Tiger Rhee

In Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, Michelle Rhee touts her skills at firing people — and buying them off — writes Naomi Schaefer Riley in a Wall Street Journal review of the book.

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To get union approval for performance pay and a new teacher evaluation system, Rhee raised millions of dollars from foundations.

Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty backed Rhee — and lost his bid for re-election. Rhee resigned from the chancellorship and founded StudentsFirst to lobby for school reform.

The daughter of Korean immigrants, Rhee “was urged by her Tiger Mom to go to law school,” writes Riley. Instead, she volunteered for Teach for America.  She almost quit after her first year at a tough Baltimore school, but her father told her to finish what she’d started. In her second year, she asked for advice from the best teachers and found new ways to “push her students harder and keep them interested.”

As chancellor in D.C., Rhee “became livid” when she learned a sign at a Washington school that read: “Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do,” Riley writes. As a Tiger Reformer, Rhee thinks effort always pays off.

When she was a child, Rhee attended school in Seoul, South Korea for several months, she writes in Radical. Every child in her class of 70 was ranked, publicly. “Rather than damaging the souls of the less accomplished, the rankings focused every family on moving their children up the ladder.”

Rhee’s D.C. legacy

The Education of Michelle Rhee will run on PBS’ Frontline tonight.

Rhee’s group, Students First, gave low grades to states on education reform: No state got an A and 11 failed. The two highest-ranking states, Florida and Louisiana, received B-minus grades.

States will vote on vouchers, charters, ed reform

Across the nation, voters will have a chance to change state education policies, notes the Hechinger Report.

A ballot initiative in Florida would amend the Constitution to allow religious schools to receive vouchers.

Georgia is voting on a special commission to authorize new charters.

Washington voters have rejected charter schools three times, but another charter measure is on the ballot, along with a “trigger” that would let a majority of parents, or teachers, vote to convert their traditional public school into a charter.

Idaho’s teachers union hopes voters will reject three recently passed education laws.

Proposition 1 aims to repeal a law mandating that 50 percent of teacher evaluations be tied to student growth – an increasingly common policy nationwide. The law also abolished teacher tenure, limited collective bargaining and eliminated incentives for early retirement. Proposition 2 would end Idaho’s new merit pay plan, which provides bonuses for teachers and administrators based on student growth on standardized tests. The law also allows for bonuses to be given to teachers who take hard-to-staff positions or leadership roles. And if a majority vote yes on Proposition 3, a law mandating that all students take two online classes before graduating high school will be repealed.

Voters in Maryland will decide on in-state tuition at public universities for undocumented immigrants.

Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett’s re-election campaign is “being watched nationally as a referendum on reform,” Fordham’s Mike Petrilli told AP. “If Tony Bennett can push this type of aggressive reform agenda and win, it will give a big lift to other politicians eager to enact similar reforms.” Indiana now has the biggest voucher program in the country.

Also keep an eye on Michigan, where a union-sponsored measure would put collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution. That would block education reforms, argues Michelle Rhee, who’s put Students First PAC money into the “no” campaign.

Education upstarts

“Education policy has long featured two players—the government and teachers unions,” writes Rachel Brown in The Atlantic.  Now Education Upstarts have “stepped up to lobby legislators and drive the conversation.” Among them: 

Graphics by Kiss Me I’m Polish

Stand for Children

Who: Co-founder and CEO Jonah Edelman is the son of the civil-rights leader Marian Wright Edelman.

What: The most grassroots of these groups. Leads efforts to lobby state governments for reforms such as value-added teacher evaluations and more-equitable school funding.

 

Democrats for Education Reform

Who: Bankers, CEOs, and other wealthy Democrats. Adviser Cory Booker lends liberal star power.

What: Offers political cover to Democratic politicians who alienate teachers unions by supporting education reforms such as mayoral control of schools and national curriculum standards. Has helped loosen the unions’ grip on the party.

Michelle Rhee’s Students First ”has yet to establish itself as a major player on the policy front,” despite Rhee’s high profile, writes Brown.b

Can our students compete?

U.S. athletes will go for gold in the Olympics, but U.S. students aren’t competing well in the global arena, argues Michelle Rhee in promoting a new Students First video.

The U.S. never has scored well on international exams, notes Gary Rubenstein.

In the 1964 FIMS test, we were 11th out of 12. These tests are not predictors of future economic strength, obviously since our students from 1964 have helped make the U.S. economy very strong.

U.S. schools score well when compared to schools in countries with similar poverty levels, he adds.

Lawsuits on the western front

It seems like it’s a tougher time today than in days past to be a teachers’ union.   They are on the defensive all over the country.  From the public union battle royale in Wisconsin, to New York’s release of value-added data over union howls of rage (with the accompanying spectre of an implemented evaluation process), to the revolt of the urban mayors… teachers’ unions are under various sorts of legal, political, and institutional attack all over the country.

Out here in California, Students Matter has launched a lawsuit to strip away many of the institutional protections that teachers possess.  Howard Blume tells us all about it:

A Bay Area nonprofit backed partly by groups known for battling teachers unions has filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn five California laws that, they say, make it too difficult to dismiss ineffective teachers.

The suit, filed on behalf of eight students, takes aim at California laws that govern teacher tenure rules, seniority protections and the teacher dismissal process.

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The group behind the legal action is the newly formed Students Matter. The founder is Silicon Valley entrepreneur David F. Welch and the group’s funders include the foundation of L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad.

The suit contends that teachers can earn tenure protections too quickly — in two years — well before their fitness for long-term employment can be determined. The suit also seeks to invalidate the practice of first laying off less experienced teachers during a budget crisis, rather than keeping the best teachers. And it takes aim at a dismissal process that, it alleges, is too costly, too lengthy and typically results in ineffective teachers holding on to jobs.

I’m uneasy about litigating what are essentially public policy questions in courts.  It’s not really what they’re designed to do, and they generally don’t do a good job of it.  (See, e.g., the consent decree for San Francisco public schools.)  But at the same time, sometimes it’s the only option left to people.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, to push too heavily against public employee union interests here in California.

Blume does an able job in his article tying this lawsuit to the overarching issue of teacher quality, and implying (correctly, I think) that this is part of a larger pushback against unions in general.

It’s not clear to me that these sorts of protections are going to help with teacher quality, though.  Procedural changes will only get you marginal improvements here and there.  If teacher quality is a serious concern (and I’m not 100% sure it’s a problem, though it seems plausible) then what you should really do is address the substantive issue: get a different sort of teacher ex ante.  To use an analogy: if the cars you build are not loved by the consumer, you have two options: increase your quality control, or design a better product.  And the unions wouldn’t have as much political leverage if you tried to tighten up teacher qualifications — indeed, they might support it so long as you grandfathered in all the existing teachers.  I’ve never met a union that didn’t like barriers to entry.

Governors, mayors target teacher tenure

Republican governors in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada and New Jersey are trying to dismantle teachers’ tenure protections, reports the New York Times. Democratic mayors, such as Cory A. Booker in Newark and Antonio R. Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, also want to make it easier to fire ineffective teachers.

Michelle Rhee‘s new advocacy group, Students First, is campaigning against tenure. Even the teachers’ unions claim they’re open to reform, reports the Times.”The American Federation of Teachers endorsed a sweeping law in Colorado last year that lets administrators remove even tenured teachers who are consistently rated as ineffective.”

LA settlement limits layoffs by seniority

Up to 45 Los Angeles schools will be protected from teacher layoffs under a settlement approved last week of a lawsuit that charged seniority-based layoffs disproportionately hurt high-poverty schools, which tend to be staffed by young teachers. In addition, “layoffs in the district’s other 750 schools must be spread more equitably,” even if that means some senior teachers could lose their jobs, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The teachers’ union will appeal the order.

Seniority-based layoffs are under attack across the country.

“This year, if we are forced to lay off teachers, we will be forced to lay off some of the most effective, and keep some of the least effective,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a speech this week. “It’s not right. It’s not fair. And it’s not something we can allow to happen.”

Some hard-hit districts may have to lay off 15 to 20 percent of teachers, writes Michelle Rhee, founder of Students First,  in a New York Times op-ed. They should keep the best teachers, regardless of seniority, she writes. Twelve of the 50 states now “allow school administrators to consider teacher effectiveness in making layoff decisions.”

Ending last-in, first-out layoff policies is the priority of former NYC schools chief Joel Klein, who’s joined Education Reform Now as board chairman.