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A real student advocate

Michelle Rhee on fixing schools in America

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March 22nd, 2011

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of D.C. public schools, is all about putting students first. In a recent interview, the founder of the advocacy group Students First talked with the Erickson Tribune about the troubles facing America s schools. In doing so, she lays bare the complexity of the problem, and what needs to be done to fix it. Tribune: StudentsFirst.org lists some pretty eye-opening data. For instance, 67% of American fourth graders are below their proficiency level in reading. When do you think the decline began? Rhee: There s a little controversy over whether the U.S. was ever number one and when the decline may have started. But I think 30 or 40 years ago, people generally believed that the public schools were working in America. They were organized on the understanding that a certain percentage of kids are going to become the CEOs, the lawyers, the doctors; a certain percentage of kids would become accountants and clerks; and a certain percentage of kids would enter trade professions. There were jobs for each group of students and each one came out of school prepared for those careers accordingly. The challenge that we are increasingly seeing is that, with modernization, there are lots of high-skill, high-pay jobs, but our education system doesn t prepare the vast majority of kids to be successful in that environment. In the next 20 years, we re going to have 123 million high-skill, high-pay jobs in this country, and at the rate we re going, American kids will only be able to fill about half of them. Tribune: So where does the Students First mission fit into this problem, and what are the possible solutions? Rhee: We re focused on three areas: first, human capital, making sure that we have an excellent teacher for every single kid, every single day; the second is giving real choice and real information to parents; and third is accountability for every child and every dollar. In terms of accountability, we re particularly focused on making sure that tax dollars are well spent on effective programs for kids. For decades, you ve had special interests driving the education agenda in America whether it s textbook publishers or testing organizations. The problem is that there has not been an organized national interest group that is advocating on behalf of students. Tribune: On which levels will this take place? Rhee: We re focused on the state and local levels. Changes need to occur in contract evaluations, tenure decisions, teacher performance evaluations, and school funding, all of which fall under the state and local jurisdictions. Tribune: Are there states that stand out in your mind in terms of being particularly good models in the way of education performance? Rhee: I don t think that any one state has figured out everything, but places like Florida and Indiana are on the right trajectory. There are also some states that need work, states that aren t facing the tough problems that are ahead for us. Look at pension systems. In most states, we have huge amounts of unfunded pensions. Political leaders are going to have to face this problem and change the way that pensions are built and paid out. If they don t, then there won t be any pensions several years down the road. Tribune: You ve heard so much with the recent collapse of GM about how the unions have ruined the car industry. Are teachers unions responsible for the decline in education performance? Rhee: No, I don t think the unions are to blame. Their job is supporting their members best interests, not raising student achievement levels. The problem is that there s no balance. You have groups that are highly organized as advocates for teachers, but we need someone to advocate on behalf of the kids as well. That s what we re aiming to do at Students First bring balance to the equation. Tribune: One of your objectives is bringing real information and choice to parents. What specifically are we talking about regarding real information, and how will you do this? Rhee: Here s an apt example. If you look at the data, not all teachers in our system are effective. It s very difficult, and in some cases impossible, to remove those people from the classroom because of the bureaucracy and politics of our system. If school systems are intent on keeping ineffective teachers in the classroom, then we think they should be required to gain parental consent to have the child in that classroom. States should not be allowed to keep ineffective teachers in the classroom without telling the parents and guardians of students that this is the case. We re also looking closely at policies that govern teacher layoffs. Junior teachers are usually the first to go regardless of their performance in the classroom. That s not the way to grow a profession. We need to look at how effective teachers are, how much growth occurs under their guidance. Unfortunately, seniority currently trumps performance. Tribune: How do we evaluate teacher performance? Rhee: First of all, we know that the current way teachers are evaluated is not good. A performance evaluation shouldn t be entirely based on the school principal s opinion. When I was chancellor, we created a system in which 50% of the evaluation was based on student achievement growth, 40% was based on observations of their classroom practice, 5% was based on school-wide performance, and another 5% takes into consideration contributions to the community. Tribune: What is next on your radar in terms of policy and agenda? Rhee: We re laying out the whole spectrum of things that we re interested in seeing and achieving, but the most immediate is the last in, first out or last hired, first fired issue. It s incredibly timely right now because many states across the country will likely face budget cuts, and teachers are at significant risk for being laid off. If that s going to happen, we need to do it in a way that minimizes the negative effect on students. When you go out by seniority, it hurts kids and it hurts schools. To learn more, visit Students First at www.studentsfirst.org. michael.williams@erickson.com

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