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Rhee: To Fix Schools, Honor Good Teachers, Identify And Fire Bad Ones

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MACKINAC ISLAND (WWJ) – Controversial education reformer Michelle Rhee says there are hundreds of thousands of wonderful teachers in America who do “heroic” work.

But that doesn’t mean ineffective teachers shouldn’t be identified and fired, Rhee told the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference.

She also criticized the hypocrisy of politicians who she said allow conditions for other people’s children they would never, ever accept for their own.

Speaking of the Michigan Education Achievement Authority, created by Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to take over low-performing public schools, Rhee said: “If you are willing to have your child in a failing public school in Detroit, you can be against vouchers and the EAA.”

Rhee said the malaise in public education in America goes beyond poor-performing urban schools. She said this year’s SAT scores are the lowest in the history of the exam, and American students rank 14th, 27th and 25th globally in reading, science and mathematics, respectively. She said today’s students will be the first generation to be less educated than their parents.

Rhee left the Washington, D.C. district after just three years and now leads StudentsFirst, an education reform lobbying group that calls for more charter schools, vouchers, performance evaluations for teachers, and the end of seniority to determine teacher layoffs and rehirings — moves that are anathema to teacher unions.

Rhee never mentioned teacher unions in her presentation. In a question and answer session, she did fault modern American values that emphasize sports and entertainment.

Speaking of the NBA playoffs, she said she thinks it’s “ridiculous that men make 12 million dollars a year to dribble a ball around a little room. The best teachers in this country should get paid 12 million dollars a year because we know the value they have to society. Think about how skewed the values of this country are.”

Rhee said she didn’t think an emphasis on test scores to determine student achievement — and therefore the fate of their teachers’ careers — would lead to widespread cheating on those tests. (There were allegations of test cheating in Washington, D.C. after she left the district.) She said she was a “huge believer” in the honesty of teachers and that there would be only “a handful of people who make the wrong decision.”

Teacher evaluation, she said, should measure student progress, controlling for things that are outside the teacher’s control, such as special education status or English language status or attendance.

Rhee gave three major points to improving education.

First, she said, “We need to begin to honor the teaching profession and respect teachers for the incredibly difficult job they do every day.” She said she found it “incredibly alarming” that there’s even a discussion about whether teachers matter.

Rhee offered a lengthy anecdote about a surprise school visit when she was Washington, D.C. superintendent to a school in a poor neighborhood, where she saw one teacher who held a class of 30 absolutely spellbound and terrific learning was taking place — while across the hall, there was chaos.

“There were two very different educational experiences in that same dilapidated school,” she said. “You cannot tell me that teachers don’t matter. They matter tremendously. We as a country have to think about what we do to ensure there is a highly effective teacher in front of every classroom every day. Michigan has begun to make some very important strides toward this.”

Second, Rhee said, “we need to recapture the American competitive spirit. As a country we have gone completely soft. We spend more time in this country trying to make our children feel good about themselves and we have lost sight of actually trying to make them good at anything.”

In several anecdotes she berated the “participation ribbon” culture in which every child is made to feel like a champion.

“We are not doing the children of our nation any favors by celebrating mere mediocrity and participation, ’cause I can tell you, that’s not how they operate in Korea,” Rhee said. “You get a ranking in your class and you know it and your parents know it and it’s all about getting better … If we tell our children they are doing great by just showing up then we are not giving them the tools they need to be competitive in the global marketplace.”

Rhee came out strongly for the national Common Core Curriculum, saying it’s come under fire from the right and left — from the right, for suspicion about federal mandates.

Said Rhee: “You know you should not like worse than the federal government telling you what to do? You should not like the fact that China is kicking our butt right now.”

Third, Rhee said, “we have to begin to see education as a bipartisan issue. An issue that all of us can come together around.”

She said she, as a lifelong Democrat, came to support vouchers after talking to parents — mostly single mothers — in Washington, D.C., who didn’t want to send their children to public schools where tests showed only 10 percent of children achieve at grade level.

“None of them wanted anything more for their kids than what I want for my kids, and I thought, ‘Who am I to stop this lady from taking a $7,500 voucher and going to a Catholic school down the street and getting a great education?'” Rhee said. “So I came out for the voucher program and people went nuts.”

But Rhee said she viewed her job as Washington, D.C. Chancellor of Schools this way: “My job is not to preserve and protect and defend a system that is doing a disservice to children. My job is to make sure every child in the district gets a great education, and I am agnostic as to the delivery mechanism.”

Rhee said that despite what her critics claim, she still believes strongly in public education.

“I believe that public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in our country,” she said. “It’s supposed to be the thing that it ensures it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor or black or white. That is not the reality for the vast majority of children living in our inner cities today. If you live in Bloomfield Hills or if you live in Detroit, you are getting two wildly different educations. That is the biggest social injustice imaginable.”

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