Sunday, November 23, 2008

Education's Rhee Of Hope

"In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity"....Albert Einstein

With all the apocalyptic visions that the politicians have been spinning about our country and our society, and all the calamitous events roiling our faith in our economic markets, there has really been only one issue that I haven't been optimistic about - our public school system.  I believe that the major issues that are currently causing us anxiety and fear will be resolved in the near term, but the issue of our failing schools is one that doesn't really involve money....if it did, it would have been solved already, but requires a fundamental and radical change in structure and approach.  

The fundamental change required, however, has become so politicized by the teacher's unions and Democrats, that my perspective on when, or if, it could happen has been primarily one of "not in my life-time".

But, there are two elements that mightpotentially change that.  One is the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency, and the other is Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school system and a Democrat, who has recently been quoted as saying "Tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions, but it has no educational value for kids; it only benefits adults."  

Her stance on this issue is a seismic event, and it's happening in the epicenter of the problem - Washington, D.C., the lowest-performing school district in the nation. Only 12% of D.C. eighth graders are proficient readers, 8% in math. A mere 60% of high schoolers finish in four years with a diploma. And, once again, the problem can't be money; Washington's per-pupil spending is the third-highest in the nation, $13,000 per pupil.

Ms. Rhee has:

  • offered a new teacher contract proposal with two options. Teachers could choose a plan under which their pay would rise spectacularly -- nearly doubling by 2010 -- in exchange for giving up tenure. Or they could opt for a smaller pay bump and still lose some seniority rights.
  • announcing the district would seek to dismiss tenured teachers who are ineffective. 
  • hinted she'll go around the union by creating more nonunionized charter schools
  • getting the federal government to deem her district in a "state of emergency."
  • closed 23 failing schools and restructured 27 more. 
  • fired nearly one-third of the district's principals and reduced a bloated bureaucracy.
  • dismissed as "complete crap" the argument that students can't learn because of disadvantaged backgrounds.
Why is tenure a causal element in school failure? Unqualified teachers  are at the basis of non-learning children (parents are another issue, but not the subject here), but unqualified teachers have lifetime job security unless they commit rape or murder.  Although most cities contracts provide ways to fire incompetent teacher's, the unions make the process so burdensome, that it's almost immposible. In New York City, it costs an average of $250,000 to fire a teacher; the city last year dismissed 10 out of 55,000. New Jersey fired precisely 47 (of 100,000) in the 10 years ending in 2005.  

Compare those numbers to any other industry, where employee effectiveness is rated at least annually, and ineffective employees are justifiably terminated, and you can understand how this culture of incompetence has robbed our children of the foundational birth-right that we intended to provide them with.

Ms. Rhee's proposal would use financial incentives to raise the salaries of effective teachers, and attract even better ones.  Teachers willing to be judged on effectiveness could earn up to $130,000 a year, based on merit.

The WTU has refused to allow a vote, claiming it's members reject the plan, despite the fact that similar experiments across the country have worked and been supported by the participating teachers. The  American Federation of Teachers, is petrified that Ms. Rhee's plan will set a national precedent. 

OK, where's the "Hope" in all of this?  Well, just as it took a Republican, Nixon, to create the door opening to China, and a Democrat, Clinton, to sign Welfare Reform, it may be that another Democrat, Obama, could be the change-agent that will be able to initiate true, and positive, reform on this most fundamental element of our society.  During the Presidential debates, her situation was discussed by McCain and Obama, so the ball has been passed by Ms. Rhee, the question now is can the new President Obama, drive in and dunk it?  


Anonymous November 24, 2008 at 10:33 AM  

I have said for along time, the best teachers are worth 200k, the worst 25k. They alwasy agree, but will never back down onhte union. Stupid.

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