee insisted on a new teacher evaluation and compensation system, attempting to reward good instructors while purging the district of poor performers. Needless to say, she met considerable resistance from the education establishment, which has accused of her every possible ill, even cheating.

In a thinly veiled effort to put the heat on Ms. Rhee, defenders of the status quo turned their sights last year on incumbent D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who hired and supported Ms. Rhee. After Mr. Fenty was defeated in the 2010 Democratic primary, Ms. Rhee resigned. Watch for many of her reforms to be reversed.

Since then, Ms. Rhee has become a national figure, prominently featured in the documentary film “Waiting for Superman” and founding Students First, an outfit dedicated to advancing educational change such as teacher merit pay, charter schools, choice and competition and the abolition of tenure. She was in Nevada recently to stump for Gov. Brian Sandoval’s education bills, telling the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “I feel very, very strongly that on the policy side the governor is absolutely pushing the right (education) agenda and the right set of policies that have the ability to create the right foundation and to put the state on a different trajectory moving forward.”

What follows are excerpts from Ms. Rhee’s hour-long meeting with the Review-Journal’s editorial board last month.

Review-Journal: Is there any hope for education in this country?

Rhee: Absolutely. I think that we are at a very important moment in time in this nation. … I think that there is an opening now that I’ve never seen before in my entire career doing this, in that there are more people paying attention to the issue and there is more light shining on a lot of the problematic issues that I think are plaguing our nation’s public schools. … If we can take advantage of this moment in time, then we can really see transformational change.

R-J: What has to happen?

Rhee: One, is that we need courageous politicians and leaders who are willing to take on the entrenched interests and the defenders of the status quo. I think we need everyday citizens who are incredibly frustrated with the system to stand up and say enough is enough. …

The percentage of people who have school-aged kids is actually relatively small. We have to make this a broader issue and people who don’t have school-age kids need to also understand how allowing the public school system to continue on the trajectory it’s on will impact their lives and their livelihood. Because as long as this is seen an issue that only impacts poor minority kids in the inner city we’re not going to be able to create the movement and the sense of momentum and outrage that we need.

R-J: What about competition and the public schools?

Rhee: So, I think that competition is a good thing. I saw this play out in D.C. in that when I inherited the school district in 2007, part of the reason why the mayor was able to take control of the school district was because close to 40 percent of the school-aged children in the city were in charter schools, plus you had another couple thousand who were … in private schools on vouchers, and it created the environment such that even the most staunch defenders of the status quo looked up and said, “Holy crap, if we don’t do something now, in 10 years there is going to be no D.C. public school system. It’s all going to be charters.” And so even the people who didn’t want things to change all that much sort of came to the realization that there needed to be something that happened. And so that gave us the leverage that we needed to be able to enact the significant changes that we did in the system. …

Now, I’m not a total free-market person. There are people who are sort of the kind of radical Republican folks who say let the market rule, have every kid with a backpack with their amount of money and let them go (anywhere). I don’t believe in that because I actually think that this needs to be a very heavily regulated industry, just in the same way that we don’t let any crazy person with a propeller run an airline because people’s lives are at risk. I think the same thing is true of schools. When you have kids’ lives at stake, you can’t just allow anybody who wants to open a school to open a school and recruit the kids to go there. I don’t believe in that.

R-J: The governor has six (education) bills pending in the Legislature right now addressing various things. If there was only one thing you could get through, what would be the most important thing to accomplish to begin to improve education in Nevada right now?

Rhee: The teacher quality bill. … That bill addresses teacher tenure, evaluations, last in-first out policies. First of all, let me be clear. I do not think that you can say one bill or one strategy is going to solve (everything). It has to be a broad-based effort. However, if you said which one is the most important … it would be the teacher quality bill because the research is very clear that the in-school factor that has the greatest impact on student achievement levels is teacher quality.

R-J: A lot of the conversation here has centered on how do you achieve meaningful education reform that will actually make a difference in student achievement when you’re in the middle of a serious fiscal crisis?

Rhee: So, I’ll answer the question in two ways. First, know that because I used to run a school district I’m very sensitive to the realities of having budget cuts, and that’s not an ideal circumstance. It’s not one I relished or enjoyed at all and it makes it very tough.

That said, we are in a reality right now that I actually think in some ways can help to push these reforms forward. So, for example, one of the governor’s bills addresses last in-first out policies — how teachers get laid off. And the bottom line is that in fat economic times, nobody’s going to be talking about layoff policies. Nobody is going to be willing to talk about the detrimental impact that seniority-based layoffs have because it’s not an issue.

So the way or the time to address those issues is when that reality stares you in the face. And you as a state are saying, given the budget crisis, given the pending layoffs, are we really going to allow our kids to suffer by … following a policy that we know is going to result in, number one, some of the best teachers in the state being let go. … Second is that seniority-based layoffs mean you actually have to lay off more teachers and impact more classrooms because the junior teachers get paid the least amount of money. And the research shows that if you do quality-based layoffs instead of seniority-based layoffs you can actually save 30 percent of the jobs. And then the last of it is it disproportionately, negatively impacts the lowest-performing schools because those are the schools that have the largest number of new teachers. … I think if you weren’t in the middle of these budget cuts, you wouldn’t be addressing these problematic issues.

R-J: Talk about teacher unions.

Rhee: I do believe that there is a very significant disconnect between teacher union leadership and the general rank-and-file folks. They don’t want to protect ineffective teachers with every ounce of their being. They don’t have a problem with accountability as long as the evaluation system in place is fair and transparent. They want more rigorous evaluations. …

We actually have to get teachers, everyday teachers who are not the union building reps, we need to get their voice out there. Because I tell you when I met with 150 teachers here the other week, they were fully on board with (the governor’s reforms). And I said to them, look right now, this is being framed in this state as all teachers are against this, and they see it as an attack on the public schools. And I said, “If you all are for these reforms, then you need to speak up.”

There’s this fear that they have, though. It was palpable. They were sort of saying, “Well, it’s hard. You want us to go testify in front of the (legislative) panel, but what if we go and then we get booed or people see us and then they ostracize us from the school?” There’s a lot of fear that these reform-minded teachers have as well. And I think that is incredibly unfortunate because right now the kind of narrative that is playing out is that teachers believe these things over here. That they don’t want merit pay, they protect their tenure and seniority, that’s the most important thing to them. When in fact I don’t think that’s where most teachers are at all.

R-J: Have parents abdicated their child’s education to the schools?

Rhee: The bottom line in this country when it comes to parents, in my mind, is this: If you look over the last six months there have been several very high-profile cases having to do with parents and public schools. The first is that movie (“Waiting for Superman”), where you have these parents trying to get their kids into these charter schools. We have the second in Compton, California, where this group of parents — again, poor minority parents — pulled the parent trigger, the new law in California which allowed parents — if 51 percent of them sign a petition — to force the restructuring of their failing school. And the last was this lady in Ohio who falsified her residency documents so her kids could go to a better school. Look at how we treat each of those parents.

The first group, we say, “Sorry there’s no room for your kids at these high-performing schools, you are stuck in your neighborhood failing school.” No choice. The second group of parents got harassed, threatened with deportation … all kinds of just incredible thuggery. And then the last lady, we threw her in jail. So in my mind, I don’t think we are sending a message to the parents of America that we want you to be invested and engaged in your child’s education. …

We have schools in D.C. where the principals would say … and this is not uncommon because I talk to parents across the country — who say, “You’re not allowed to come in to the school. You’re just allowed to drop your kid off and pick them up. You can’t come in. It’s disruptive.” What? That used to drive me crazy. Whenever a parent would tell me that, I would immediately call the principal and say absolutely not. Anybody should be allowed in the school as long as you follow the security protocols.

R-J: Is there enough money to do the job?

Rhee: So, I think it’s hard to make that determination because there’s such a wide variance (in spending between states and districts). … If you look at the trajectory of spending on public education in Nevada over the last three decades, you can see that it has gone up dramatically. And in that same period of time the student achievement levels have been absolute crap.

So the bottom line is, I can pretty much guarantee you that on economic and fiscal issues I don’t see eye-to-eye with Brian Sandoval. I actually think he’s great on these education issues. I can almost guarantee we don’t see eye-to-eye on economic issues. But I cannot in good conscience go to that man and say the answer is to shovel more dollars into a broken system. Let’s instead take this opportunity to fix the infrastructure, the foundation of the system. Fix the structures first. Then let’s make a play or case to put more money into it. But I can’t look at the guy right now and say, “Yeah, what we need is more money,” when if you look at any of the data points it actually proves the opposite.

R-J: Are some kids beyond reach?

Rhee: I’ve met enough kids who have turned their lives around very late in the game after most people would say it was too late. So I think that our job as educators is to make sure that we’re graduating kids at the age of 18 who have choices in life. They have a choice to attend a four-year college if that’s what they want to do. They have a choice to go straight into the work force if that’s what they want to do. They have the skills and knowledge necessary to go in both directions. I don’t think that we should be dictating and determining when a kid is in the eighth grade what their life chances are. I think we’ve got to be focused on giving them all the options that we possibly can.

John Kerr is the Review-Journal’s editorial page editor.

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