This past week’s Time Magazine paints a poignant portrait of Michelle Rhee’s efforts as the chancellor of the DC Public Schools to transform her beleaguered school district. In some ways Rhee’s dual-pronged focus on 1) paying teachers based on once-a-year, multiple-choice standardized tests and 2)getting rid of tenure in order to rid the system of “incompetent” educators is understandable. Students' learning (not the needs of adults) is what matters most in school reform and any teacher who does not teach (as implied by an anecdote in the article) has no business being in a classroom.
The well-written article begins and ends with the story of Allante Rhodes, a student at Anacostia Senior High School, who eloquently describes what has changed and what has remained the same under Ms. Rhee’s two-year rein as the district’s top educator. While out-dated computers now work properly for word processing and students consistently don their uniforms, his school is still poorly managed, the building is in disrepair, and teaching does not seem to be any better. Perhaps there is more to school reform.
But here is what is most striking: Rhee’s efforts to transform teaching are presented in a unidimensional light:
- Great teachers are in “total control” and are willing to “quiz kids on their multiplication tables;”
- Teachers need to be paid more when they raise student test scores; and
- Tenure needs to be eliminated in order to get rid of incompetent teachers.
I understand the urgency of now and Rhee’s impatience. Her focus on students is on point. However:
- Mastering the basics of math does not preclude learning how to use and create knowledge — and great teachers also know how to help their students take control of their own learning.
- Paying teachers for performance does not mean that student test scores should be the sole measure — especially when helping students master 21st century skills are the coin of the realm and cognitive scientists have proven that focusing on creativity can enhance student acquisition of the 3Rs.
- Eliminating rigid tenure rules might be more acceptable if teachers trusted administrators to be fair or even knowledgeable of good teaching — or better yet if the district’s best teachers were more involved in evaluating their peers.
Talented teachers need more than a few weeks of boot camp training in order to be effective to teach in high need schools. (Check out the Residency model we highlight in a recent report). Talented teachers need the teaching tools, resources, and working conditions that allow them to be great. School reform does not have to be either-or; it can be and/both. In fact, it must be if we are going to improve schools and the teaching profession. I wonder why this lesson is so hard for school leaders and policymakers to learn.
What are other areas where you see education policy choosing either/or approaches, when what our students really need are both/and strategies?