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Education Reform According to Michelle Rhee

Updated on August 20, 2013

Former DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee was a guest on Larry King Now. She promoted her book Radical and she is now the founder of Students First. Rhee shared her insights on the on going plan to reform inner city schools in the country. The US is currently ranked 14th in Reading, 17th in Science and 25th in Math. This is due to the fact that more than half of the employers cannot find people in the application pool who have skills and knowledge to fill in mission critical jobs. There is a disconnect between how we are training our next generation of students and what skills they need in the work force. There is a huge disparity in the performance level among black and white students. This gap hasn't been closed for 30 years. According to Rhee, we should focus on how we ensure the kids who grew up in inner city neighborhoods to get graduate education. Poverty is what stifles these kids from learning. If they don't have access to proper health care and lack good nutrition, it affects the learning process. Those children living in poverty deserve a high quality education. Rhee who was a DC school chancellor introduced new teachers' evaluation program. This is about employers training the teachers on professional development to become effective in the classroom. When Rhee came to DC, the DC Public Schools were the lowest performing schools in the country. Eight percent of the children in inner city schools were on eighth grade level in Math. To solve these problems, Rhee closed low performing schools, cut out bureaucracy, and took on unions.

According to statistics, the US spends billions of dollars on education. Unfortunately, we are not getting the kind of returns on investment that we needed. Some educators say that in order to fix the school system, we need more money to spend. But Rhee thinks otherwise. In DC, we spend 1 billion a year on education but only 400 million dollars are spent on classrooms. Majority are spent on bureaucracy. Rhee mentioned that we need to fix the foundation and fundamentals of the system to get different results. The Secretary of the Dept. of Education, Arne Duncan introduced a set of National Standards or the Common Core Academic Standards. He implemented the Race to the Top challenge. Instead of taking the money to the states to fund education, the states have to compete and introduce reforms in the system and not stick with the old formula.

For the last two to three decades, the policies implemented in education have been driven by special interests groups. The textbook manufacturers, the teachers' unions, and the testing companies have many resources and they use these resources to influence leaders to put certain laws in place. The problem lies in the lack of organized national groups with the same weight as teachers' unions that advocate the welfare of the students. Because of that, the landscape of education has been skewed. The focus was more on the needs of the adults than that of the children's.

Michelle Rhee introduced the term Dance of the Lemons. This is what happens when schools can't fire ineffective teachers and employees because of tenure rules. A principal has an ineffective employee and couldn't fire her so she will find a way to move them out of the school by hiring a teaching from another school. This is driven by union collective bargaining agreements which make it difficult to fire employees. There was a school scandal that rocked Atlanta a couple of months ago. The superintendent, Beverly Hall was indicted for racketeering theft and conspiracy. There was a statewide cheating scandal and hundreds of teachers were indicted. Rhee expressed that most teachers don't resort to illegal dealings. Rhee also stated that she is not anti- union. She came form a family of educators and that prompted her to set the bar so high for teachers to stay competitive in the classroom.

Rhee suggested changes in the education system. It is imperative for teachers to have access to resources to be effective in the classroom. In some schools, there are no basic pens and papers. Resources are vital to a teacher's teaching methods. We have to have accountability. We have to be sure that we are assessing teachers where they are effectively and if they are moving the children to the right direction. Effective teachers should be rewarded and praised. If they are proven otherwise, find another profession.

Larry King asked Rhee what makes a good teacher. She stated three rules. Rule no. 1 is to have high expectations for kids because kids are moldable. They either rise or fall from these expectations. Children will perform better if expectations are raised from the very beginning. Rule no. 2, a teacher should be willing to try anything. All kids are different. What works for another kid may not work for another individual. A teacher should be relentless in finding ways to reach out to a kid. Rule no. 3, a teacher should be goal-oriented. Always ask the question what is the outcome for these children?

During her term as DC school chancellor, Rhee lamented that she wasn't able to accomplish everything that she had hoped. This was because her term was cut short due to the fact that Mayor Adrian Fenty wasn't reelected. They wanted to stay there for 8 years. But in her four year career, DC was leading the nation in Math and Science.

An alarming statistic was shown that 20% of graduates of Harvard and Yale apply for Teach for America but they are mostly rejected. Teach for America is a good program. They place teachers in inner city schools for two years. What happens is that 60% of teachers stay in education while 20% become education advocates. Most low income students who top their class can't get into the best colleges and universities. The problem is exposure. We have young Latinas who are performing well but they don't apply in Harvard because they live in rural areas and haven't heard of Harvard or Yale. Educators should identify students and expose them to higher education.

The role of teachers in children's lives is crucial. The goal is to place highly effective teachers in the classroom to change the lives of children. Some students do not complete their degree and drop out of college. Rhee mentioned that college is not for everyone. We can't make decisions for kids early in their lives. We have to create a school system where children graduate with options in life. That is the option to go to college or go straight to the work force with proper and appropriate skills.

Rhee is having reservations about teachers carrying guns in school. As a former chancellor, that was not within her scope. But as a mother, it makes her nervous. We have to be creative in ensuring children's safety. She also mentioned that she is for effective charter schools and shut down the poor ones. There is a huge emphasis on standardized tests. Schools have to have a consistent way in measuring how kids are learning year to year. We need standardized tests, but not be obsessed with it. Some schools are totally wiping out physical education in their curricula. According to Rhee, research has proven that schools who have a broad based curriculum where they have access to art, P.E., and music perform better. Students develop a higher level of learning if they are exposed to the arts and physical education. The reason why these programs are eradicated is because of budget cuts.

The ideas shared by Michelle Rhee are game changers. If all the educators and legislators would implement the suggestions that Rhee mentioned, then our school system is close to perfection. The achievement gap between the haves and the have nots would be closed, the children from low-income neighborhoods would be performing well, there will be more funding for public schools, and the employers would hire more effective teachers.


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