Michelle Rhee Putting Students First

The former DC school chancellor is still committed to education reform, urging states to pay teachers based on their merit.

Michelle Rhee is still on a mission. With a new advocacy group, Students First, the former chancellor of Washington DC’s public school system is urging policymakers to put children at the forefront of education reform.

As several states throughout the country teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and American education standards remain absolutely dismal compared to the rest of the developed world, it is high time for a bold reform effort. More spending is not the solution though. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Rhee notes that some of her organization’s proposals “are even budget opportunities for savvy governors and lawmakers.”

Treating teachers like professionals is an important first step. “Compensation, staffing decisions and professional development should be based on teachers’ effectiveness, not on their seniority,” according to Rhee.

On the Fox Business Network Tuesday, she admitted that tenure will be difficult to get rid of. “If there are any protections that should be afforded to someone in public education, it should be to children, not to adults,” however. “We don’t believe that tenure protections should be in place for ineffective teachers,” Rhee added.

In DC, Rhee experimented with merit pay, offering teachers a choice in 2008: either being paid up to $140,000 a year based on student achievement while losing their tenure or retaining it while earning far less. Unions strongly protested the measure but student performance gradually rose during Rhee’s chancellorship. She still supports the notion.

It’s incredibly important because we have so many hardworking teachers out there who are doing amazing things for kids. And we need to become a profession that recognizes and rewards the best people.

Union regulations often make it nigh impossible to fire bad teachers. In DC, Rhee repeatedly faced opposition from the unions when she tried to lay off underperforming teachers. She succeeded though, if only in part, to make the profession more competitive.

On his own Fox Business show last year, John Stossel complained about the situation, suggesting that it is part of the reason why education is so expensive in the United States while test scores remain low. “When your job and salary is pretty much guaranteed,” he said, “why work harder?”

The many steps that schools have to go through in order to fire a teacher are so extensive that many principles don’t bother. “Sometimes they just transfer the worst teachers to other schools,” according to Stossel. Administrators call it “the dance of the lemons” or “passing the trash.” Funny — “except it could be your kid who has that teacher.”

Rhee doesn’t want unions out of the way altogether though. “The teacher unions are just doing their job,” she told Fox Business. “They’re protecting the rights and privileges of their members which they should do. We just need to make sure that Students First is as a force in this country that protects the rights and privileges of children first and foremost.”