From the convention: Michelle Rhee on how Obama — or Romney — should change education

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, thinks that Democrats have entered a new phase in their relationship with teachers unions. And she thinks a push by Republicans for local control of education is unquestionably wrong.

Michelle Rhee

A political – and often controversial – figure since she started as chancellor in 2007, Rhee will be spending this election season focused on state-level policies. She started her organization, StudentsFirst, to create a counterweight to union political pressure. The organization provides support to politicians of both parties who promise to work for statewide education reforms.

The new effort does not mean that Rhee, a Democrat, doesn’t have opinions about what’s happening on the federal stage. The Hechinger Report sat down with Rhee at the Democratic National Convention to find out what she thinks about President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and the direction her party is headed in.

Here are some highlights from the conversation:

On the Democrats’ “new day”:

Traditionally, Democrats have not gone against the teachers unions – and many still won’t, Rhee said. But the unions, which have often opposed things like the elimination of the first-in, last-out policy for teacher layoffs or merit pay, don’t hold the same political power they once did.

“It’s a new day for the Democratic Party,” Rhee said. “It’s not a monolith that’s just going to side with the teachers unions come what may.”

Rhee cited education resolutions that were passed unanimously by the U.S. Conference of Mayors this summer. They included supporting teacher evaluations that were 50 percent based on student performance and parent trigger laws — which allow for a majority of parents at a failing school to take it over.

“I think that tells you something,” Rhee said. Her husband, Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson, chairs the education committee for the conference. “We’ve got a lot of people saying we support unions, we support collective bargaining, we definitely support teachers, but a lot of these policies are things that have to be looked at and things that have to be changed.”

On Obama’s performance – and what should come next:

Rhee praised the president’s education initiatives, including Race to the Top, which awarded federal money to states that promised to undergo a variety of education policy changes. But, she said, the concept shouldn’t necessarily stop there.

“There’s still a lot of other federal funding that there’s no accountability around,” she said. Title I funding, given to schools based on their low-income student enrollment, for instance, could be partly contingent on reforms, Rhee said. For the 2012-2013 school year, Congress approved $14.5 billion for Title I.

“It would probably be a big challenge for [the Obama administration politically,” she said. “The Republicans on the Hill don’t want to fund another batch of Race to the Top dollars. You could continue that dynamic forward with those title dollars.”

On Romney’s education plans:

A central piece of Romney’s – and the Republican Party’s – education platform involves pushing control back down to the local level, something Rhee says she “100 percent” disagrees with.

“We had 14,000 school boards in this country making the decisions for a long time and that is why we ended up where we ended up,” Rhee said, noting that often school boards aren’t composed of educators. “I don’t think local folks know everything.”

“We should not say, well, that kids in Jackson, Miss., should be held accountable to different learning standards to the kids in Beverley Hills to the kids in Worcester, Mass.,” she said. “These children are not going to be competing for jobs against each other. They’re going to be competing for jobs against kids in India and China, and we’re going to have to have a sense of how each of these kids is doing.”

That’s not to say that the federal government should dictate everything about education, Rhee said. She supports both national curriculum standards and the creation of a common assessment. States that fall short should face interventions as laid out by the U.S. Department of Education.

“You have to have a balance,” she said. “The federal government should set very clear standards … There should be flexibility with how we’re going to get there.”

On vouchers:

One area where Rhee and Romney find some common ground is in his proposal to expand vouchers for low-income students. But she’s cautious about being overzealous about this support.

“I think where some Republicans tend to go is they think they can take something like vouchers and that’s just the end all, be all,” she said. “’Let’s just voucherize the system and then we’ll solve all the problems’ … That point of view is – I think – naïve. ”

Students First has identified 37 policies that they think states should adopt in order to improve schools. “I just don’t think you can choose one thing,” Rhee said.

This story also appeared on NBCNews.com.


POSTED BY ON September 5, 2012

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[...] Rhee, explaining why the myth of local control that has helped foster the nation’s education crisis, needs to [...]

Don Ernst

Michelle Rhee starts with some assumptions that suggest to me she would feel more comfortable with Romney. First, the idea that local control is bad must be based on her own anti-democratic practices and experiences in D.C. Such practices led to teacher alienation, parent dissatisfaction, the defeat of a sitting mayor and the assumption that democracy and inclusion are problems. She seems committed and indeed comfortable with bypassing local voices and would prefer to centralize the promulgation of education policy. Further, she supports the current narrative of education in our democracy and therefore simply reinforces old practices that reject new hopes for redefining what we mean by success, acheivement, and intelligence. She seems to disregard the need to create positive conditions and circumstances for learning by drinking the cool-aid of– if we can just create the right kind of bottled up knowledge—read standards—then apply the sadly separatist, unjust, and incomplete judgment making technology of standardized testing”—well we can then achieve educational excellence. Such a view bypasses what we now know about human learning, about student engagement, the power of focusing on student interests and their learning passions not to mention the importance of teacher expertise and professionalism. Why does she get to decide and on what basis? I knew Fred Hechinger, and my sense is that Fred would have wanted to add the voices of Diane Ravitch, John Goodlad, Ted Sizer, Nell Noddings, Linda Darling-Hammond, Barnett Berry, David Orr, Mike Rose and other progressive education voices to the incomplete and arrogant-feeling of Rhee’s ideas.

Larry King

Michelle Rhee is a double down on standardized testing advocate, no friend of teachers, with views so toxic she can’t hold a job.

Rhee is part of the blame the teachers, looking for Superman, problem.

Her opinions on school reform are absolutely not to be trusted.

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