Michelle Rhee On 'Take No Prisoners' Approach

Host Michel Martin checks in with Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington, D.C. Public Schools. As chancellor, she made a number of controversial changes that were both applauded and denounced. A year ago, she started StudentsFirst, a group formed in response to increasing demands for a better public education system in America.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today we're taking an extended look at education. In a few minutes we'll talk about school choice and one initially hopeful parents view that charter schools aren't measuring up to the hype and a little later in the program we'll talk about why some students are not staying the course when it comes to finishing college and if there's something the adults who love them can do about that.

That's all coming up. But we want to begin today by checking in with one of this country's most high profile and provocative educators, Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of D.C.'s public schools. She left after a tumultuous three-year term there to found the national organization StudentsFirst, which pushes an aggressive reform and agenda that it claims would give America, quote, "the best education system in the world," unquote. That's a bold promise from a leader with a reputation for boldness.

In her stint as leader of D.C.'s public school she became a national symbol of a take-no-prisoners approach to fixing public education. She was credited with raising student achievement in the nation's capital but she was also accused of having a divisive approach that vilified career teachers and shut out parents. And currently, questions about possible cheating on standardized tests have threatened her legacy in Washington. But she remains a leading voice in the education debate. StudentsFirst marks it's first year this month so, we thought this would be a good time to check back in with her.

Michelle Rhee, welcome back to the program. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

MICHELLE RHEE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Congratulations on the first anniversary.

RHEE: Thank you, it's been a great year.

MARTIN: Well, you know, you have always been one for benchmarks so, I wanted to ask you what benchmarks have you accomplished this year?

RHEE: Well, we set about starting students first about a year ago and said that within the first year we wanted to have a million members, and we are closely approaching that mark. So, we feel very, very good about the fact that we are going to meet that goal and second, is just what our members have been able to do. In seven states across the country we have enacted more than 50 laws that we really believe set the groundwork and the foundation for the children in those states getting a much higher quality education.

So, we're pleased with what our members have been able to do on that front.

MARTIN: Give an example of one of those laws that you feel the kind of thing you like to see emulated as far reaching as possible.

RHEE: Sure. So, this is actually one policy is something that we had first put in place in Washington, D.C. and it is putting an end to the policy called last in, first out, which mandates that in the time of layoffs because of a budget cut that you have to lay off the least senior teacher or the last person hired must be the first person fired regardless of performance. We have seen through research and data that this policy has incredibly detrimental impacts on children.

It really ensures that you are getting rid of some of your most highly effective teachers, number one. Number two, it necessitates the need to disrupt even more classrooms and fire more teachers because the least junior teacher or the most junior teachers are the least paid; and lastly, and probably most importantly, is that it disproportionately negatively impacts the lowest performing schools in the city because those are the schools that usually have the largest number of new teachers.

So, when we got started at the beginning of 2010 there were only three states across the nation that prohibited seniority-based layoffs and our hope was to triple that number. And now, we do have 11 states across the country who say that when in the time of layoffs you have to do those layoffs by quality and effectiveness, as opposed to seniority.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, your critics here in Washington and around the country say that this focus on ending the seniority system for teachers actually diminishes respect for career educators. There are those who would argue, you know, that at the end of day almost as if the more seniority you have the more you're perceived as an enemy of reform. It's almost like as if respect for people diminishes as they advance in their profession, which is different from the way it tends to work in other fields of endeavor.

How do you respond to that?

RHEE: Well, I think the way that it works in other fields is that the people who are respected, who are compensated are the people, who are most effective in the field. So, if you're looking for a doctor for your child, for example, you aren't saying well, who has been a doctor the longest? You're looking for the person who has the best track record, who has, you know, who is ensured that of the surgeries they've performed that the vast majority of them if not all of them have been successful.

That's what we look for in a doctor as parents and that's the same thing that we should be looking for in our educators. I think that to assume...

MARTIN: But does - doesn't experience have something to do with that? I mean, it's my understanding just on the medical profession alone that there tends to be a U-curve, that people who are just out, who've been exposed to the latest research and the, you know, the latest innovative ideas, highly effective, very often even if they lack practical experience - and people who have the most experience, because they have that mixture of experience and real world experience. I mean, isn't it both?

RHEE: Well, actually that's why you do have an incredibly highly effective teachers who have been teaching, you know, 30 sometimes 35 years in the system, and you have highly effective teachers who've maybe only been teaching five years in the system. So, you have highly effective teachers at every point along the spectrum and that's why we think that it's so important to ensure that that's what we're prioritizing; is how effective is a teacher as opposed to how long they've been teaching, because there are certainly some teachers unfortunately who have been in the system for a long time who are not effective and for those folks it's important to ensure that just because they've been there longer doesn't mean that they should have the right to have a job over somebody who may have been teaching a few years less than they do, but are much more effective with kids. And I think at the end of the day, you know, we have to raise the profile and the respect level of the teaching profession, and in order to do that we have to understand that not all teachers are interchangeable widget set. They're not all the same and the only thing that differs between them is how many years they've been in the system.

We all as parents know that there are incredible differences between educators and that when your child has a highly effective teacher it makes all the difference in the world. So, I think that in order to really respect teachers for the professionals that they are we have to understand that there are big differences between people.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with education reformer Michelle Rhee. It's the one year anniversary that was observed this month of her organization StudentsFirst. We're talking about what she's accomplished in that time, what she hopes yet to do and - but to that end, and this whole question of how you measure teacher effectiveness. Obviously, test scores play a role in that, and now the U.S. Department of Education and the D.C. inspector general are investigating questions of cheating on standardized tests taken by city students during your tenor.

Now, you've said you welcome the investigation because that's exactly the kind of thing that's necessary...

RHEE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...to demonstrate, you know, belief and to further belief in the system. But given that there are other school systems like Atlanta that do seem to have uncovered credible evidence of cheating...

RHEE: Um-hum.

MARTIN: ...you know, number one, how can you be so sure? And number two, why might not that be a sign that the incentives to cheat are just too great when you put that much focus on test scores.

RHEE: Yeah. So, I mean, here's the thing. I think that I have a tremendous amount of faith in the educators in this country and I believe very strongly that the vast majority of professionals would never compromise their personal professional integrity and cheat on a test. Unfortunately, you're going to have a small number or an individual here and there who make the wrong decision. Those people should have significant consequences that are attached to that, but I don't think that we should say because some people have made the wrong decision we should get rid of the accountability system first and foremost.

And second of all, if you look at D.C. we had a teacher evaluation system which did count test scores as part of a teacher's evaluation, but it was part of a holistic picture. We also looked at their, you know, observations of their classroom practice, their contributions to the school community.

So, if you had bad test scores alone, you actually couldn't be fired based on that, just based on those poor test scores, because if you were doing other things right, then you would still be rated as effective.

However, if you decided to cheat on a test and we uncovered evidence that you did, you would immediately lose your job. So I think that, if it was somebody who was thinking critically about their job security, then you would make the decision not to cheat on the test and to do right by kids.

MARTIN: And, lastly, before we let you go, I did want to talk about charter schools. And I do think it's important to emphasize that because you're so identified with education reform, I think sometimes people get confused and think that you led the charter schools in Washington, D.C., when in fact it was the opposite. You led the public school system, which I think it's fair to say, was actually competing with the charter school system in D.C., which is quite, you know, robust. I just wanted to clarify that for people who don't remember and I do want to mention that, later in the program, we're going to speak to a mother who says that school choice and public charter schools are not living up to the promise that she had hoped, especially for parents in working class neighborhoods.

Before we let you go, we have a couple of minutes left. I did want to ask you about what role you think public charter schools are playing now in achieving educational excellence, given that the data seems to be very mixed on whether they are achieving better results than traditional public schools.

RHEE: Well, I think that, at least from my perspective, charter schools were never meant to be the end all, be all, the panacea of the woes of public education. I think that we should be looking, not at whether a school is a charter school or a traditional public school or a private school, but rather is it an effective school.

And I think what the charter school movement has shown is that when you can free up a school and a group of educators from the bureaucracy, that it is possible for them to develop schools that significantly outperform the public school district, that take low income and minority children who previously had been performing at incredibly low levels and lift them to the highest levels possible.

Does that mean that every single charter school is going to be effective? No. Just like every single traditional public school is not necessarily effective in every school district either. That's why I think the important thing is to look at every single school individually and then to - in the case of charter schools, if there are ineffective charter schools, it's important to shut those schools down because part of the idea around charter schools to begin with was that you would have increased authority and autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. And if the school was not doing well, then that school would lose its charter and it would not be able to serve the kids anymore.

MARTIN: Michelle Rhee is the founder and president of StudentsFirst. That's a national organization dedicated to fostering excellence in American public education. She joined us from Sacramento, California.

I do hope we'll speak again, Michelle Rhee. Thank you so much for joining us.

RHEE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Coming up, we'll hear from one mother who says that charter school choices offered as an end to struggling city schools actually hurt the students and families they're intended to serve. We'll have that conversation just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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