A weekend interview with Michelle Rhee, education adviser to Florida Gov. Rick Scott
Michelle Rhee testified this past week to Florida House and Senate committees about how she worked to get rid of ineffective teachers in Washington D.C. schools, offering suggestions about how Florida schools might do the same. Among other things, Rhee recommended getting rid of last in-first out policies relating to layoffs, and setting up quick ways to remove poor performing teachers rather than letting them use students' time to improve. She talked about why she's spending time advising Florida, and why Florida should listen, with reporter Jeff Solochek.
I'm interested in your thoughts about where Florida needs to go and why you are so interested in where Florida is headed with relation to its education program
I am incredibly interested because I think Florida has the potential to be a state that is leading the charge in education reform. First, you've got a solid foundation that has been built. I think the present administration has done a really good job of focusing on some of the most important issues around teacher quality and accountability. I think now you've got a very courageous governor and lots of folks in the Legislature who are very much focused on this issue, who are ready to take on some of the tough challenges that are inevitably going to be involved in these changes that need to be made. And it's definitely not a dynamic we see everywhere across the country.
Does Florida take a linchpin role in what you are doing nationally? Where do you see it fitting in with what you are doing?
I definitely think for Students First is is one of our core, anchor states that we're going to be working with over the next six months or so. Some of the other ones we're working with are, for example, New Jersey. We are choosing to make investments in states we think have the most potential to see really radical changes.
Are you doing what the governor wants? Or is the governor doing what you want? How does that relationship work?
I don't think any relationship ever works like that. What the governor is doing is consulting me on things, asking questions. I am giving input and advice in a number of different ways. We have discussions on different things. He doesn't do everything I tell him to do, and vice versa. But I think we have an incredibly mutually respectful relationship and one that I think, so far, has been beneficial.
Is he paying you for your time?
No. Absolutely not.
Is this just something you see as the right place to come work, then?
That's absolutely right. My organization, Students First, and I'm serving in this role in that capacity as CEO of Students First, we want to work in the states where we think there is the most potential and possibility, and we think Florida is one of those states.
Have you met with education commissioner Smith? There are people who thought you might be his replacement.
I have not met with him, but I have spoken with him over the phone.
What kinds of things do you talk about? Do you give him advice too?
We had a great discussion about his sense of where things are in the state and the direction he hoped the state would move. We talked about charter schools, that sort of thing. It was a pretty general conversation.
What about Jeb Bush and his foundation? Because they seem to be looming large. Are you working with them as well?
I also spoke with Gov. Bush just a few weeks ago. I have a longstanding relationship with him as well, and a lot of respect for the groundwork he's laid in that state for education reform. And now he's taking a broader role nationally, which I am extraordinarily respectful of as well.
A lot of teachers are afraid of you. They think that you're out to get them. ... Why do you get the sense that teachers fear what you're trying to pursue?
I think it's a couple of things. One, the media attention a lot of times focuses on the things that are about ineffective teachers. Today was a perfect example of the speech or address I give a lot. But often the way the media cover it is, This is what she is saying about firing people. They don't cover the rest of it. ... And so part of it is because I think the conflict and controversy is more exciting to write about.
And what happened in D.C. is I didn't do as good a job as I needed to to proactively go out to the great teachers and say, 'We're not talking about you. What I need you to do is stay. We want to recognize what you are doing. It's so important.' ... You have to be careful not to send a message that you are blaming teachers or that you don't think teachers are good. Exactly the opposite. Teachers are the solution to the problems that we're facing and we really value what they do every day.
Teachers have been asking to negotiate some of these issues. I know you negotiated some of the things you wanted to do, like do away with tenure and change the salary schedules. Yet this is seeming like a legislative push in Florida. Which is the better way to go? Negotiations or legislative mandate?
Well, I don't think that negotiating things like teacher evaluations is the right way to go. But I think that what people confuse is, if you don't have to negotiate it then the district or state is going to do something unilaterally. That I think is wrong. You have to get teacher input. There's a way you can get teacher feedback and input into something and really integrate that in the process of creation of a new evaluation system without collectively bargaining it.
There was an arbitrator in D.C. that said some of the teachers you got rid of up there were inappropriately fired. Have you had a chance to review that?
I touched base with the interim chancellor. I am very clear that they feel confident that when they make the appeal it will get overturned. If you look at it, the law is very clear for what a probationary teacher needs in order to get tenure and in order to become a permanent status employee. And explanation is not one of those things. So we feel very strongly, and the legal folks on the DCPS side of things feel very strongly as well, that they are going to prevail in the end and on the appeal it will get overturned.
There's been a lot of fuss made today about your students in Baltimore and a blogger who I guess doesn't like you very well. I was wondering what your thoughts are. Was there some sort of misrepresentation?
It's interesting, because for some reason mainstream media has picked this up without looking at the analysis that this blogger did. If you look at the analysis he did, he talks about the gain or the achievement levels of the entire grade at the school they were in rather than at my particular children that I taught. That makes no sense to hold me responsible for kids I didn't even teach. If you want to know how effective a teacher I was, then you need to look at the children who I taught for that particular two-year period. Not all of the children in that grade level.
It's interesting that you say that because one of the proposals in Florida is that teachers might be held accountable for students that they don't necessarily teach. How would you advise lawmakers to proceed with that as they're looking at this whole issue of evaluations and what evaluations need to do and not do?
One of the ways we did that in D.C. was we said a small percentage of the teachers' evaluation would be based on how the school as a whole did. It's only 5 percent of a teacher's evaluation, whereas 50 percent of their evaluation was based on their actual kids. I mean, I actually think it's actually important to have both a team and an individual dynamic. But I don't think that what that blogger did, which was to say Michelle Rhee didn't see the gains she told us she did and then taking a totally different group of children than the ones I was referring to. That makes absolutely no sense.
Some people I have talked to ... have said, Why listen to Michelle Rhee when the school system you were running is still considered to be one of the poorest in the country.
Yeah. I think that's valid. But what you need to look at is the gains we saw. We started out as one of the worst school districts in the country. Did we in three years' time become the best? No. But the district did not become the way that it is over three years, either. Over the three years that I was there, we saw really record gains in academic achievement on the NAEP examination, which is the national exam. We went from being last in the entire nation to leading the entire nation in gains in both reading and math at both the fourth and eighth grade levels. And we were the only jurisdiction in the entire country in which every single subgroup of children improved their academic standing. So, no one ever said the job was done. I think what people really see is that we had outsized gains for the period of time we were working because we were making such drastic changes.
When the people voted in the mayor's race didn't they vote you out, too, because of that?
Yeah. I mean I definitely think that in some part it was a referendum on school reform, because that was Fenty's No. 1 issue. I always said we have to take responsibility for the shortcomings we had, as well. We did not communicate as clearly as we could have ... with the teachers and that sort of thing. We definitely could have done that better.
Is there any one specific thing that you think Florida lawmakers ought to be sure, if they can only do one thing, that they do it?
I'd say if we narrowed it down to just one thing, to really keep going with the accountability system.
Any particular aspect of it?
No. I think the school level report cards are a good thing. I think the work they're doing around teacher evaluations is on the right track. I don't think it's any one thing.