Sunday, November 30, 2008

Michelle Rhee and the concept of teaching

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.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Depressing piece, Laura. With all due respect to McKinsey's hiring practices and disgust at entrenched large school unions, I shudder when people want to run classrooms like management consulting firms.

I'm not a big fan of Michele Rhee, but I also don't have many kind words for lazy burned out teachers, collecting a paycheck, biding their time until retirement, wasting my child's time and sending all the work home to the family.

And your assertion that loving children is not enough? I'd be happy if we at least started there. You're tired of teaching, sick of the "snot nosed kids" as one local school official's wife was heard saying, get the hell out.

A wish list for my daughter, exceptionally gifted. I want teachers who inspire, who light a spark, who are passionate, who take my daughter's love of learning and run with it, who mentor, who dare to allow the child to dream, who understand that play and imagination are not distractions to learning but are part and parcel to it.

What I don't want are your McKinsey-style tests in the classroom, superintendents obsessed with "preparing" my child for a dog-eat-dog world when she's five, who tell me my child needs to learn to do boring things because that's life (since when does classroom teaching mirror life?) and who rule the classroom by intimidation.

The classroom is not McKinsey. Give my daughter all the love, support, encouragement and free rein imaginable, make elementary into places of unfettered creativity and she'll grow up with enough confidence to become the next McKinsey shoo-in.

Gramatrick said...

Over Thanksgiving, we were discussing Ms. Rhee and her innovations. Quite cynically, we were wondering how long she'd last.

Agree with her, disagree with her...it's clear to me that we need to be trying a lot of different solutions and we need more folk with her energy level and ideas trying to affect change.

I like the idea of testing at the beginning of the year and testing at the end.

1. If children do well enough to pass the standardized tests the first week of school, then hopefully we can leave off the worksheets and other work designed to improve performance on these standardized tests.

2. Teachers are rarely judged based on the outputs they achieve from the inputs they have. My children go to a primarily gifted school. The school gets high marks from the state based on how well the kids score on the test. But I often wonder, how much is from the school and the instruction it provides and how much is just the innate ability and advantages of this population? I am much more impressed by the school in a low-income area with a significantly lower percentage of designated g/t kids that boasts scores at that same level.

Anonymous Coward said...

" But I often wonder, how much is from the school and the instruction it provides and how much is just the innate ability and advantages of this population? "

^^Exactly.
The same can be said for a lot of schools in "better" areas.

Alex said...

There are of course caveats - yearly 'value-added' should only ever prompt an investigation, not be an automatic trigger for sacking; and teachers should know they'll be given time and help to improve, whether their scores are low or high.

Still, in general I support the idea of being more rigorous in 'checking up' on teaching staff, and following through on that data. I do idly wonder how DC's value-added looks right now, and whether Rhee is vindicated or damned if we measure her by her own standards.

Becky said...

I would love to see a school system full of excellent teachers, who help each student reach their potential. Having said that, I too am concerned about some of the proposed ideas in this article. The idea of testing at the beginning and end of the years sounds nice, but ignores the fact that lots of other factors play a role in a years progress-learning disabilities, learning windows, parental support... (My sister taught for years at an elementary school where a large percentage of the families were recent immigrants-learning English, and working two jobs to survive in America. It made it pretty difficult for those parents to support their children's educational growth).
Like another reader commented, I suppose entry/exit tests could be a red flag-but just one peice of information in a personal review. We wouldn't want this to turn into a "witch hunt" of sorts.

Ian said...

When you are interviewing people for a position that either pays a six figure salary or will fairly quickly you will have a plethora of applicants. It is then possible to grill them to within an inch of their lives before hiring.
Having the resources to interview everyone they work with and give 360 performance reviews several times in the first year means people will never have to play Russian roulette with computers.

It however has nothing to do with the reality of education in America.

The Princess Mom said...

"the idea of testing at the beginning and end of the years sounds nice, but ignores the fact that lots of other factors play a role in a years progress-learning disabilities, learning windows, parental support... (My sister taught for years at an elementary school where a large percentage of the families were recent immigrants-learning English, and working two jobs to survive in America."

So it's okay that those children learn *nothing* in an entire school year??? Every child, gifted or not, deserves to learn at school, whether or not their parents can read books to them at home or bring homemade cupcakes on their birthdays.

If a teacher is unable to bring up a test score from X.1 grade equivalent to X.9 grade equivalent in nine months, s/he has no business in front of a classroom. Even if the poor ESL child is still below age-grade level at the end of the year, there should be some measurable learning demonstrated.

Red River said...

Just imagine if we let Doctors practice whose patients all died or airlines fly whose planes all crashed?

Yet, we tolerate year after year of failure with schools that cannot do their jobs? We trust them with our kids?

Brendan said...

Captain Sulley crashed his airplane and is hailed as a hero.

Noelle said...

Agree with comment number one. I am not sure that young children should be exposed to a culture that encourages ``├Čnsecure overacheivement`` as exemplary....