Michelle Rhee and studentsRecently
Washington DC Schools Chancellor Michelle
Rhee fired 241
of the system’s 4,300 teachers. Of the 241, 165 were
dismissed because of poor performance, and the remainder were somehow in the
classroom without proper teaching credentials. Rhee wasn’t sure how many of the
165 dismissals were directly tied to low student achievement, but this was
certainly a factor. The DC system has long been noted for its miserable test
scores. (See the National Center for Education
Statistics
online for examples, some data showing slight progress, others
not.)

In
Rhee’s rigorous teacher evaluation system, administrators and “master
teachers” visit classrooms, looking for effective lesson plans and
examining teacher-student relations. Each teacher is then sent a report
containing tips on improvement and offering coaching to help them along. Beyond
those recently dismissed, another 730 teachers, 17 percent of the educators,
have now been determined “minimally effective.” They won’t receive an
annual salary increase and, if no improvement is shown quickly, they too will
be fired.

All
of this deeply upsets the Washington Teacher’s Union, of course. Before Rhee
arrived in 2007, 95 percent of teachers were rated excellent and no one was
dismissed for poor classroom performance. According to the Wall Street Journal,
union head George Parker declared, “I’m not opposed to teachers being
terminated, and I don’t believe all 4,000 of ours are outstanding. But our
teachers are entitled to an instrument that assesses their performance fairly,
and this evaluation system does not.”

Teachers’
unions have long defended the tenure system, which gives teachers job security
(barring something outrageous) for the rest of their working lives.  Sonny Bunch, writing in The Weekly
Standard, notes that “tenure is handed out to virtually every public
school teacher after a short wait, typically two to three years.” When
hard times come, seniority rules among the tenured.

Critics
have often attacked unions for protecting the incompetent. In Chicago, for
example, where test scores are dismal (only 28.5 percent of eleventh graders met
or exceeded expectations on a state achievement examination), between 2005 and
2008, a mere 0.1 percent of teachers were dismissed due to poor classroom
performance.

Conservative
observers applaud the Rhee approach to public education, arguing that incompetent
teachers rather than low budgets cause bad test scores and large numbers of
dropouts. Moreover, they are keenly aware of the handsome campaign funds
teachers’ unions routinely turn over to Democrats.

The
Rhee evaluation system needs a second look, however, for within it are some
serious questions that need answering. Let us begin with student test scores. In
the District of Columbia, all those who teach reading and math in fourth
through eighth grades face genuine trouble if their students fail to improve:
scores on state examinations amount to 50 percent of the evaluation. And all of
the system teachers, to some degree or another, are in jeopardy if their
students fail to improve on test scores.

We
need to ask whether or not teachers are responsible for the personal and
cultural problems that impede education, such as poverty, broken homes, and a
culture that glorifies anti-intellectualism and rock bottom cultural standards?
Why study when no one you admire on MTV pays it any attention? Why read anything
when no one else you know does? (The National Center for Education Statistics
reports that reading tests conducted in 2008 showed gaps between white and black
students ranging from 21 to 29 points, and between white and Hispanic students,
ranging from 21 to 26 points.) Why not just skip, flunk, or drop out and devote
yourself to winning on American Idol, playing video games, having
out-of-wedlock babies, shooting hoops, or just roaming the streets looking for
trouble?

To
untold numbers of students, school is a terrible bore and burden, especially to
those (dare we say it?) of below average intelligence. It is torture to inflict
algebra or history on a student who has no capacity to learn even the
rudiments. Normal people flee from pain, and so do many students. In the school
year of 2006-07, nearly half of Milwaukee Public Schools students were
habitually absent.

How
can the best-prepared lesson plans and the most pleading teacher make an impact
on those for whom school is a nasty waste of time? The mental passivity and
inability, often reflected in grotesque apparel, tattoos, facial hardware, and
fierce language, can shatter the goals of any teacher, no matter how sincere
and dedicated.

And
then there is the matter of administrators and “master teachers”
grading teachers. How do we know if the “master teachers” aren’t
using political correctness as a top standard? And how do we know if the
administrators aren’t judging teachers by their degree of servility? As a
college professor for 40 years, I have seen my share of the rigid ideological
intolerance leftist faculty can impose, and many a Dean or Chancellor I have
known would have been delighted to be able to fire tenured faculty members who
stood up to them.

I
have no desire to see incompetents continue to be on school payrolls, of
course. If teachers are demonstrably lazy, hostile, or uncommunicative, and if
they lack an adequate grasp of course material, they should be let go. But I
would feel a lot more favorable toward the Rhee approach if, along with the
“master teachers” and administrators, the review process included
several educated outsiders to insure a proper measure of objectivity. Tenure is
designed to protect freedom of thought; let’s be sure that that flag still
flies. And administrators should respect teachers as individuals and fellow
educators, not just as employees.

Serious
changes must be made to improve the public schools, of course. Pouring more
money into school districts appears to have little or no impact. (A lesson
neither the Bush nor Obama administrations acknowledged.) State and federal
standards have shown mixed results, but they’re surely better than nothing. Charter
schools and vouchers appear to be promising and are in demand. Requiring solid
college majors (ie, outside education departments) for teachers seems
reasonable. In our pursuit of excellence, however, let us not have a reign of
terror that threatens all public school teachers for problems they may well be
unable to understand, let alone solve.  Dedicated, competent, caring teachers should be encouraged
and rewarded, not just threatened. The lives of our children and the content of
our culture are at stake.


Thomas
C. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century
America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R.
McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter J. Kohler, Jr and Chester A. Arthur.

Thomas C. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter...