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In Their Own Words | Michelle Rhee



"When you start to lose your courage, ask yourself: Would I be willing to randomly assign my own child to any teacher in our school system?"

As Tampa Bay readers learned Friday, outgoing D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is a polarizing figure in America’s education reform debate. 

Fans love her tough-talking ways and willingness to take on sacred cows like teacher tenure in one of the nation’s lowest-performing districts. Others call her combative approach racist, anti-teacher, or just plain counterproductive.

Last week Rhee resigned under pressure following the election defeat of her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty. But the new contract and evaluation system she won are still in place, and could result in the dismissal of up to 25 percent of the D.C. teaching force by next year. What can we learn from her stormy tenure?

Here are some extended comments by Rhee from her Thursday appearance as a panelist at the Council of the Great City Schools conference in Tampa, where her audience consisted mostly of administrators from large, urban school districts. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

ON FIRING TEACHERS IN DC: If you receive an ‘ineffective’ evaluation, then you are subject to termination. What we used to have is, if you are rated as ‘ineffective,’ then the clock started. For us it was a 26-step process where we had to do several things and if you didn’t do it by a certain time, it didn’t count, and you had to wait until the next year and all that kind of stuff. Now you get the ‘ineffective’ rating, you’re subject to termination. We had about 200 people who were terminated last year. [Note: published reports put the number at 241.]

If you receive a ‘minimally effective’ rating, then you have a step-hold on your pay going on to the next year, and you have one year to improve your practice. If you do not improve your practice within that year, (and) you have two ‘minimally effective’ ratings, then you are also subject to termination. 750 educators received a ‘minimally effective’ evaluation for last year. So if they do not improve this year, you’re talking about potentially between the first two years of implementation of this evaluation tool, about 1,000 educators leaving the system. We only have about 4,000 teachers.

WHAT SHE LEARNED:  The first is, decide now where you and your good friend Input are going to part ways. [Crowd laughs.] This is an important question, folks, because literally you could be getting input forever. 'Let’s work on an evaluation tool together, knowing that process will last five years, and by the time you pilot it, who knows what’s going to be going on.'  Input (from teachers and unions) is important, but it’s got to be done in a quick and efficient way. At some point you have to know that some people are going to be unhappy. You have to be okay with moving on.

Second: sure, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it didn’t take forever, so move fast. I mean, this is one of our weaknesses in public education, is that everything takes so long. And I get it, you don’t want to act hastily, you don’t want to do things that you’re going to regret later on. I understand that. But at the same time you have to have a sense of urgency about the work...

Be prepared to be Ms. or Mr. Unpopular. I’m really good at this one. [Laughter.] But you have to understand that there is no way to radically change something ... and to be popular with everyone. You are going to necessarily make some group of people unhappy, and as all of us know, it’s the unhappy ones who are the loudest ones. Even if it’s a few of them, it can seem like a lot...

And last, when you start to lose your courage, ask yourself: Would I be willing to randomly assign my own child to any teacher in our school system? And if not, push harder. [Applause.]

HOW SHE CONVINCED THE TEACHERS’ UNION: We raised a significant amount of foundation dollars...And we essentially sort of put on the table to our union, 'Look, you can keep the current contract and all of the privileges you have, but the city doesn’t have any money to pay for raises.  You get nothing, and you keep the current contract, or if you want the big money, which is what these external funders were bringing to the table, they want a ground breaking, revolutionary contract that doesn’t look like any other contract anywhere in the country. In order to get that, we have to address the tenure and the seniority and the performance pay.'..It provided me with significant external leverage.

WHAT HER OWN KIDS TAUGHT HER: I have my own two daughters in the DC public schools. And I had several experiences with them where they had great teachers and loved going to school every day. And they’ve had not so good teachers where they dreaded it. In fact, my (daughter) came home last year and she said, ‘Let me tell you the 15 reasons why my teacher is ineffective.’ I’m not kidding you. And she started reeling them off: Wastes time, does not differentiate instruction.’...

I get a lot of criticism that we’re moving too fast, that we’re too mean, we terminate too many teachers. But at the end of the day I always have to ask myself, if I’m going to allow this person to be on payroll and be in front of children next year, do I feel comfortable putting (my kids) in their classroom? And if the answer to that question is no, then I’m never going to put another mother or family in that position where they have to." [Sustained applause.]

[Last modified: Saturday, October 23, 2010 1:04pm]


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