The cover story in Time magazine this week is a profile of Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging new head of the Washington, DC public schools. You can read Amanda Ripley's article here.
There are many bits of food for thought in the piece. But the fundamental question (which Rhee is tackling) is what the 21st century teaching corps should look like. We know that the quality of a teacher is massively correlated with student outcomes; one study by Eric Hanushek of Stanford found that when you put an 8-year-old child with a top 15% teacher for 3 years, he or she will be scoring well above grade level on standardized tests at age 11. If you put the kid with a bad teacher, the kid can be a year and a half below grade level. In other words, that's a divergence of about two years over three years. This is not a small difference.
But what makes a "good" teacher? Years of experience (after the first year or two) aren't highly correlated with student outcomes. Neither are advanced degrees. Yet these are the two factors that most influence teacher pay within a system.
Rhee's assertion is that you should test kids at the beginning of the school year, and test them at the end, and use the difference to evaluate teachers. The best ones should get bonuses. The worst ones should be fired. Rhee has actually succeeded in dismissing 270 teachers and replacing 36 principals.
Needless to say, this is not winning her big friends in the Washington DC teachers union. The national unions have also stepped into the fight because of the attention Rhee is getting. If she succeeds in some of her reforms (such as abolishing tenure and paying on merit) then perhaps other school systems will follow suit. It doesn't help that Rhee is incredibly brusque, and steps on some niceties of teaching. For instance, she's complained about teachers who spend too much time cutting out elaborate bulletin-board decorations.
But, as Rhee says, "Just because you're a nice person and you mean well does not mean you have a right to a job in this district." She wants teachers who mean business. And she's willing to pay them a lot if she gets them.
Frankly, I think there's a lot to like about her philosophy. A love of children is not a sufficient credential to teach. Nor is a teaching certificate, and with mandates for small class sizes, right now urban districts have to hire just about everyone who walks in the door. This is not anything close to best practices.
So what is? My husband works at McKinsey, the management consulting firm, and I get to watch the hiring process and evaluation process. It's very different from education. People take tests before they're hired; they compete against massive pools of qualified people for jobs. They answer multiple questions in multiple rounds of interviews, and extremely nice people who can't think on their feet don't get hired. Then the new hires get evaluated constantly -- 360 degree feedback every 6 months. A senior person interviews everyone you've worked with -- associates, partners, clients, etc. -- and makes the case for whether you stay or go, and if you stay, how much you should be paid. Again, very nice people have been "counseled to leave." It doesn't matter. What matters is what kind of work you bring in and how you do on the projects you land.
Wouldn't that be great to see in education, too? It's a bit early to see how Rhee will succeed (and, of course, we have to see how gifted kids do under the regime) but one story in Time was promising. Ripley started with an anecdote of a young man in a computer class playing "Russian roulette" to find a working computer each day. Only 6 of 14 worked; if he got one that didn't work, he'd just do worksheets rather than word processing. School finances are no excuse for this sorry situation -- Washington DC spends more per pupil than almost every district in the country. The computer situation was symptomatic of other problems at the school; Rhee wound up firing the very popular principal. The young man who alerted her to the computer problem was incensed.
But -- and here's the big "but" -- the new principal got the computers working. I'll take results over popularity every time.