REFORM OF DC SCHOOLS;THE RHEE LEGACY
Relentless focus on targeting poor teachers and Principals helps raise standards
But at what cost?
Michelle Rhee was appointed to take over the troubled Washington D.C. school system in June 2007. When Rhee took over, D.C. schools were tied with Los Angeles for worst-in-the-nation status. During her tenure Rhee garnered both praise and criticism for her tactics and methods. In October 2010, she announced plans to leave the position and was replaced by Kaya Henderson, as interim Chancellor of DC schools. And since her departure educationalists have been trying to work out whether or not her reforms …worked. A relentless drive to improve teacher quality, removing poor teachers and principals, streamlining schools, giving teachers new pay incentives – promoting the best teachers, in fact all pretty good ideas. Rhees signature reform was in introducing IMPACT, a system for assessing the performance of teachers and other school-based staff. “It’s seeing teaching quality as the key factor in improving failing schools in particular and trying to approach the improvement of teacher quality both by financial incentives for high performance and for some methods of being able to release teachers who are seen as low performers,” said Robert Floden, the co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University. “She’s probably the most extreme example of someone who let a lot of teachers go on the basis of her judgments on their performance.” Some critics claim though that she failed ,period. Others ,probably the majority, that she had the right ideas but the wrong ‘adversarial ‘approach The argument is that you can’t fire your way to success. Boosting teacher quality, they say, requires a tempered meshing of improving teacher evaluation and professional development.
Rhee knew that there had been a well-documented decline over many years in the calibre of those aspiring to teach in Washington area – calculated by SAT scores, grades, scores on certification tests, etc. Rhee boosted the District off the floor, with significant gains on the federal “report card,” widely considered the gold standard of academic achievement. Since 2007, secondary schools have improved their standardized test pass rates by 14% in reading and 17% in maths, while elementary school pass rates have improved 6% in reading and 15% in maths. Systemwide graduation rates also improved by 3%, up to 72% in 2009. In 2010, Rhee and the unions agreed on a new contract that offered 20% pay raises and bonuses of $20,000 to $30,000 for “strong student achievement,” in exchange for weakened teachers’ seniority protections and the end of teacher tenure for one year. Under this new agreement, Rhee sacked 241 teachers, the vast majority of whom received poor evaluations, and put 737 additional school employees on notice. However, significant achievement gaps remain between students in high-performing and low-performing school districts, and between white and African American students. Those gains also came about the hard way, by firing principals and teachers with low expectations, minimal skills as educators or both. Several urban school chiefs though have been winning plaudits for carrying out important reforms with more collaborative, collegiate approaches: in Baltimore, Tampa and Miami, for instance. But it is significant that their reform packages fall short of what Rhee accomplished in Washington DC, in terms of outcomes. Rhee’s philosophy seems to be that if you want to fundamentally reform the system you are bound to upset producer interests, and particularly the Unions. So, get over it.Critics though say that the means of evaluating teachers performance is unfair and she could have achieved more by not polarising opinion with such an adversarial approach. Maybe, but her approach seems to have delivered results and she had to be tough to overcome union resistance. She was also applying policies in sympathy with federal government thinking over how best to raise school standards