Former D.C. Schools Chancellor Back In The Spotlight
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
Today we are going to spend a good part of the program focusing on some of the issues that are flying through Congress as this session winds down. We'll speak to a departing member of Congress about his perspective. And we'll talk about two issues that been subjects of major debates in this Congress and actually for years before that: "don't ask, don't tell," the military's policy against gays serving openly in the military. That was repealed.
And immigration reform for young people who were brought here illegally by their parents. That effort did not advance. Since people on both sides of both issues appeal to moral arguments, we decided to bring back to members of the clergy who were active in working on these issues to talk about them. That is a little later in the program.
But, first, though, we want to start with a newsmaker interview with a person who made headlines both locally and nationally this year: Michelle Rhee, the controversial champion of education reform in Washington, D.C. She has moved formally to a national stage. She started an organization that aims to raise a billion dollars - that's a billion with a B - to lobby elected officials and to support political candidates who push what she calls a student-first agenda, she says, over an adult-first agenda.
Ms. Rhee, of course, is the former chancellor of D.C. public schools, but she left that post when the man who hired and supported her reform agenda, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was voted out of office. And her newly-formed effort is titled, appropriately enough, Students First. And she's with us now from Sacramento. Thanks so much for joining us.
Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (Former Public Schools Chancellor, Washington, D.C.): Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So, I'd like to ask you first, what do you think defines a student-first agenda?
Ms. RHEE: Well, I think a students-first agenda is one that where, you know, when we're making the decisions about why to do something or why not, what it's primarily driven by is what's in the best interest of children.
So, a lot of times when you hear policies that school districts or states have implemented and you ask, well, why is this, you know, put in place or, you know, why can't we do these things?
People will talk about the system a lot and that's always the wrong answer, as far as we're concerned, when we, you know, what we want to get to is hearing the answer, well, it's going to be the best way to move student achievement forward. Or this is the policy that we believe will serve children well.
MARTIN: The focus of a lot of the discussion around this organization once news of it became known was teacher tenure, and you've been quoted as saying quite bluntly that we don't need tenure...
Mr. RHEE: Right
MARTIN: ...for public school teachers. Why not?
Ms. RHEE: Well, tenure, you know, has evolved over time and I think when it first came into existence, it came in for very good reasons, which is that people were subject often to arbitrary,and capricious and unfair treatment, et cetera. Now we actually have federal laws in place that ensure that people cannot be discriminated against and they can't be fired for no reason.
But the problem that we face in public education today is that essentially tenure for teachers means that you have a job for life regardless of performance. And that is an adults-first policy, not a students-first policy. What we believe at StudentsFirst is that if any protections are due to anyone within public education, the protections should be for children rather than adults.
So instead of creating a system whereby, you know, you have to make sure that you have every safeguard in place to ensure than an adult job is protected from, you know, arbitrary and capricious treatment. Instead, we should be saying, if there is the possibility that a group of children may be taught by an ineffective teacher or a minimally effective teacher and there's some question about whether or not that is the case, then we should err on the side of thinking about what's in the best interest of children, which is not putting that person in the classroom.
MARTIN: I just want to play a short clip from the head of the American Federation of Teachers. And, of course, this - Randi Weingarten - and of course she's been a very outspoken critic of your policies; you've appeared on many forums together. So this won't be new news to you, but I'll just play a short clip of what she had to say about this focus on teacher tenure. Here it is.
Ms. RANDI WEINGARTEN (President, American Federation of Teachers): It's a red herring to say that tenure keeps bad teachers in the classroom. Tenure is really due process and everyone, including teachers, should have a right to it.
MARTIN: What about that?
Ms. RHEE: Oh, I also agree that there should be an appeals process if a teacher feels that they are wrongly terminated. They should have, you know, the right to go through a very quick and efficient appeals process. But if you look in public education at the way that this plays out, you're talking about years and years and years, oftentimes, that these processes are dragged out.
I'm sure you've heard about the rubber rooms in New York City where people who have been accused or charged with, you know, certain acts against children or against the teaching profession, sit in these rooms for years drawing a full paycheck.
So, you know, nobody has a problem with a process or an appeals process so that teachers can be assured that they're being treated fairly. But when it takes on a life of its own and you are essentially paying taxpayer dollars that could be going to children in classrooms, instead to pay adults who are not doing work and who are sitting around to go through this process, it just doesn't make a lot of sense.
MARTIN: Once again, if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Michelle Rhee. She's the former chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools. She's now started a new organization called StudentsFirst that she says aims to push a students-first agenda, as opposed to an adults-first agenda, that she says pervades the way we think about education policies, the way we set education policies today.
You know, this focus on teacher tenure, some people would say that you're making teacher tenure kind of the bogeyman here. So I'd like to ask, what is the evidence that that is really the driving issue or the core issue that you think mitigates against excellence?
Ms. RHEE: Yeah. Well, I think it's important to note that I'm not making teacher tenure the end-all, be-all answer. I think that a lot of people like to cling onto that because it is an issue that will no doubt spark controversy. We do say that one of the core tenants of what we believe in at StudentsFirst is that every single child deserves a great teacher in their classroom every single day. And that should be a core focus of everyone that's working in schools.
So that means two things. That means, first, making sure that you have excellent teachers who are being recognized and rewarded in the way that they ought to be. But what most people in America wouldn't know is that most teachers union contracts across the country actually prohibits school districts from paying the best teachers more money than you are paying the less effective teachers.
That just, you know, doesn't make a whole lot of sense to folks. But that is actually the way that current contracts work. And then you have to have systems and processes in place so that you can identify the lowest performing teachers and either quickly improve them or remove them from the classroom.
So there's a balance to the spectrum, but the focus is not on teacher tenure, the focus is on making sure that you have a highly effective teacher in front of every child every day.
MARTIN: The argument that some people make is twofold. One, is that they say they have to spend so much time, you know, documenting and doing paperwork, that they can't put as much effort on teaching as they would like. And the second thing that some people say is nobody really gets up in the morning wanting to do a bad job. What's really the problem here is that there isn't a system to make bad teachers get better or to make average teachers get great. That that's really the problem. What would you say to that?
Ms. RHEE: Look, you have to sort of think about this in the following way. It is not easy to be a great teacher. In fact, it is incredibly difficult. Being an effective teacher is one of the most difficult jobs that there is. So we have to get over this notion that just anyone can be a teacher. And that as long as you're trying hard, then we should allow you to be in front of children every day.
There are lots of professions out there where, you know what, if you try hard, but you actually are not effective, then the expectation is that you can't work in that job anymore. And for whatever reason, we have not created that dynamic around teaching, which is one of the most important professions in America. It's very difficult and I don't think that we should expect that everybody can and will be great at it. I think we should expect that we're going to measure people in how well they do in this particular profession.
And that, again, if you're great at it, we should be treating you as one of the most important professionals in this country because I don't think there's any more important work than education. And then if you're not, I think we should quickly find a way to remove you from the classroom. That doesn't mean that we're throwing you in jail. That doesn't mean you're a bad person. It just means that you might not be effective at this particular job and you should find a profession where you can add more value.
MARTIN: What do you think that you can accomplish outside of government that you could not accomplish while in government? And I think for those who haven't the story, it is important to note that you did achieve some significant successes when you were in Washington, D.C. You did achieve, you know, improvements in test scores, closing the achievement gap and also a teacher contract which did implement some of the reforms that you consider important.
Although it is important to note that not only did you leave before the end of you term when Mayor Fenty was voted out of office in the primary, but the head of the teachers union at that time was also voted out, so I'm not quite sure what that means. So I guess to the point, what do you can accomplish in this role that you couldn't fully perhaps fulfill as the head of the Washington, D.C. school system, public school system?
Ms. RHEE: So, actually, my preference is to be sort of more on the ground and closer to kids and families. But one of the things that I realized through this experience in D.C. and particularly after Mayor Fenty's defeat in the primary election is that we need to change the national landscape of education reform. Part of the problem, I think, in America is that for the last three decades, the education agenda in this country has been driven by special interest groups, whether it's textbook manufacturers or the teachers union or even testing companies.
And the way that that happens is they've got, you know, millions of dollars and they're exerting their influence over policymakers, over politicians, over decision makers and a lot of the problem that I see is that there is no organized interest group in this country that is advocating on behalf of children in public education that has the same heft nationally as these other organizations do. And what that creates then is a very lopsided environment for how these laws and decisions get made.
So, part of what we're trying to do is balance, provide a little balance to the equation and make sure that there is an interest group out there that is looking out for the interest of children and children alone. And that we will influence policymakers and fight for changes in the same way and in, I think, a more powerful way because we're going to be a membership organization.
You know, within the first 48 hours that we announced that we were starting Students First and I announced that I was going to raise $1 billion and have 1 million members within the first year, people said, oh gosh, you're crazy. There's no way that's going to happen. But we actually, within 48 hours had over 100,000 people signed up to become members.
MARTIN: All right, we have to leave it there for now. Forgive me.
Ms. RHEE: OK.
MARTIN: Michelle Rhee, she's the former chancellor of D.C. public schools in the District of Columbia. She's the founder and CEO of Students First. That's an effort meant to improve public education nationwide, as you just heard. Michelle Rhee, we hope you'll keep us apprised of your efforts.
Ms. RHEE: Absolutely. Thank you.
MARTIN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.