Friday, February 24, 2012

Michelle Rhee's Unafraid To Stir Things Up, And Maybe That's Not So Bad

Though it's not my personal style (as you can tell from my comments above), I have tremendous admiration for Michelle Rhee and her confrontational approach and think it's a critical part of our movement.  Here's a great column in the Hartford Courant about her:

Everybody keeps talking about common ground and finding consensus during this year of education reform, but the arrival of lightning-rod education reformer Michelle Rhee is an important reminder for all of us.

Making real changes in how we run our public schools means plenty of folks won't be happy.

If you radically alter tenure, shift more money to urban districts, take over failing schools, start evaluating teachers based on test scores or add charter schools, somebody isn't going to like it. If you go further, such as making it easier to fire teachers, pay them based on test scores, end seniority rules or create a voucher program, you're asking for an epic fight.

That's fine, according to Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor-turned-national-organizer now working with a coalition of parent groups here. To Rhee, lukewarm compromise isn't what's needed in Connecticut.

"The problem is when you come up with a compromise that you believe is better than what you had before but it's not better than it should be,'' Rhee told me. "You haven't really solved the problem."

During her three-year run in D.C., Rhee raised test scores, closed schools, fired principals and teachers, and tied compensation to student performance. She's an outspoken Democrat, but her aggressive brand of reform also enraged the teachers union and prominent education reformers. She remains embroiled in controversy over test score gains under her leadership, even as StudentsFirst, the national group she founded two years ago, plays an increasingly prominent role around the country.

In contrast to the much-hyped teacher contract in New Haven, often held up as a model for how all sides can work together, Rhee says preserving "harmony among adults" should not be the priority.

"People criticized me all the time and said I was not collaborative enough,'' Rhee said. "If you can show me an example of a place where there was collaboration and everybody was on board … I would be more than happy to follow that model. Every time I have seen a collaborative approach taken and celebrated, the result was watered down."

..."For far too long the adults have been willing to turn a blind eye do the injustice in the classroom,'' Rhee said. "When it comes to kids' lives and their futures I don't feel that is negotiating material."

I don't like the bitter conflict between Rhee and the teacher unions because it distracts from real problems, like third graders who haven't learned to read. Union leaders — and the teachers they represent — are an essential part of any reform plan for Connecticut.

But Rhee has got something this stagnating state could use a lot more of: a burning, relentless drive to change the status quo. Her presence might actually force us to do something.


Michelle Rhee's Unafraid To Stir Things Up, And Maybe That's Not So Bad

Says 'Collaborative Approach' In Education Can Dilute True Reform

Rick Green, Hartford Courant

8:04 p.m. EST, February 15, 2012,0,4954953.column

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