Despite ‘Putting Students First,’ Michelle Rhee Has Some Very Adult Agendas

by Christopher Paslay

The former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools launches statewide political lobby group in New York.     

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools who was forced to resign because of her draconian style of management, is back and ready to settle old scores.  Last year she launched, a so-called “movement to transform public education.” 

According to its neatly packaged website, 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 politics (privatizing public education to put public tax dollars in the pockets of charter operators), adult agendas (union busting to get back at those who had Rhee fired in D.C.), and Rhee’s own misguided and elitist reform ideas (discounting teaching experience in favor of keeping on novice teachers, which Rhee claims are the nation’s “best”).

But now it appears as if Rhee is no longer trying to hide behind the “interest of students”.  She’s just recently launched a statewide political group in New York called StudentsFirstNY.  Anna M. Phillips wrote about the group in a recent New York Times article

. . . On the board are some of the most well-known and polarizing figures in public education, including Ms. Rhee; [Joel] Klein, now a News Corporation executive; and Eva S. Moskowitz, the former councilwoman who now runs a chain of charter schools. Also on the board are former Mayor Edward I. Koch; Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone organization, a network of charter schools; and a number of venture capitalists and hedge fund managers, who have served as the movement’s financial backers.

Aside from promoting changes throughout the state, members of the group hope to neutralize the might of the teachers’ unions, whose money, endorsements and get-out-the-vote efforts have swung many close elections. . . .

Those paying close attention to Rhee’s agenda, however, understand that her lobbying is nothing new.  Last November, in a Huffington Post article, Joy Resmovits wrote about another politically motivated arm of Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization:

. . . In New Jersey, StudentsFirst, a new reform group founded by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, spent $400,000 on two successful Democratic legislature candidates through its local arm Better Education 4 Kids New Jersey, a group recently founded by hedge fund managers that backs Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s education agenda. . . .

According to the policy agenda on Rhee’s StudentsFirst website, “In too many American schools, current laws, policies, and practices put adult interests ahead of students.”

It appears Rhee and her group’s political backers clearly have a few “adult interests” of their own.

Bloomberg Makes Teacher Rankings Public, Nails Names to Church Door

by Christopher Paslay

The Bloomberg administration has made public the performance rankings of its city schoolteachers, despite limitations of the data and flaws in the evaluation system.   

It’s official: The New York City Education Department has won the legal right to make public the performance rankings of its teachers.  An article in Friday’s New York Times summed-up the situation:   

“After a long legal battle and amid much anguish by teachers and other educators, the New York City Education Department released individual performance rankings of 18,000 public school teachers on Friday, while admonishing the news media not to use the scores to label or pillory teachers.

The reports, which name teachers as well as their schools, rank teachers based on their students’ gains on the state’s math and English exams over five years and up until the 2009-10 school year. The city released the reports after the United Federation of Teachers exhausted all legal remedies to block their public disclosure.”

The fact that the New York City Education Department felt the need to warn the media not to use the scores to ridicule teachers is interesting because it provides a window into what is truly on their minds: The public shaming of city schoolteachers. 

Bill Gates, who has donated tens of millions of dollars to public education, agrees.  In a New York Times opinion piece headlined “Shame Is Not the Solution,” he wrote:

“Many districts and states are trying to move toward better personnel systems for evaluation and improvement. Unfortunately, some education advocates in New York, Los Angeles and other cities are claiming that a good personnel system can be based on ranking teachers according to their “value-added rating”—a measurement of their impact on students’ test scores—and publicizing the names and rankings online and in the media. But shaming poorly performing teachers doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback.

Value-added ratings are one important piece of a complete personnel system. But student test scores alone aren’t a sensitive enough measure to gauge effective teaching, nor are they diagnostic enough to identify areas of improvement. Teaching is multifaceted, complex work. A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness, like students’ feedback about their teachers and classroom observations by highly trained peer evaluators and principals.

Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment. Those who believe we can do it on the cheap—by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public—are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.”

Dennis M. Walcott, Chancellor of New York public schools, said his goal isn’t to shame teachers.  “I don’t want our teachers disparaged in any way, and I don’t want our teachers denigrated based on this information,” he said.  But if this is true, why make the information public?  Isn’t it enough that teachers, principals, and other school administrators in the city have access to the data to improve instruction?

Interestingly, on top of the controversial “shame” factor associated with the public rankings, there are other problems with this cost-cutting teacher evaluation system.  Here are several:

  • Only teachers of reading and math get rated, as do those who teach grades 4 – 8. 
  • The rating system—which is based on a score of 1 to 100—has an incredibly large margin for error, according to city education officials and statisticians.  On average, a teacher’s math rating could be off by as much as 35 percentage points, and in reading by 53 points. 
  • Some teachers are being judged on as few as 10 students.
  • One teacher received a ranking for a semester when she was on maternity leave.
  • Some teachers who taught English were ranked for teaching math.  
  • City officials said 3 percent of teachers have discovered that their reports were based on classes they never taught.
  • The rankings follow a predetermined bell-curve that dictates 50 percent of teachers must be ranked “average,” 20 percent must be ranked “above average” and “below average,” and 5 percent must be ranked “high” and “low”.       

But still, the data can be used to improve instruction, right? 

Probably not.  First, the data is nearly two years old and no longer relevant.  Students have moved on to new classes and teachers have new cohorts of students.  Second, a portion of the data has been discredited by suspected cheating.  Third, only 77 percent of the 18,000 teachers ranked are still employed by the Education Department, and a number of those people have taken new jobs outside the classroom.              

So how do others in the education community feel about the newly developed public rankings?  University of Wisconsin economist Douglas N. Harris, who works at the school where the rankings were created, said that making the data public “strikes me as at best unwise, at worst, absurd.” 

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan loves the idea.  “Silence is not an option,” he said.    

Noted education scholar Diane Ravitch, although acknowledging the need for strong teacher evaluation systems, wrote that the rankings exist primarily to pin society’s problems on teachers, the universal scapegoat.    

“Of course, teachers should be evaluated. They should be evaluated by experienced principals and peers. No incompetent teacher should be allowed to remain in the classroom. Those who can’t teach and can’t improve should be fired. But the current frenzy of blaming teachers for low scores smacks of a witch-hunt, the search for a scapegoat, someone to blame for a faltering economy, for the growing levels of poverty, for widening income inequality.”

It’s still unclear how a flawed rating system that will ultimately shame many schoolteachers and hurt morale is going to effectively improve instruction.  Although the New York City Education Department insists otherwise, it seems apparent the new high profile evaluations exist primarily to satisfy the public’s urge to place schoolteachers in the stocks and nail their so-called “sins” to the church door.

Teachers Should Not Wear Campaign Buttons in Schools

by Christopher Paslay


New York City public school teachers should be ashamed of themselves.  It’s one thing to campaign for a presidential candidate among colleagues, and quite another to politick in front of students.


Apparently, The United Federation of Teachers, NYC’s teacher’s union, doesn’t agree.  According to a story by the Associated Press, “The Teacher’s union for the nation’s largest public school system accused the city on Friday of banning political campaign buttons and sued to reverse the policy, declaring that free speech rights were violated.”


The lawsuit was filed yesterday in a US District Court in Manhattan.


Judge Lewis A. Kaplan quickly ruled against wearing the buttons, explaining that teachers must remain politically neutral while on duty in front of their students.  The judge also added that although most students would understand that a campaign button worn by an educator represented the personal views of the teacher only, there would be “inevitable misrepresentations by the minority”.


As a public school teacher in Philadelphia, I’m shocked that any educator with a conscience would want to wear their political views on their shirtsleeve in front of their students. 


For starters, it’s unethical.  A public school teacher is an agent of the state, and therefore must not show any religious or political bias, one way or another.  Just as teachers are forbidden to pray in front of students during instruction (even if it is for personal reasons), teachers should not advertise their personal politics to their classes by wearing a campaign button. 


This in my opinion is intolerable, because students should be taught to make decisions about the world themselves.  They should be given a balanced, objective representation of events, and be given the space to process this information on their own.  Young people in grades K -12 are too innocent and impressionable to be exposed to the spin from only one side of the political spectrum; our children should be at least college-aged before they are politically indoctrinated by educators. 


As a teacher, I never push my political views on young people.  When my students ask, Mr. Paslay, who are you voting for?,  I give them my stock answer: I haven’t decided yet.  And when the presidential candidates come up in classroom conversation, I always make it a point to remain neutral and give equal attention to both parties. 


The youth of America need to be taught HOW to think, not WHAT to think.  Educators must teach students critical thinking skills, not subtlety bait them into accepting the agendas of certain political parties.