Official Blog of the Education Exchange Corps

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Michelle Rhee is Wrong about St. Louis Schools

Today, the St. Louis Post Dispatch published a guest commentary from Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools. In her commentary, Rhee calls for more stringent testing of teachers to improve classroom quality.

Rhee is wrong.

First, I couldn't help but wonder why Rhee is commenting on the St. Louis Public Schools. Plenty of things about education are transferable, but we should not assume that a strategy that works in one city will work in another. While Rhee is quite the experienced educator, I would think she would understand the intricacies of an education system enough to avoid calling for policy changes based on superficial research and an anecdote.

In short, Rhee doesn't know St. Louis.

Second, improving teacher quality doesn't mean that tenured teachers need to be reviewed more often. It may mean that tenure requirements need to be more stringent, but isn't part of the point of tenure to reduce the resources we spend on teacher check-ups?

Teachers today have to deal with a lot, and more testing may not be the answer to fixing classrooms. Will a kid be less hungry, and thus less angsty, if his teacher received a more detailed evaluation? Will a parent have more time to be involved if her kid's instructor was under more pressure? Will teacher testing ensure that a troubled child gets more in the way of psychological services? 
Will it even help us find those few instructors who can actually deal with all of these societal failings?

Maybe we can improve teacher quality. I'm sure kids would do better if bad teachers were out of a job. But that doesn't mean that we should expend already limited resources to root out the bad through additional evaluations.

We can achieve the exact same goal - improvement of the classroom environment - through a system of support. Good teachers will founder in the classroom if they don't receive enough help. Even the strongest of us can only take so much.

The feedback Rhee discusses shouldn't come in the way of professional evaluations. It should come as the natural part of an educative partnership. It should come through conversation, collaboration, in-school workshops, and real, meaningful, productive professional development tailored to the realities each school faces on a daily basis. Threatening a teacher's job security will only add to the burden teachers are forced to carry.

The political commentator Niccolo Machiavelli is perhaps best known for advocating authority's establishment through fear rather than love. But in The Prince, Machiavelli wrote: "Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred...."
There are limits to the efficacy of fear as a motivating force. The fear of losing a job, especially today, is acute. But when that fear is engendered through additional paperwork or tense meetings or one-way administrative direction, that fear can quickly turn to hatred. 

The fear of losing a job is an essential element in our economic system. But there's no need to turn what could be a collaborative school-wide relationship rooted in practicality into a factory-like workplace where the final bell can't come soon enough.

In the city of St. Louis, our kids deal with a lot, and our teachers are expected to fix it all. It's time to stop telling teachers they're doing a bad job, and time to start asking how we can help them do their jobs better.

2 comments :

  1. Diane Ravitch, an author and educator I greatly respect, digs at Rhee in this article:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/ravitch-i-dont-understand-michelle-rhee/2012/04/17/gIQADZK4OT_blog.html

    If the point it to create more effective teachers, super. But if it's to threaten or blame teachers, not super. I suppose it's all in how these ideas get carried out.

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    1. I just made a huge comment on Facebook, but the gist is getting rid of bad teachers would be great, but once you get new teachers in, what's to stop them from falling into the same hopeless cycle that ends with them being bad teachers too? Especially in poor districts, we demand that our teachers deal with a lot of societal issues, not just traditional classroom ones. If we don't deal with the underlying problem--poverty--we just perpetuate a cycle of disposal and reinvigoration, where the new blood always becomes old.

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