A weekend interview with Michelle Rhee about parent trigger

Published Mar. 10, 2012

imgres.jpegThe parent trigger bill is dead in Florida for now, but not necessarily forever. Many people with power and influence are expected to keep pushing it forward, just as they did with other controversial education matters now law in Florida such as eliminating "tenure" and basing teacher evaluations on student test scores. One of the key parent trigger advocates has been former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who's served as an informal adviser to Florida Gov. Rick Scott and many other state governors. In an interview with the Gradebook conducted as the debate still raged on, Rhee contended that if parents are a key to student success, they must be given a more real role to play in their children's schools.

She rejected the arguments of the many parent organizations that opposed the measure, insisting the effort is not about giving charter schools more access to Florida. She said her StudentsFirst organization has thousands of other Florida parents who wanted the provisions of the "trigger" legislation. Asked if she wasn't just working on a Republican conservative cause backed by moneyed interests, Rhee simply stated that she's a Democrat who will take political and financial support from whoever shares her education views. Don't expect her or the views she espouses to disappear anytime soon, especially if the Florida Legislature retains the same political bent it has now. (Many of the Republican senators who helped stop the bill -- Fasano, Lynn, Dockery and Jones -- won't be back because of term limits. And the bill did overwhelmingly pass the House.) Here are excerpts from the interview.

The hot topic here in Florida is obviously the parent trigger. I'm interested in hearing your thoughts about ... why it has become such a controversial topic.

I think that it's interesting to see the pushback against it, particularly given the fact that a lot of the criticisms you hear nowadays when you're talking about public education is about parents and the need to get parents more involved. I've even heard people say, If we just had better parents then we'd have better kids. The thing that I think is important is that we can't say we want more parental involvement and engagement, but we only want it in certain ways. Right? We don't want to empower parents too much. Giving them information about the quality of the teachers they put their kids in front of every day, giving them some options on that front. Or give them the option to band together with other parents to turn around a school. I think it is disingenuous for people to say we want parents to be more involved but then to limit the way in which the involvement happens.

It's interesting that you mention first the part about knowing the teacher evaluations. That part seems to get completely ignored in the conversation.

I'll tell you why. A lot of the people who are against this law are trying to somehow demonize the law, and say it's about chartering schools and this kind of thing. It's not. What it's about is parent empowerment. And so they're going to conveniently leave out pieces of it. But I actually think that the heart of the thing is that if your child is being assigned to a classroom to a teacher who has been evaluated as ineffective, you actually have some options. You have the option to take your child out of the classroom and put in a virtual school with an effective teacher, and provide some protections and information to parents. I think that is something as parents we would all want. We would all want to have this information. It would seem very obvious to me that a parent would want to know if their child has been assigned to an ineffective teacher and that they have options. I think those are very common sense reforms. The fact that those parts of the bill are being ignored are hugely problematic.

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You ran a pretty big school system. I wonder just from a logistical point of view how easy it is to track students and teachers to make sure they're not in a teacher's classroom two years in a row who has had a specific evaluation. That's what I have heard is the biggest concern out of school districts on this bill.

You know, it should not be that difficult at all. A school district should be able to be keeping track of ineffective teachers and at the end of the day they should be doing that for a variety of reasons. If you have an evaluation system that allows for ineffective teachers to stay in the classroom for more than one year, then there are certain things a district should be obligated to do. Meaning that you should be providing that person with a lot of professional development to see if they can improve that practice. I would imagine that you'd want a lot of observations of that person, etc., so that making parents aware of it should be a relatively easy thing to do because the district should be tracking those people anyway for other reasons, regardless.

I think they were talking about the scheduling. I think with these new evaluations in Florida, the expectation is there are going to be a lot of teachers who will be rated as needs improvement. And there may be difficulties in getting all the kids into classrooms with teachers who are not.

How sad is that? You know what I am saying? It's a sad statement to say, We think it's going to be really complicated to ensure that a child has an effective teacher two years in a row. Or rather doesn't have an ineffective or minimally effective teacher two years in a row. ... That I think speaks volumes about how much work has to be done. Because we know as a society how much value comes from having a highly effective or effective teacher in front of our kids every single day. And if we have large numbers of ineffective and minimally effective teachers, and those numbers are so large that we can't actually guarantee that a kid isn't going to be trapped in one of these classrooms year in and year out, that to me speaks volumes about how much work we have yet do to.

Some of the questions related to the whole way the evaluations are being created, and whether they're fair, with the value-added model and the wheels on the bus being put on while the bus is rolling. Do you think that's a concern that is valid?

Well, what we know is that there is no perfect model. What I hear people say is that value-added models aren't perfect. We have a really weak, imperfect model that's in place in school districts right now. That's 100 percent subjective, based on one person's opinion of you. Right? So that is incredibly faulty. As we move to a better model, can we guarantee that it is going to be perfect, that it's not going to make any mistakes? No. Can we guarantee that it's going to be better than what we've got right now? Absolutely. So, I think we have to make sure that the perfect is not the enemy of the good on this front. ...

I got an email from a teachers union urging their members to call senators and urge them not to vote for this bill. And at the bottom it said, This bill is being pushed around the country by Jeb Bush and Michelle Rhee. Almost like your name is going to be a hot button, it's going to get people more upset. What do you think about your name being used like that?

I can't comment on the whys and hows of what the teachers unions decide to do or not do. I can't even make any guesses on that.

It sounds to me like they are saying if you're for it, they're against it. Do you run into that a lot?

I don't necessarily think I run into that particular dynamic. There are things that we advocate for that teachers are for. When I was in D.C., we raised teacher salaries tremendously. We put in place things that were critically beneficial to teachers, and teachers felt this was the first time they were ever heard in terms of their need for supplies and computers and that type of thing. So I don't think, I haven't heard a lot about that specifically. ...

Do you think the other criticism I hear is accurate, that parents who are not involved in their schools generally, should not be making these kinds of decisions, such as what kind of turnaround model their school should be using, because they probably don't know anyway?

That goes back to, okay, if you want more parental involvement, are you going to dictate exactly what that parental involvement will look like? We'll take your involvement if you are willing to come in and cut out letters in the back of the class, but we don't want your involvement if you're going to actually demand higher quality instruction for your kids? I mean, you can't do that. What we're saying is we want more parental involvement. We're not saying to the parents that you should come up with a school design plan and implement that. ... But should the parents be able to make a general choice between we would like to see this be a reconstitution of the school or a closure of the school vs. bringing in an external management provider, at that level, can parents make that type of decision? Absolutely they can.

Do you think this process could be hijacked, for lack of a better term? Like the way they describe it in California in some of those LA Times articles?

I think there is certainly the spectre of something like that happening. I think there are some things that can be put in place through the legislation and through the implementation of this law that can ensure tighter security in terms of how these things take place.

Is Florida's bill better on that front?

I think that every state that is considering taking this bill on has learned a lot from California regarding how loose or tight it was, and to make sure things are tighter. ... It should be done proactively before the process begins.