The Spectacle Blog

Awaiting Her Rheeturn

By on 10.18.10 | 1:49PM

Roger Kaplan's article this morning is a thoughtful meditation on how far our public schools are from providing real education, when we consider outgoing DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee a hero of education reform. That is, kids in DC's public school system are not learning music, speaking foreign languages, or playing sports any better than they were before Rhee started her program. 

While Kaplan is absolutely right that in the vast scheme of things Rhee's accomplishments are paltry, at the same time she must be judged relative to her peers. On that basis, Rhee was successful, if only for firing teachers and otherwise making them more accountable for their students' progress. 

One of the underlying beliefs of pro-market education reform, at least as I understand it, is that incentives are important. By firing a significant amount of teachers, and bargaining for contracts that included merit-based compensation, Rhee introduced some small measure of accountability into the DC public school system. In doing so, she took the first step in aligning the teachers' interests with the kids'. 

In today's US, this counts as a real accomplishment. Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote a good article for Reason putting Rhee's record in context. Mangu-Ward begins the article: 

American public school teachers don't get fired. They just don't. In New York City, hundreds of teachers spend all day in "rubber rooms" because they're deemed too dangerous or stupid to supervise children but can't be booted because they have union-protected tenure. In crisis-ridden California, the mildest of threats from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to cut back on teaching staffs led to an immediate rebuke from the White House.

So when 266 teachers were unceremoniously canned in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2009, the educators of America collectively slid their glasses down their noses and glared at the District of Columbia. Although 266 firings might not seem like a lot in a country that has lost 8.4 million jobs since December 2007, they could turn out to be more important to the nation's long-term health than the $150 billion "jobs bill" legislators were debating on Capitol Hill.

In other words, Rhee made teachers who were previously rewarded even if they failed at everything accountable for at least a few things, such as test scores. While the narrow goal of improving scores on tests is indeed a far cry from offering kids a genuine, rounded education, what Rhee has done in DC is really outstanding for a head of a big-city school system. 

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