Michelle Rhee on How the Nation's 'Gone Soft,' Great Teachers, and Politics in Education

(Photo: Washington Post/Getty Images)
May 6, 2011
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

On Thursday, May 5, former Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee spoke passionately about what she learned from her experiences in the nation's capital and what we as a country need to tackle in order to give our kids the education they deserve.

The luncheon she spoke at was hosted by the University of Southern California's Center for Philanthropy and Public Policy.

Education, she said, "is supposed to be the great equalizer in our country. It's supposed to be the thing that ensures that it doesn't matter if you're black or white, rich or poor. We have a public school system so that every child can have an equal shot at life."

This is not true for inner city kids, she added, making note of what a difference a teacher can make.

"We know for poor minority children, if they have three highly effective teachers in a row, versus three ineffective teachers in a row, it can literally change their life trajectory."

So what exactly makes a great teacher?

"It's a lot of things," Rhee told TakePart. "I think you have to be very goal-oriented, you have to be able to connect with your kids, you have to have very very high expectations and a strong commitment to persevering through challenges."

She also said that teachers shouldn't solely be evaluated based on student's test scores.

"There's no person out there who advocates for teachers to be evaluated on test scores alone," Rhee said. "You should look at student growth. You should also base it on observations of classroom practices. There are lots of ways to evaluate how effective a teacher is that are based on growth, and there are other ways that are not."

Rhee talked about engaging Americans to help reform three areas: parent involvement, students' drive for excellence, and politics in education.

Our nation, she opened with, has "gone soft."

"We have completely lost our competitive spirit," she said. "We spend so much time trying to make children feel good about themselves that we don't spend the time actually building the skills in them so that they are good at something."

Recently, Rhee founded StudentsFirst—an organization that defends the interests of children in public education and pursues transformative reform.  She said one of the reasons she started StudentsFirst is because of how politicized education has become.

"I think that over the last three decades, the education agenda has been driven by special interest groups. You have textbook manufacturers, teachers unions, testing companies... You have all these people out there exerting their influence and the problem is there is no national organized interest group with the same impact who is advocating on behalf of children."

Another initiative StudentsFirst is tackling is saving great teachers. This year, over 160,000 teachers face layoffs, most of which, Rhee said, will be based on seniority not performance.

'Last In, First Out' is the problem at hand. When states cut education spending, the last teacher hired in many districts must be the first teacher fired, regardless of performance. California, Rhee said, is one of the 14 states where this is rule mandated by state law.

"Part of the reason this has been able to go on for decades," Rhee said, "is because all of those decisions and laws get made behind closed doors. You have to hold your elected officials accountable for the decisions and policies they're making."

Rhee offered ways to help save great teachers in your state here.

TakePart asked the former chancellor how we can motivate young people to become teachers in a system where state mandates like 'Last In, First Out,' exist and where low wages are the norm.

"We fundamentally have to change the culture of the profession. We have to make sure that people who are great at their jobs are recognized, rewarded and paid appropriately and those who are not move out of the system," said Rhee.

Rhee left the audience feeling empowered, especially because her organization, StudentsFirst, offers ways to turn the sense of wanting to do something into action. Rhee is one of the public figures featured prominently in the acclaimed education documentary, Waiting for "Superman," produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media.

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