Education Reform or Scapegoating?

Chancellor of D.C. schools Michelle Rhee is so hot right now. She's the subject of a lengthy profile in November's The Atlantic a month after they featured an interview with her. She's been name dropped by the likes of Joel Klein and President-elect (I can't say it enough) Obama. And today she was a primary focus in a NY Times article about her fight to take on teacher tenure in Washington, D.C.

Politicians love her because she's "scrappy" and willing to fight "special interests" to fix education in the nation's worst school district. That's all well and good when you're talking in obtuse language about education reform. However, when you look at it from where I'm standing, it's harder to see the "special interests" as so villainous when you know they're talking about the teachers unions.

Now, I'm a new teacher and I don't foresee this being a lifelong career. With that in mind I have less stake in the status quo. Furthermore, my interest in seeing a broken system fixed (not just in D.C. or the Bronx, but across the country) aligns me more closely with Rhee, Klein and other reformers than most veteran teachers. I have seen and heard firsthand the systemic problems in public education. I do believe that the system needs a fundamental overhaul and that innovative programs like Bloomberg's incentivization of test scores for parents, students and educators, while not a guaranteed fix, are worth trying.

That said, I cringed while reading the aforementioned articles, because I saw a very dangerous line being drawn between educators and superintendents. There is a confrontational "You're either with us, or agin'st us" undertone to Rhee's rhetoric and tactics. More often than not I felt teachers were under attack and were placed unfairly on the wrong side of the debate about education reform.

The most recent controversy about teacher tenure is a perfect example. Rhee paints the argument as a black and white issue in which teachers are refusing to give up tenure, because of an aversion to change. Worse yet, they're trying to protect bad teachers' jobs and they don't care if the kids suffer!

To convince veteran teachers to opt out of tenure Rhee is using a giant carrot in the form of a potential raise that would increase "star teachers' salaries to $130,000 by 2010." If the five anonymous corporations don't back out of their offer to fund this initiative this seems like an ideal solution. Unfortunately however, instead of using the tenure debate as an opportunity for substantive discussion about education reform, Rhee is using it as a negative talking point against teacher unions.

Are bad teachers part of the problem? Hell yes. Are they the only problem? Hell no. Bad schools often have bad leaders. The most dangerous result of dissolving tenure would be the end of a safety net for teachers who are unfairly or arbitrarily fired. With tenure such a scenario is virtually impossible. Without tenure there are administrators who can and will enforce a patronage system of sorts where loyalty and obedience are prized over dedication to the students and the craft of teaching. Rhee would do teachers and the discussion about reform in general a service to acknowledge these facts.

Ultimately it's likely that Rhee will get her way. It seems like she always does. However, she would benefit herself and her goals to tread more carefully on the feelings of teachers and the unions. There are plenty of enemies of reform as it is. She doesn't need to create more by alienating those who might otherwise be allies to her cause.


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