by Christopher Paslay
Former chancellor of D.C. public schools launches ‘student-centered’ lobby group, effectively keeping her name before the public.
Michelle Rhee, whose undemocratic and draconian methods of running Washington D.C.’s public schools forced her to step down as chancellor, is on a new mission. She’s organized studentsfirst.org, a so-called “movement to transform public education.” Its goal is to cut through politics and adult agendas in order to give America’s children a first-rate education. Ironically, its policies are driven by—you guessed it!—politics and adult agendas.
The first order of business of studentsfirst.org seems to be to keep Rhee herself before the public eye. She proudly announces on the website that she is Founder and CEO of the organization, and has set up an “About Michelle Rhee” page to shamelessly tout her past achievements. “If you are a member of the media,” the website says, “and would like to set up an interview or TV appearance with Michelle, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.”
The second order of business is to cleverly disparage and attack teachers’ unions and America’s hard working educators themselves. This is done quite tactfully, under the guise of supporting “great teachers”. Of course, Rhee’s plan for keeping “great teachers” is oversimplified and misinformed.
An example of her overgeneralization of the complexities of teaching in a 21st century urban environment (and her deep-seeded bias against organized labor) is her plan to reform education in Pennsylvania. On her website it states:
With the current fiscal crisis, Pennsylvania is at risk of losing thousands of their best teachers to layoffs. Currently, layoffs are based on seniority, an outdated and bureaucratic practice known as “Last in, First Out” (LIFO). LIFO means that the last teacher hired has to be the first teacher fired, regardless of how good teachers are. This harms students and teachers in three ways:
- Research indicates that when districts with LIFO conduct layoffs, they end up firing some of their most highly effective educators.
- LIFO policies increase the number of teachers that districts have to lay off. Because junior teachers make less money, districts have to lay off more of them in order to fill their budget gaps.
- LIFO disproportionately and negatively impacts the highest need schools. These schools have larger numbers of new teachers, who are the first to lose their jobs in a layoff.
The only problem with these claims about LIFO is that they are FALSE. Here are the facts:
- Research DOES NOT indicate that when LIFO layoffs take place, the most highly effective educators are fired. In 2005, Research for Action, a Philadelphia non-profit education research organization affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, found in the their “Quest for Quality” study that almost 50 percent of first-year teachers hired in Philadelphia in 2003 didn’t even have a certification. In fact, 70 percent of new teachers in Philadelphia drop out in five years; new teachers in many schools don’t even last long enough to get laid off via LIFO. To assert that inexperienced—and many times uncertified—teachers are more effective than tenured master teachers is just flat-out propaganda.
- LIFO policies DO NOT increase the number of teachers that districts have to lay off to fill budget gaps. All teachers, regardless of years of experience or pay scale, are accorded the same monetary value in a school district budget. In the Philadelphia School District, a teacher costs a principal $90,000 a year, regardless of whether that teacher is actually salaried $90,000 or $45,000. Rhee’s claim otherwise is made either out of sheer ignorance (wasn’t she Chancellor of D.C. public schools?), or is simply her attempt to once again mislead the public.
- LIFO DOES NOT disproportionately and negatively impact the highest need schools. Research shows the poorest schools have high teacher turnover rates because new teachers quit, not because they are the first to be laid off. In fact, in Philadelphia in 2005, the teacher turnover rate was higher than the student dropout rate; high need schools have shortages of teachers, not surpluses. This is exactly why policies favoring veteran teachers in hard-to-staff schools should be supported, not attacked.
Of course, Michelle Rhee is not known for sticking to the facts. When Rhee served a short stint as a schoolteacher at Harlem Park Elementary School, before she folded under the pressures of running an urban classroom and left for administrative work, she boasted of test score gains that turned out to be much smaller than she first claimed. The modest gains made by D.C. public schools when Rhee was chancellor were also questioned by public officials, and a cheating scandal ensued. Diane Ravitch, noted education historian and professor, questioned the legitimacy of Rhee’s results claiming that “cheating, teaching to bad tests, institutionalized fraud, dumbing down of tests, and a narrowed curriculum” marked Rhee’s tenure as schools’ chief.
America’s most experienced teachers should be supported, not attacked. Stripping teachers of seniority is no way to reward their years of hard work and dedication, nor is it any way to attract the best and brightest to the job.
For the benefit of schoolchildren everywhere, let’s hope Rhee tones down her propagandistic crusade against hard working schoolteachers. She should use her influence to support tenured, experienced educators, rather than working to tarnish their reputations with misinformation in an attempt to keep Rhee’s own name before the public eye.