April 2nd, 2008

Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC
Michelle Rhee in Washington DC Episode 4: Facing Tough Choices

This program was made by possible by support from the Annenberg, The Eli and Edythe Broad, Bill & Melinda Gates, William and Flora Hewlett and Wallace Foundations.

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Teachers in Washington, DC are nervous—and with good reason. 23 schools are scheduled to be closed, and 27 more are likely to undergo big changes as a result of the federal law known as No Child Left Behind. What’s more, new chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has said that DC needs “a new breed” of educators, is currently negotiating a new contract with the teachers’ union. The future of hundreds of teachers is uncertain.

In this episode, we meet some of the teachers who might be affected by Rhee’s radical plans. We also meet L. Nelson Burton, Principal of Coolidge Senior High School where less than a quarter of students are proficient in reading. Principal Burton has promised Rhee that he’ll raise test scores by 33% by the end of the year in order to save his school and boost student achievement.

(Originally aired April 2, 2008)

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I notice that the principal at the beginning of the piece doesn’t say the teachers he’s planning to replace are bad. He says, “they don’t fit in.” That’s exactly what happens. Principals and districts decide they need to improve, adopt some magic bullet formula or method, and then teachers who resist the “program” are suddenly “bad teachers.” Then, in 1 or 10 years, the magic bullet is out the door and some new program is the fashion. Furthermore, data, rather than being used to open conversations (which I thought at first it would be) is used instead to bludgeon teachers with. Unions are the only protection we have from poor administration, bad educational theory, etc.

It is also important to remember that, at least in California, we are not allowed to bargain with respect to school policies and educational practice. We could make many positive changes but most schools and districts do not support teachers in implementing these changes, or actively resist them. Toyota made money asking floor workers how to improve the process of making cars. Educational leaders will not ask the highly trained and expensive professionals who staff the schools how to improve the education of our nation’s children.

FYI - Most principals didn’t bother to do their due diligence and fire teachers but instead they “excessed” teachers because it was easier. Principals simply let them go at the end of the year telling them there was no money for their positions. From there, bad teachers would go back into the school pool and get hired again. Unfortunately, teachers could also be excessed for bogus reasons which is why “due process” is so important. I knew a DC teacher, who when it was her turn, refused to sign-off on science and Spanish classes that were really just kids sitting around the lunch room.

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