Michelle Rhee – hope for America’s schools

michelle rheeMichelle Rhee, former Chancellor of the DC Public School system, is a lightning rod of public opinion in the education world. After resigning her position when mayor Adrian Fenty lost his bid for re-election, Rhee was recently hired by FL governor-elect Rick Scott for his transition team (story here).

Hired in 2007 to reform the abysmal DC school system, Rhee closed 21 excess under-performing schools and fought for a teacher merit pay system that would replace tenure. With the tenacity of a bulldog, she battled the system, local government, and teachers’ unions in an effort to enact her reforms. After 3 years of limited, but notable, success, Rhee resigned to form a new organization – StudentsFirst. She hopes to lead a national effort to reform America’s schools. She was featured in the stunning documentary Waiting For Superman (more here and here).

In this article (from Newsweek) Rhee describes her struggle with the DC system, what she did wrong and right, and her intentions for national school reform. It is a must read for anyone who is concerned about education in America.

After stepping down, I had a chance to reflect on the challenges facing our schools today and the possible solutions. The truth is that despite a handful of successful reforms, the state of American education is pitiful, and getting worse. Spending on schools has more than doubled in the last three decades, but the increased resources haven’t produced better results. The U.S. is currently 21st, 23rd, and 25th among 30 developed nations in science, reading, and math, respectively. The children in our schools today will be the first generation of Americans who will be less educated than the previous generation.

When you think about how things happen in our country—how laws get passed or policies are made—they happen through the exertion of influence. From the National Rifle Association to the pharmaceutical industry to the tobacco lobby, powerful interests put pressure on our elected officials and government institutions to sway or stop change.

Education is no different. We have textbook manufacturers, teachers’ unions, and even food vendors that work hard to dictate and determine policy. The public-employee unions in D.C., including the teachers’ union, spent huge sums of money to defeat Fenty. In fact, the new chapter president has said his No. 1 priority is job security for teachers, but there is no big organized interest group that defends and promotes the interests of children.

You can see the impact of this dynamic playing out every day. Policymakers, school-district administrators, and school boards who are beholden to special interests have created a bureaucracy that is focused on the adults instead of the students. Go to any public-school-board meeting in the country and you’ll rarely hear the words “children,” “students,” or “kids” uttered. Instead, the focus remains on what jobs, contracts, and departments are getting which cuts, additions, or changes. The rationale for the decisions mostly rests on which grown-ups will be affected, instead of what will benefit or harm children.

The teachers’ unions get the blame for much of this. Elected officials, parents, and administrators implore them to “embrace change” and “accept reform.” But I don’t think the unions can or should change. The purpose of the teachers’ union is to protect the privileges, priorities, and pay of their members. And they’re doing a great job of that.

What that means is that the reform community has to exert influence as well. That’s why I’ve decided to start StudentsFirst, a national movement to transform public education in our country. We need a new voice to change the balance of power in public education. Our mission is to defend and promote the interests of children so that America has the best education system in the world.

If you read nothing else today, you should read this whole piece.

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