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



  1. As a former teacher in the DCPS I am a strong opponent of Michelle Rhee’s tactics. Large gains were made in schools West of the Anacostia, however East of the river where I taught the disparity was enormous. Teachers were expected to achieve similar results to teachers who had larger budgets, better resources and an adequate school environment. Not only do teachers who work in high-poverty schools have an uphill battle dealing with the socioeconomic issues of the students, but are not afforded the same support as teachers West of the river. Rhee might be viewed as successful as a whole, but as a former teacher in Southeast who has watched numerous schools close, firing of entire staffs, high teacher turnover rates, etc. I feel as if her success should be gauged by the improvements made in the worst schools and by that standard she has failed.

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