With the creation of StudentsFirst, former Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is back in the news again. And her new education advocacy group's reform plan has drawn fire from an old adversary, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union.
Rhee, a dynamic education reformer, first burst onto the national scene when then-Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty hired her to head up the district's public schools in 2007. In December 2008, Time magazine featured her on the cover standing sternly in a classroom and holding a broom. The message was clear: Rhee was dead set on cleaning up the D.C. public schools by sweeping out underperforming teachers and staff. She did so in a hurry, sacking 241 teachers, putting another 737 on notice, and shuttering 21 schools. In the Time article, Weingarten criticized Rhee by saying, "Michelle Rhee believes in scorched earth."
Rhee didn't have patience for underperforming teachers because she knew that a poor teacher can set a student's development back several years to the point where he or she may never recover. When it came to choosing between teachers and students, Rhee chose students first. It cost the mayor and his chancellor their jobs when Fenty lost his reelection bid due largely to his support for Rhee's policies.
Last week Rhee's StudentsFirst organization released a national education reform plan that called for evaluating teacher performance, giving teachers incentive-based pay, ending tenure, offering parental choice, and requiring fiscal accountability. Weingarten responded, "Michelle Rhee's agenda presents a false choice: support students or support teachers. The fact is that neither can succeed unless both are supported. Making schools better places for children to learn also makes them better places for teachers to work."
Rhee, on the other hand, would say that schools become better places by getting rid of poor teachers and rewarding effective ones. When she was in Washington, Rhee wanted to give teachers the opportunity to nearly double their average salaries to $130,000 with incentive pay. The hitch: Give up tenure.
Weingarten was in the news last week too. The Wall Street Journal reported that she collected $600,000 last year in compensation, including $194,188 in unused vacation and sick days in her former role as head of New York City's United Federation of Teachers.
Any wonder why Rhee believes in students first . . . and dumping the status quo?