Thursday, October 14, 2010

Michelle Rhee and School Reform

Ben and I talk about whether the ongoing, never-ending process of school reform is endangered by the resignation of Michelle Rhee as Washington D.C.'s chancellor of schools. My take:

Certain "reformers" are rushing to make Michelle Rhee's resignation a morality tale for the nation's education system -- an example of the corrupt power of teachers' unions and the rot of public schools. But there's less to the development than meets the eye. If "reform" is the message, then Rhee was an imperfect messenger: It is time for her to move on.

Reform, after all, remains the agenda for D.C. Mayor-in-Waiting Vincent Gray and Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson -- a Rhee protege -- have promised that efforts begun under Rhee will continue. As Melinda Hennenberger noted at Politics Daily, "The plan under Henderson is Rhee's exact reform agenda, so how does giving someone else a chance to implement it amount to disaster?"

It doesn't. But some conservatives interested in education reform have a second, extra-educational agenda: Politics. They want to undermine teachers' unions that -- not incidentally -- have proven a powerful ally of Democrats in past election seasons. It's in the critics' interest to portray those teachers as obstacles to reform; unfortunately, unions all too often protect the jobs of bad teachers and give those reformers ample material to work with.

There's a better way. In September, the New York Times profiled Brockton High School in Massachusetts, a large and previously underperforming school that has seen dramatic rises in student test scores. How did the school do that? With a renewed emphasis on reading and writing skills, even in classes not devoted to those subjects.

Teachers weren't the adversaries at Brockton; they drove the process.

And, as the Times notes, the school "scrupulously honored the union contract." Teamwork, it turns out, is better for students than constant political bickering.

If education reform is to succeed, teachers cannot be the enemy -- both for political and pedagogical reasons. Michelle Rhee apparently didn't understand that. But her resignation doesn't have to mean the death of reform.

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