Can we please stop listening to Michelle Rhee

In a new op-ed on the Huffington Post, Michelle Rhee goes into a long discussion of the problems with schools in poverty areas:

“It’s not easy to complete your homework if your electricity has been cut off, you don’t have a safe place to stay, you’re hungry, or your eyes are drooping because there isn’t an adult around most evenings to ensure you get adequate sleep. These are challenges most of us have never had to deal with, and there is no doubt principals and teachers in communities struck by poverty have much more difficult jobs than those who educate wealthier children. These educators absolutely need our support and deserve our respect and appreciation for the uphill climb they have chosen to take daily.”

Which she points out leads to:

“Schools that serve poor kids are much more likely than other schools to have high teacher-turnover rates, out-of-field teachers or long-term substitutes in their classrooms, and inequitable resource allocations. All of these factors contribute to lower student achievement levels,”

These are all genuine issues in low-income schools; I’d probably say that the overcrowding issue is also of paramount importance. But how does she recommend supporting our educators?

“and often they’re the result of obscure bureaucratic policies like last-in-first-out, seniority-based layoffs that force great teachers out of the classrooms in which they want to teach.”

I cannot think of any profession where years of experience doesn’t play pivotal role in your ability to perform the task. The problem with seniority based layoffs isn’t that there seniority based, it is that there are layoffs. Layoffs don’t come as a result of performance short-falls, they come from budgetary necessity. If there are performance issues then the employee should be let go, but it is an overhyped myth that the problem with our schools is that they are overrun with bad underperforming teachers. The difficulties with performance in low-income schools are substantially a result of the points Rhee made about the community environment. If we cloned a million Edward James Olmos’ from Stand and Deliver and dropped them into low income schools across the country but they still didn’t have access to books, and libraries, or were still not able to take their students on field trips, or offer after school programs as alternative ways of engaging the students and finding their potential, we’d still have failing schools, because the teacher is only part of the education equation.

Michelle Rhee is right on one thing though we do need to reward teachers in at needs schools by offering higher salaries. But again that would likely only curb the turnover rates. Increasing funding to low income schools for supplies and activities are also important. Colleges build sport franchises to obtain community engagement, not just for the enrolled, but for the Alumni, and the surrounding region. This pours not only money but attention to the school and makes getting an education there more desired. For low income schools this kind of community participation can make up for financial shortcomings. Now I’m not suggesting bringing college football to kindergarten, but I am saying that school and community are part and parcel to success. Spelling bees, Science fairs, Debate clubs, and Sports need to become part of the community identity. While the money spent on these activities have little to do with math and reading scores they have everything to do with a quality education.

2 comments for “Can we please stop listening to Michelle Rhee

  1. Eric
    September 5, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    No where in this post to you make a strong case for not listening to Michelle Rhee. You agree with her points, but put forth the idea that there are other issues that also need to be addressed. She mentions the great teachers that are subject to lay offs or the high turnover rates at the lower income area schools, but she doesn’t (at least in your selected quotations) hang the blame on BAD teachers, just on a system which doesn’t support merit over seniority.

    just saying

    • disengageauto
      September 5, 2012 at 4:57 pm

      But that is the entire assumption of the problems with seniority based layoffs, because you have to get rid of the least senior staff you’re firing good teachers to keep bad ones. The premise though is flawed, layoffs aren’t performance based, it’s not like regardless of budget surpluses schools have to layoff large numbers of teachers every year. It is only when budgets are squeezed do layoffs take place. So school performance has little to do with seniority rules.

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