On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty in which they sought to provide some insight to the rest of the country concerning the best way to go about public school reform. Of course, it was not so much insightful as it was excessively laudatory of their own efforts toward saving DC's public school children. The article begins by reminding us of the terrible state of DC's system prior to their arrival, the things they did to fix it, evidence that those things worked, and a brief explanation for their failure to communicate more effectively with the community. Oh right, and then they tell us why everyone should try to do what they did.
Okay.....let's take a look....
The first example they mention of their reform efforts is their decision to fire 266 teachers in September of 2009 because of a budget crisis. They commend themselves for choosing to put the interests of the children before the interests of the adults in the system: keep the summer program, axe the teachers. What they fail to mention is the debate over why there was a shortfall in the first place, Rhee's apparent unnecessary hiring of 900 teachers during the previous summer, or the outrageous news that the budget shortfall never even existed. But they do tell us that the "shortfall" allowed principals to get rid of teachers who were not valuable to their staffs.
I support improving teaching quality. Faking budget shortfalls and firing teachers is not the best way to do it.
The next thing they talk about is the new teachers contract that was agreed to this year. It instituted "pay for performance" and no longer guarantees educators jobs for life. They mention how quick teachers were to vote for the contract, agreeing to it by 80% to 20%. They did not, however, mention that pay for performance is only granted to teachers who give up their rights to due process. They did not mention that no teacher has ever been guaranteed a job for life nor that it's primarily administrators who are responsible for allowing ineffective teachers to stay in teaching after their first few years, nor that DC previously had a 90-day plan administrators could institute to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom. They also failed to mention the huge lump of cash most teachers received as a result of agreeing to the contract. Salary increases for every year teachers had gone without a contract were paid. I know some teachers who got a $10,000 check for agreeing to the contract. Not a huge surprise so many members voted for it.
To cap it all off, Fenty and Rhee point to a number of statistics the prove they've made an incredibly positive impact on learning in the District. They point to NAEP; they point to SAT scores; and they point to graduation rates. If I've learned from following education policy, however, it's that you should never take statistics at face value. Behind big statistics like district graduation rates and SAT scores are often a myriad of complicated stories, most of which are belied by the simple statistic. NAEP scores in fourth-grade math had been rising in DC since 2000, and may have had nothing to do with Michelle Rhee or Adrian Fenty. Exactly what NAEP scores mean in the first place is a bit of a mystery to me.
The statistics Fenty and Rhee failed to mention were the widening achievement gap, the vast inequity in spending across wards, or the increase in novice teachers in the District since Rhee's entry. They also fail to mention their removal of Patrick Pope or the atrocious handling of Bruce Monroe.
I moved to DC in 2009 to work in DCPS because I believed in Michelle Rhee. From the outside, it sounds like everything she's doing is good. The WSJ piece in well-written, makes a great argument, and plays into the prejudices many people have developed around public schools since the new corprorate reform wave really started hitting the media hard. I was naive about the role of the media in this debate. I trusted major media outlets far too much and gave too much credence to the statistics. While I don't mean to discount the entire WSJ piece as a lie, I do think it's important to understand it for what it is: propaganda.
Lots needs to be done to fix education, and lots stands in the way of effective reform. Unfortunately, some of the biggest obstacles in the way of meaningful change are the egos of people like Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty. In an effort to promote themselves, they mislead the public into believing education reform can be something it can't. You don't just fire bad teachers and replace faulty air conditioners. It will take a lot more than just that.