Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Conversation between Gary Rubinstein and Michelle Rhee

I thought this email conversation between Gary Rubinstein and Michelle Rhee was very instructive.  In Gary's email to Michelle, he makes a number of mistaken assumptions about what we reformers are about, in particular opposing LIFO ("firing ineffective veteran teachers who are making a lot of money", "the LIFO thing is just getting teachers to work to their full potential", "current reform ideas…will discourage people from wanting to become teachers"), which Michelle rebuts eloquently:


Hi Michelle,


Well, it has been a while since the 1996 institute.  I actually worked for you again when I was a trainer for the New York City Teaching Fellows for a few years.


I'm writing since I've been following the ed reform debate and I really want to see what the 'big picture' is with the studentsfirst organization.


I see the benefit of firing ineffective veteran teachers who are making a lot of money.  What I'm not convinced of is that there are a large percent of these ineffective veterans.  Do you have an estimate about what percent of veteran teachers are so ineffective?  Also, I don't have a good sense about how many layoffs can realistically happen for it to really make a difference whether there is LIFO or not.  There's a certain number of kids so we need a certain number of teachers.  Layoffs seem like something that would happen pretty infrequently unless the number of kids in the country is going to go down or if class size is going to increase.


I'm also wondering how much of the LIFO thing is just getting teachers to work to their full potential.  Is that the big picture?  That when teachers who have the potential to be effective feel a little more pressure since they don't have job security, they will work that much harder.  If this is the case, I could see it making some teachers work a little harder, maybe doing an extra hour of planning at home each day, but I don't see it making a huge difference.


The final thing that concerns me about some of the current reform ideas is that they will discourage people from wanting to become teachers.  While there might be some lazy people who get into teaching because of job security, there are also some hard-working people who become teachers, despite the low salary, knowing that in compensation for the low salary, they can feel secure that they will not lose their jobs just because they have a bad year.


Anyway, I'd be interested to hear what you think about my concerns.  I'm sure I'm not the first one to bring these up to you, so maybe you've already answered these elsewhere.  If so, just let me know.




Gary Rubinstein


Your reply:




Great to hear from you! I hope you are doing well. Have you had a chance to read our agenda online or check out the information on our site?


Regarding your questions about veteran teachers, we don't frame the situation in quite the same way. We're NOT out to fire or target veteran teachers who make a lot of money. Whether that would save money for the school system in the short term is not what we're focused on, nor would we be okay with that approach morally or legally.


Here is how we see it: in any economy, whether mass lay-offs are occurring or not, it makes no sense to let go of a teacher who is effective, over a teacher who is ineffective. And that is exactly what is happening under LIFO. Regarding your questions on potential layoffs, we already are seeing schools lay off teachers, and up to 160,000 teachers stand to lose their jobs this year (more on this is on our site if you're interested).


And to be clear, lay-offs are not a strategy we're advocating for at all. Though enrollment actually has been decreasing, lay-offs aren't happening for that reason, or to get teachers working to their full potential. They are happening because of the economy and declining revenues. I hate that lay-offs have to happen at all, but I also agree with legislators who remind us that we can't do what we can't pay for--we have to have money in the budget to pay for personnel. What we're saying at StudentsFirst in terms of LIFO is, okay, if you have to lay-off teachers, we don't love the idea. But if revenues are too low to support pre-recession staffing, it is our responsibility to kids to do everything possible to keep the BEST teachers in our schools. LIFO works against that.


Our approach is not even just focused on removing ineffective educators, not as a single reform or as the one solution that would solve our problems. We want state laws that allow states and districts to build excellent educational systems, which will require changes on a number of fronts. Though we're focused on LIFO right now, our agenda lays out a number of objectives that all have to make the difference together.


That said, in answer to your question about the percentage of ineffective teachers who are veterans, this information is not yet nationally available, mostly because definitions of effectiveness still vary state by state. Only now are states starting to include student achievement in teacher assessments. We were one of the first when we implemented such an assessment in DC, and I wouldn't use what we released on that percentage as an accurate national number (it was only the first year of the assessment when I left, so it has improved since we first implemented it).


For another model, Tennessee has been doing this work longer than any other state (and before DCPS) through William Sanders's work at the SAS Institute (see for more). See the last two pages (especially the last page) of the attached memo for more. It is from 2007-08 data based on teacher effectiveness scores, which in TN include just a teacher's value-added as measured by student achievement test results:


You will find some interesting trend lines when it comes to years of experience vs. effectiveness, especially when you compare schools by high/low minority or income.


In high poverty/minority schools, the percentage of ineffective veteran teachers (21+years) was greater than the percentage of ineffective new teachers (1-3 years)--about 22% to about 25%.  If you were a student in a high-needs school and assigned by random, you'd prefer getting the teacher with 1-3 years of experience over the 21+ year vet, statistically.


You could also check out Eric Hanushek's study on teacher effectiveness if you're interested. He found that if we were to replace the bottom 6 percent of teachers in terms of performance, and replace them with even just average teachers, student performance would skyrocket and bring us up in international rankings significantly.


Finally, about your concern that we may discourage people from entering teaching because people may be drawn to the profession because of the advantage of job security, I don't think we want to encourage that. Of course, we don't want to scare people away from teaching and believe we have to do more to value teaching by challenging teachers and holding them to high standards. But if we scare away the people who get into teaching for job security rather than student achievement, I don't mind that. However, I don't agree that many teachers fall into that category. I believe most get into teaching because they love kids and want to play a role in giving them the education they deserve.


What scares these talented young folks away from the profession is knowing that even if they invest their all into getting results for kids, and as a result are the best at what they do, they might be laid off first. Not being rewarded and recognized for doing a great job makes a difference to them just as it does in other professions.


I hope that addresses your questions and gives you an idea of our big picture. Feel free to read more on our website, where I hope you'll join as a member!


Michelle Rhee

Founder / CEO , StudentsFirst

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