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Dan Brown

Dan Brown

Posted March 23, 2009 | 02:50 PM (EST)

Hey. Nicholas Kristof and Michelle Rhee! Teachers Are the Keys, Not the Roadblocks to Reforming Schools


Nicholas Kristof's effusive essay on DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee left me with a sour taste. Here are a few snippets from Kristof's piece, in which he touts Rhee as gutsy and clear-eyed, and deserving of President Obama's firm support. (Marks of emphasis are mine.)


...Ms. Rhee, 39, who became Washington's sixth school superintendent in 10 years, has ousted one-third of the district's principals, shaken up the system, created untold enemies, improved test scores, and -- more than almost anyone else -- dared to talk openly about the need to replace ineffective teachers...

... The reform camp is driven partly by research suggesting that great teachers are far more important to student learning than class size, school resources or anything else. One study suggests that if black kids could get teachers from the profession's most effective quartile for four years in a row, the achievement gap would disappear.

As a result, Ms. Rhee has proposed that teachers surrender some job protections in exchange for the chance to earn more money...

...Washington's children shouldn't suffer indefinitely in broken schools just because of a collective-bargaining stalemate. It would help if President Obama firmly backed Ms. Rhee.

Wait a minute. Rhee is earning props for her hard-charging, shake-things-up, take-no-prisoners (take your pick of aggressive management-speak) style, but she's off-base by disproportionately focusing education reform efforts on firing lots of educators. Rhee's plan presupposes that there is a significant population of crappy teachers who have no business being in a classroom. And those space-wasters need to get the boot, ASAP! (Insert high-blown "for the kids' sakes" rhetoric here.) The reality is that painting all DC teachers with this broad brush of failure by association to a suffering system actually hampers efforts to improve schools.

It's also a myth that there is a shadow population of GREAT TEACHERS, touched with something like fairy dust, waiting in the wings to sweep in and replace the mass of self-serving BAD TEACHERS. Then "reformers" like Rhee can finally kick the union's doors down and throw those despicable baddies out by their collars. Accepting this false scenario, one can easily make the leap to cheerleading Rhee's entire package of reforms, which touts teacher scapegoating over comprehensive support.

The reality is that GREAT TEACHERS start out as green rookies, and they develop into greatness via reflection, experience, and institutional support. Great teachers are cultivated, not ordained. Teleporting the senior class of Harvard into all high-needs classrooms for a couple years won't solve the achievement gap; recruiting, training, and supporting a long-term corps of bright individuals who are dedicated to their craft will. This means keeping, not demonizing, the massive wealth of talented people currently laboring in struggling schools.

And what kind of schools are we setting ourselves up for when we expel teachers whose students don't meet certain benchmarks on standardized tests? Who will want to work with struggling or high-needs students, the ones who may make extraordinary progress in a school year with a dedicated teacher-- even if it's not the kind of progress you'll find on a Scantron report?

Rhee has turned up the volume on her desire to root out teachers, but lost in the noise is the fact that firing bad teachers--Rhee's centerpiece-- is only a tiny part of the massive puzzle of improving public education. (John McCain's disproportionate obsession with earmarks comes to mind as a similarly misguided fixation.)

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The vast majority of teachers welcome accountability. Teachers also welcome recognition for excellence and fair consequences for falling short. True, the old tenure system in many districts is too ironclad. True, more people, following due process, should likely be shown the door. But as someone who has taught in public, private, and charter schools in New York City and Washington, D.C., I have met very few of these deadweights over whom Michelle Rhee is ginning up so much heat. It's a small minority that needs to go, and it doesn't mean the union should be shredded in the process, as Rhee seeks to do. (This is coded in Kristof's essays as "surrender some job protections.")

With administrative support, competitive pay, manageable teaching loads, and substantive professional development, the vast majority of teachers can boost their students' achievement, and be deservingly considered GREAT TEACHERS.

Nicholas Kristof is an important writer and activist. By giving a platform last year to Chicago teacher Will Okun, whose brilliant photo-essays on the New York Times website reached thousands of readers, he elevated the discourse in the mainstream media on education. On this issue, though, I'm worried by his rush to support mass ejections of hardworking, under-supported teachers.

The "Bad Teachers Everywhere" fallacy, pressed forward by Michelle Rhee, provides a dramatic and available villain in the education reform struggle. Unfortunately, it's not the right solution to what ails our schools.

Dan Brown is a teacher in Washington, D.C. and the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle. He is not a member of any teachers' union.