Can Elia's reforms work without Rhee's 'toughness'?
Here's a provocative piece in the Washington Post from Richard Whitmire, a former editorial writer for USA Today and past president of the Education Writers' Association.
He throws a bit of cold water on the idea that districts like Hillsborough, Baltimore or Miami can succeed in making tough reforms with a "kinder, gentler approach" that includes working with teachers' unions, rather than against them.
"Rhee boosted the District off the cellar floor, with significant gains on the federal 'report card,' widely considered the gold standard of academic achievement," he writes, saying other districts fall short by comparison. "Those gains came about the hard way, by firing principals and teachers with low expectations, minimal skills as educators or both. "
Probably a few points bear mentioning here. First, Rhee's tough evaluation system was implemented as a result of a new contract with her own union, as well as substantial grant funding. And even she admits that it may be hard to replicate her test score gains elsewhere, given how very low they were in Washington when she began.
And all of that firing? It might be too early to make that comparison. Hillsborough, for example, just started its seven-year reform effort with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last fall, and has predicted that it may need to fire up to 5 percent (or 425) of its 8,500 tenured teachers annually for poor performance, at least in the first couple years. (The district says it doesn't expect such large numbers, due in large part to the massive investment it made in peer evaluators and mentors, which it says will help teachers to improve.)
As we pointed out in this weekend's profile of Elia, she's walking a fine line here -- encouraging other districts to collaborate with their unions, but also saying that teachers must participate in the process.
"You can't do this if you don't have teachers that will go to the meetings and work with you," Elia told the St. Petersburg Times. "To come up with the things that you know are actually going to influence (what happens) every day in every classroom."
And this, from her speech last week before superintendents and union chiefs in Tampa:
"Teachers are not the problem, great teachers are the solution," Elia said. "But there are some number who should not be in our profession.
"We have a responsibility to improve and remove ineffective teachers," she added. "Having said that, you cannot fire your way to excellence."
Is that kinder and gentler, or pragmatic, or just plain tough? Time will tell.