Links to the rest of this series here
I first met Michelle Rhee, the reformer’s reformer, back in the summer of 1996. At the time I was working for the TFA summer institute in Houston. Though I was one year ‘ahead’ of her (I was a 1991 corps member and she was a 1992 corps member), she was several levels ahead of me by then. I was a CMA (corps member adviser) and she was second in command of the entire institute. I didn’t interact with her much for most of the summer. There were a lot of cliques in TFA there and the ‘higher staff’ didn’t mingle a lot with the CMAs.
Back then, I remember, I was having trouble getting along with my immediate supervisor, a school director named Charlie. Charlie had only taught three years and since I had taught four, I guess, I felt that he shouldn’t be micro-managing what I was doing. This led to a big conflict early in the institute when at the opening ceremony I was asked to represent the 1991 corps in a typical TFA thing where one person from each corps tells why they joined TFA and why they are still a part of it. I wrote a draft, which needed to be approved by Charlie, which included a joke about how I joined TFA, in part, because I wasn’t ready to go to law school. He said I couldn’t say that since this wasn’t the time to be joking and I said that if I couldn’t make the joke than I wasn’t going to do the speech. Well, he backed down but as a result of this conflict I stopped talking to him unless it was completely necessary.
A few days later when I was at my placement school I got a surprise visit from Michelle Rhee. I was at a picnic table and she sat next to me and said, “Can I take you to lunch?” Though she was many years away from getting infamous for firing people, I still got the sense that I was in a lot of trouble. She led me to her car and she started driving me to the restaurant. She was silent so I tried to break the silence with a joke — a reference to The Godfather Part II. I said “You’re not taking me to Reno to shoot me, are you?” She didn’t respond. Maybe not a Godfather fan. Maybe it just wasn’t a great joke. We got seated at the place, Mexican, I think, and she suddenly became a lot more animated. I think she said “So what’s going on?” I started telling her about the problem I had with Charlie and she was a pretty good listener, actually. I felt a little better as she offered me ‘validation’ and then she asked if I thought I might start talking to my supervisor again, and I said I would try, which I did. Michelle actually did a nice job of intervention — something that might surprise people who know her as the big bad ‘Rhee.’
Throughout the next 15 years I saw Michelle at various TFA events, but never spoke to her, as far as I can remember. When I worked for The New York City Teaching Fellows I was aware that Michelle was the head of The New Teacher Project, but she was in D.C. so I never had any contact with her, though I was working under her again. When she was appointed Chancellor of D.C. schools in 2006, I didn’t know, then, how extreme she was with her views on improving schools. I saw her on Oprah, I read about her in TIME magazine. Still, it wasn’t until ‘Waiting For Superman’ came out that I started getting actually worried that Michelle had become the ‘leader’ of a reform movement that I considered to be dangerous. Over the past year and a half, I’ve written her a few emails and she has always responded, sometimes within five minutes. We haven’t gotten very deeply into the issues, but I’ve appreciated that she was willing to ‘engage’ with someone who is an opponent of some of her ideas. One of our exchanges was posted, with permission, on Whitney Tilson’s email list once, but I haven’t ever put anything she ever wrote to me on my blog.
With this context, I’ve written part 7 of my Open Letters Series (to end the suspense, the 8th and final one will be to Wendy Kopp).
I hope you’re doing well and are getting a chance to take a few days off. Putting students first all the time is not good for one’s longevity. Sometimes you’ve got to put your family or yourself first, I’m sure you agree.
For the past couple of months, I’ve been writing these letters to people I’ve known over the years. Though I suppose that of the nine people I’m writing to, you’re the person who I know the least, only working together that one summer 16 years ago, and haven’t had much contact with since then.
Still, I’m pretty optimistic that you will respond since I think it will be very easy for you to respond. Whereas all the other people, I think, are hesitant that they may inadvertently write something that you wouldn’t approve of, that isn’t something that you will have to worry about. Also, I think you are most confident about what you stand for, so I’m hoping you’re willing to respond and possibly your response will contain some more insight into the nuances of what you think, beyond the usual soundbites that are a necessary part of your T.V. and radio appearances.
Aside from the time you supervised me when I worked as a trainer at the 1996 institute, I also worked for The New York City Teaching Fellows for a few summers in the early 2000s. I found that organization to be well run and the staff to be generally on top of things, which was to your credit. The Teaching Fellows, for a time, purchased thousands of copies of my first book to distribute to the teachers-in-training. I don’t know if you authorized that, or were even aware of it, but if you did approve it, I appreciate that.
Michelle, I want you to know that I ‘get’ what frustrates you about education in this country. Yes, there are some ‘bad’ teachers out there. Yes, it is not easy to fire teachers under most union contracts. And, yes, there are surely some ‘bad’ schools out there with a tipping point of ‘bad’ teachers and also ‘bad’ administrators. Like a money pit car, it is a lot more efficient to scrap them then to try to fix them. But what bothers me about the StudentsFirst platform is that I truly believe that the solutions you offer will, in the long run, do more harm than good. My fear is that these reforms will not lead to increased student achievement and will, as a side effect, lead to massive teacher shortages as few will want to work in a job that has so little stability.
I’m not the only person, you are well aware, who feels this way. The opposition to some of what you are doing is fairly large and since you must respect at least some of those people — we are not all union shills (I know that I’m not one) — that I wonder if you sometimes have any moments of self-doubt. I base my feelings on the research I’ve done and find that I disagree with you on several of your key pillars of your education reform ideas. If I were to summarize what I think your key beliefs are, I’d say they are: 1) Our education system is, as a whole, failing. 2) There should be a ‘great’ teacher in front of every class, 3) Parents should have many high quality choices of where to send their kids to schools, and 4) Laws and union contracts that protect teachers with tenure, LIFO layoffs, and evaluations that do not count, as a factor, student learning are things that harm students as the needs of the adults are put ahead of the needs of the students.
1) I’m not convinced that our schools are ‘failing.’ Depending on what statistics you want to use, either point of view can look correct. You have gotten a lot of mileage out of the PISA scores, but I’ve seen plenty of analysis of those same scores that paint a different picture. Regardless, though, of how broken or not-broken the education in this country is right now, I believe that we would both agree that it can be improved and that it is very worthwhile to pursue improving it.
2) But to improve it, we have to truly identify what the weaknesses of it are. You have said and written much about how a big problem is the number of ‘bad’ teachers out there who are protected by their tenure and by the fact that they are not held accountable for how much their students learn. If we could change the laws, you suggest, to rid ourselves of these teachers, achievement in this country will rise significantly. Education research, unfortunately, is as much of an art as a science and there are studies you’ve quoted that say that ‘great’ teachers teach three times as much as ‘bad’ ones (Hanushek 1992) and also research that says that having three great teachers in a row will close the achievement gap (Jordan 1997). I carefully read both of these reports and found serious problems with both of them. More than anything, though, the conclusions they make run counter to what I’ve experienced in schools.
Now I’ll agree that there are teachers who are more talented than other teachers. After teaching for fifteen years, I hope that I’m one of the more talented ones. But I’ve also experienced, first hand at times, the limitation of teachers to overcome some external factors, particularly things like mental illness, including things like depression. A question I’d like to ask you is: What percent of teachers, do you think, are ‘great’ in that they truly cover a year and half worth of material in a year and that three such teachers consecutively will close the achievement gap? I’ve met some great teachers in my time in schools, but I can’t say I’ve met any that I think accomplish this.
I know the theory is that if we ‘reward great teachers’ with merit pay that everyone will try a lot harder and that in doing so some average teachers might become great teachers and some ineffective teachers might become average teachers. I do think that great teachers get rewarded. Many schools have ‘lead teacher’ positions where a great teacher can make extra money by mentoring other teachers and sharing his or her best practices. I’m not convinced, though, that the current type of teacher evaluations gauge teacher quality accurately enough to be used for these purposes. Also, I’m not convinced that the benefits of giving bonuses to certain teachers, especially based on a flawed pseudo-scientific formula, outweighs the problems associated with it. (Things like competition hindering collaboration and great teachers who are not evaluated as ‘great’ by the metric leaving the system because they think it is unfair.)
3) As far as school choice goes, as a parent of two kids myself, I wouldn’t like it if my students were ‘trapped’ in a school with a majority of uncaring teachers and administrators. Fortunately for me, I can afford to move if I really needed to (thank you lock-step seniority pay raises!). But what concerns me about this current ‘choice’ movement is that it is really just an illusion. From my research I’ve concluded that parents in poor community may have ‘choice,’ but those choices are about the same in quality as the schools they are escaping. Some schools, particularly some charter schools, have found ways to make themselves ‘seem’ like they are doing significantly better than the nearby ‘failing’ school, but when I’ve really looked deeply into the numbers I’ve found these schools to generally have a lot of student attrition and even with that, have pretty low standardized test scores. I visited my first high profile charter high school recently and, without getting into too many details, I was not very impressed.
My concern is that many of these schools are duping the public into giving them a lot of money to work their miracles. This wouldn’t be so bad if their exaggerations were victimless crimes, but there are victims. To make room for these schools there must be, as there are in several cities, mass closings of the neighborhood failing schools. I believe that even if there is a slight benefit to having these ‘high-performing’ charter schools, even if they get their results, in part, by ridding themselves of some of the toughest to teach kids, the benefit is far outweighed by the turmoil that comes with shutting down neighborhood schools and displacing the students and also even firing the staffs. The other schools, from what I’ve seen, just aren’t good enough to justify this ‘disruption.’
I’m also not convinced that the supposed ‘gains’ we see in ‘reform-minded’ cities like Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., and New Orleans are due to the reforms or if they would have had similar gains, if not greater ones, if different reforms were pursued.
4) The name ‘StudentsFirst’ implies that your organization has beliefs counter to people who think that the needs of adults should sometimes come before the needs of students. The name is well chosen to convey this idea. It is hard for someone to say “I disagree with the policies supported by StudentsFirst” without sounding like some kind of jerk, but I can say, without shame, that all teachers, even the great ones, often make decisions that put their own needs above those of their students. For example, it would be putting students first if every teacher were to donate 75% of their salaries back to the school. This would enable the school to purchase the latest technology, more books, and even hire more teachers to get the class sizes down to what there are in elite private schools. But it would be wrong to criticize teachers for not wanting to do this. Teachers are very giving people. Despite claims that we are on easy street, we have a tough job and many great teachers would not have become teachers without some of the benefits that go along with it. We are not indentured servants.
As a parent I might ‘need’ to leave school each day at 4:00 PM to pick up my kids at daycare. If I have a union contract that says that I can’t be asked to stay past 4:00 PM, despite the fact that it might benefit my students if I were to stay until 5:00 PM or 6:00 PM each day, then I am not a selfish teacher who is only thinking about his own needs. I’m a person with a life and when there are times that my student’s needs conflict with my own, I will sometimes choose my own.
Now, if I ‘need’ to be late for school every day, well that’s a problem. In that case the needs of the students to have a teacher in class surely outweighs my need to snooze an extra time. But if I ‘need’ to watch the World Series and that causes me to go to sleep very late on a school night and though I get to school on time, I’m a bit tired that day and maybe not as sharp as I would have been if I had gone to sleep at 9:00 PM, well as long as this isn’t something I’m doing all the time, I certainly reserve the right to go to bed late some nights as my ‘need’ to have the right to use my free time as I wish, as long as it doesn’t interfere too much with my ability to do my job.
Now I know that you have not asked teachers to go to bed at 9:00 PM, but other things you’ve advocated do violate some teacher’s ‘needs.’ For instance, I feel like I ‘need’ to get a step raise in a predictable way. As I get older, my expenses go up. One day my kids will be in college. I don’t think I’d keep being a teacher if I felt that fifteen years from now I could get a huge pay-cut based on my not meeting an inaccurate computer’s prediction of how well my class will do on a standardized test that has its own mistakes in it. I also ‘need’ an evaluation system that is fair, not one that could rate me highly effective one year and highly ineffective the next year despite little difference in my quality of teaching.
Anyway, these are just some things on my mind. You’ve surely responded to every one of my concerns in various writings and speeches throughout the years so I hope you’ll write back.