I couldn’t hold back.  For months I have been over hearing colleagues talking about Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of Washington D.C. schools.  The word is she is bad.  She is out-of-control.  What is not spoken, but clearly understood is she (and what she represents) is a threat to the teacher unions.

I started to investigate this Rhee character, read her interviews, and reviewed the criticism against her.  I have to say that I appreciate her (and the Mayor Fenty‘s) courage to take BOLD steps to correct the failing D.C. schools.

Most people agree that schools need improvement, especially closing the depressing achievement gap between minority students and white students. However, not everyone is willing to put themselves out there to achieve it.  One admirable piece about Rhee is she is out there, and she has people talking and thinking.

There is no one quick fix to improve student achievement.  Anyone that says there is an idiot.  Rather there are a myriad of issues that need to be addressed to have any REAL reform.  I identified 4 major points that are needed for reform and that seem interwoven with what Rhee stands for.

Point 1 – Teachers are the catalyst for increasing student achievement

Teachers make a differenceAcademic research continually points to the teacher as one of the most effective ways of improving student achievement.  This seems to be central to Rhee’s approach to schools.  She wants to reward high performing teachers and get rid of ineffective teachers.  If she can do this in a transparent and accountable way, then why not?

Reform should be centered on professional development for every teacher.  For the (few) teachers that demonstrate poor performance, expectations need to be clear.  Those ineffective teachers will receive support, i.e. professional development and/or coaching, all of which is tied into an action plan.  If the teacher doesn’t improve, then they need to be counseled out of teaching.  Why do we tolerate incompetent teachers?

Point 2 – Unions need to take lead in school reform

I am in the teacher’s union.  I appreciate the organization and all the dedicated union representatives that spend their limited time looking out for my interests.

Yet, I am not thrilled about the union either.  If we are talking about education reform, then the union should be seen as a leader and innovator.  Right now, unions are not perceived as such.

Let me address tenure as an example of how misaligned the union is, especially in the effort of removing ineffective teachers.  In most states k-12 teachers receive tenure in 2-3 years.  Really?  In my school, this means that I got observed 4 times (twice a year) and then I have tenure!  That’s about 4-5 hours of observation, and I am on my way to tenure.  Interestingly, 2 of these 4 observations I knew exactly when my observer (principal) was coming to observe me.  The other 2 I knew which day, but not what period/hour.  Some teachers could put on the best performance for those 4 hours of observation and GET TENURE.  Let’s be honest.  Actually, you don’t even have to put on the best performance at all to get tenure.  And once tenured, it is very costly for school districts to fire tenured teachers.

It’s as if someone in business gets feedback 4 times in 2 years then gets a promotion.  That is ridiculous!

Unions need to be more flexible in removing teachers that don’t belong in the teaching profession, lengthen the time to tenure, and create better support networks for struggling teachers.

Administrators need to work with unions to lay out more effective ways to observe.  One way is to increase the number of times a formal observation can be done.  A teacher should be observed at least once a month, and hopefully more.

Point 3 – Principals need to purposeful and data-driven

Principals needs to be leaders, especially in the area of instructional strategy (tying back into point 1).  A poor performing teacher should not be able to become a principal.  It’s as simple as that.  How is a teacher that couldn’t manage their classsroom and student learning, do it for the entire school?

A principal should be purposeful, meaning he/she knows exactly what the mission and goals are they want to accomplish for the school.  Almost all decisions and communication should be driven from this mission.

The principal needs to have their mission and goals specific, measurable, and timely.  A principal must be able to evaluate their progress throughout the year and make the necessary adjustments to their strategies to improve the effectiveness.

Point 4 – Reform is not a tea party

My last point and one that is reinforced in the Rhee debate is that reform is not easy.  People get upset when change happens.  It takes a strong leader to follow through on their commitments and strategies, yet carefully listening to criticism for ways to improve.  Education reform is not going to be easy, as demonstrated in D.C., but we need to reflect who this will be benefiting if it does.  Also, who will suffer if we don’t try?  Who will suffer if we (teachers, administrators, unions, policy makers) don’t work together to try new ideas?

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