Michelle Rhee's Unafraid To Stir Things Up, And Maybe That's Not So Bad
Says 'Collaborative Approach' In Education Can Dilute True Reform
By Rick Green
February 15, 2012
Everybody keeps talking about common ground and finding consensus during this year of education reform, but the arrival of lightning-rod education reformer Michelle Rhee is an important reminder for all of us.
Making real changes in how we run our public schools means plenty of folks won't be happy.
If you radically alter tenure, shift more money to urban districts, take over failing schools, start evaluating teachers based on test scores or add charter schools, somebody isn't going to like it. If you go further, such as making it easier to fire teachers, pay them based on test scores, end seniority rules or create a voucher program, you're asking for an epic fight.
That's fine, according to Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor-turned-national-organizer now working with a coalition of parent groups here. To Rhee, lukewarm compromise isn't what's needed in Connecticut.
"The problem is when you come up with a compromise that you believe is better than what you had before but it's not better than it should be,'' Rhee told me. "You haven't really solved the problem."
During her three-year run in D.C., Rhee raised test scores, closed schools, fired principals and teachers, and tied compensation to student performance. She's an outspoken Democrat, but her aggressive brand of reform also enraged the teachers union and prominent education reformers. She remains embroiled in controversy over test score gains under her leadership, even as StudentsFirst, the national group she founded two years ago, plays an increasingly prominent role around the country.
In contrast to the much-hyped teacher contract in New Haven, often held up as a model for how all sides can work together, Rhee says preserving "harmony among adults" should not be the priority.
"People criticized me all the time and said I was not collaborative enough,'' Rhee said. "If you can show me an example of a place where there was collaboration and everybody was on board … I would be more than happy to follow that model. Every time I have seen a collaborative approach taken and celebrated, the result was watered down."
Rhee's organization, StudentsFirst, says it has about 13,000 members in Connecticut and a million nationwide. It will work with a coalition of parent groups who are pushing to provide more school options for urban parents. In the handful of states where the group gets involved, StudentsFirst has backed lobbying, run television ad campaigns, and emphasized grassroots organizing of parents.
"You have to give people a way to improve their condition. That's why I reached out to Michelle Rhee,'' said Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union. "It will let everyone know that parents get it, contrary what your assumptions are about the poor."
Samuel said she expects Rhee at a planned March education rally where the governor will appear. Rhee, however, told me she doesn't want her presence to distract from reform efforts here.
For the local teacher unions, there's nothing more distracting than Rhee, said Eric Bailey, a spokesman for the Connecticut affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
"Take your snake oil and peddle it someplace else,'' Bailey said when I brought up Rhee's involvement here. "We don't need that here. We have people actually working to improve education in Connecticut and not make it worse."
Worse would be something, since Connecticut's long history of cautious change and compromise has given us the largest achievement gap between low- and middle-income children in the land. Enacting a coherent and comprehensive package of reforms is vitally important.
"You can't just pull this apart and say we will do one or two things and save the rest for later. These things are all interdependent' said Rae Ann Knopf, executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, which is joining with other education and business groups to support Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposals. Unions, who represent 45,000 teachers in the state, are not part of their coalition.
The lesson here is that change hurts. And small, incremental reforms aren't going to disrupt the failure in our urban classrooms.
"Connecticut is set up for some very interesting things to happen,'' Rhee said, noting that Malloy's commitment to changing the way schools are run stands out among Democrats. "We have not seen a lot of Democratic governors say the same things at all … He is being very aggressive."
"For far too long the adults have been willing to turn a blind eye do the injustice in the classroom,'' Rhee said. "When it comes to kids' lives and their futures I don't feel that is negotiating material."
I don't like the bitter conflict between Rhee and the teacher unions because it distracts from real problems, like third graders who haven't learned to read. Union leaders — and the teachers they represent — are an essential part of any reform plan for Connecticut.
But Rhee has got something this stagnating state could use a lot more of: a burning, relentless drive to change the status quo. Her presence might actually force us to do something.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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