Michelle Rhee Missed the Forest

Last night’s Frontline program on Michelle Rhee, while horrifying enough, left out much about the damage she did to DC schools, and continues to do in her new position at the Newspeak-titled “StudentsFirst.” Leonie Haimson catches more of the story in her blog, NYC Public School Parents, which I highly recommend.  Don’t miss the end of the article where she grades Ms. Rhee, and John Merrow’s complete interview http://bit.ly/TLEsou with the only principal who would talk to him in detail about the test erasure story… or much else about Rhee’s reign of terror.

I have huge respect for Richard Zeiger, the California deputy superintendent who called the “F” that StudentsFirst gave our state “a badge of honor.”  California got that “F” in part because of its challenge to Race To The Top’s demand that individual teachers be graded by the test results of their students, no matter what the economic and social advantages one group of students might have over another.  What a great way to get even more teachers to flee high poverty schools!  On top of that, StudentsFirst takes away points if class size is kept low after 3rd grade!  While I figured out successful strategies for working with the classes of 25-27 that I regularly taught, I had one year in my public school teaching career with a class of 20, and there is no doubt in my mind that smaller classes means more time to work with individual students.  How could a group purporting to put students first think otherwise?

The other super important missing piece in the Frontlines report is around Ms. Rhee’s use of Teach For America teachers, who often stay for only a couple of years, to replace hiring committed and well trained teachers.  I don’t have any statistics on teacher turnover these days in DC, but many studies have shown that it takes several years for a teacher to develop strong classroom practices.  While I am glad that Teach For America recognizes the importance of supervision of their under-prepared teachers (Six weeks! I felt my student teachers needed more than the two three-month placements, together with the course work and guidance that California student teachers generally get), that is no excuse for not finding a way to hire well trained teachers in the first place.

A big reason that Teach For America has found so much support is the teacher shortages that exist in high poverty urban and rural schools.  Governments, both local and federal, have not built teaching/learning environments in underserved areas that make long-term commitments viable. Check out American Teacher if you have not already seen it.  And notice how many years  TFA Michelle R stayed in the classroom.  The choice should not be between Teach For America greenhorns and traditionally trained teachers who burn out from  demoralizing conditions!  We need to create school communities that inspire teachers and students.   We do not lack for examples of what that entails, if people would only see the forest instead of single trees.

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