UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. See main page for full contents

September 22, 2009

PUBLIC SCHOOL DEFORMER MICHELLE RHEE

Dan Brown, Huffington Post - This week, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced a reduction in force was imminent -- despite having just hired 900 new teachers in a system of just 3,800 teachers. Layoffs begin September 30; fear and confusion abounds.

Rhee's celebrity-- burnished by a cover story in Time Magazine-- is defined by her quixotic "battle against bad teachers." In Rhee's world, the quality of public education in D.C. has been dismal for years because of a critical mass of lazy, ineffective veteran teachers haunting classrooms.

In her mind, the solution lays in clearing out the oldies in favor of legions of rookies with prestigious degrees and two-year teaching commitments. Evidenced by her death-match negotiating tactics with the Washington Teachers' Union, Rhee would love nothing more than to eviscerate collective bargaining and make all teachers at-will employees, corporate-style, accountable only by their students' test scores.

Her latest gambit might be her wildest. How can someone hire nearly 25% of their work force over the summer and then less than a month into the school year throw up her hands and move to lay so many off?

Here's how:

Step 1: Hire a lot of Teach For America rookies and people who agree with you.

Step 2: Put in place impossible-to-meet standards for teacher performance to make anyone a target for sacking.

Step 3: Announce there has been a budget shock and a reduction in force is unavoidable because of the economic downturn. Pretend you somehow didn't understand in July how bad our budget situation would be in just two months. The teachers to be reduced will be selected out of those with less than stellar "performance" (and practically everybody will be vulnerable).

Step 4: Get rid of whoever you want, sidestepping due process and remaking the teaching force in your image.

This brand of shock therapy is attractive to observers who love words like "bold" and "hard-charging" and assign them to self-styled reformers like Rhee who want fast revolutions. They dismiss voices of caution and defense of existing contracts and due process as defense of the abominable status quo.

That's disingenuous. The union ought to be open to loosening tenure provisions, but Rhee simply misses the boat by blaming DC children's academic struggles squarely on teachers. Rhee's mislaid battle of gutting the union and purging veteran teachers will leave an experience and institutional knowledge vacuum that no quantity of super-caffeinated twenty-two-year-old Yalies can remake. As with any profession, there are some teachers in D.C. who should not be there, but Rhee is moving here to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

It's a fallacy that Ivy League grads are sprinkled with the fairy dust of brilliance to waltz into a classroom and be a great teacher. I received a world class education at NYU, and got the tar kicked out of me by a class of Bronx 4th graders in my rookie year. Becoming a good teacher takes time, reflection, and support. . . Most of the Teach For America teachers I meet have the makings of great teachers -- but they're nowhere near great in their first two years.

Rhee's sweeping dismissal of so many experienced teachers will hurt far more than its sending a small number of truly washed-up teachers out to pasture will help. The ground-level effects of this veteran bloodletting will be immeasurable.

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