Monday, November 8, 2010
Allan Peachey: Revolutionising Public Schooling
A bit of research and I located the article and the sentence that most caught my attention:
“…there is always a fine excuse, Superintendents, parents and teachers in whom school districts lament systematic problems they cannot control: poverty, hunger, violence, and negligent parents. They bicker over small improvements such as class size and curriculum…. To the extent that they intervene at all, politicians respond by either throwing more money at the problem (if they are on the left) or making it easier for some parents to send their kids to private schools (if they are on the right). Meanwhile millions of students left behind in confused classrooms spend another day learning nothing.”
Rhee, on taking up her job put up a very strong argument in support of effective teachers. She argued that for children living in poverty and disadvantage where they lived would not change. Neither their parents nor their diets would change. The violence in their communities would not change. But what could change were their schools and their teachers. To quote from the “Time” magazine again:
“Rhee is convinced that the answer to the U.S.’s education catastrophe is talent, in the form of outstanding teachers and principals. She wants to make Washington’s the highest paid in the country, and in exchange she wants to get rid of the weakest teachers.”
To put it a different way I quote from Diane Ravitch, a former US Assistant Secretary of Education in the George HW Bush Administration (1986-93) in her recently published book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” (page 173):
“Rhee wanted the freedom to fire teachers who did not share her belief that all children, regardless of the disadvantages in their life, can post high test schools, and that the only impediment to academic success is not their family or their poverty, but the quality of their teacher.”
Rhee focussed her attention on what is known in the United States as tenure. In New Zealand we know it as permanent employment. This is what she has been quoted as saying “tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions but has no educational value for kids, only benefits adults”. In other words she wanted to replace a system which paid teachers on the basis of how long they has been in a job and which gave long-serving teachers security from lay-offs when a school roll fell at the expense of less long-serving but maybe more competent younger teachers. These same conditions apply in New Zealand.
So Rhee made an offer to the Washington Teachers’ Union. She did not propose to abolish tenure for all teachers. Instead she proposed a choice. Teachers could choose between two pay scales. Note that at the time of the offer the average teacher’s salary in Washington DC was $66,000. One option was to pay a teacher up to $130,000 a year based on their performance, in return for giving up tenure for one year, after which they would need the principal’s recommendation for further employment or face dismissal. The other option that teachers were given was to keep their tenure and receive a small pay increase in their new contract. A brilliant proposal I thought. As a young teacher and certainly as a principal I was always more than willing to back myself on the basis of my effectiveness. I would have really appreciated the opportunity to be paid according to how good I was rather than how long I had been in the job. Needless to say, the Teachers’ Union split when a blazing row broke out between teachers as to the merits of Rhee’s proposal. And the union refused to put Rhee’s proposal to a vote.
It took three years before the unions agreed to a new contract with Rhee. The new contract offered 20% pay increases and bonuses of $20,000 - $30,000 for strong student achievement. So she got a form of performance pay in return for weakened teachers’ seniority protection and the end of teacher tenure for one year. While Rhee was waiting for agreement she closed down 21 schools, fired 100 bureaucrats and 270 teachers, and removed 36 principals – following the agreement she fired another 341 teachers and put another 737 on notice. I will be watching with interest to see how the Washington DC School district performs in the next few years. If Rhee succeeds her approach has the potential to revolutionise public schooling. But will we in New Zealand ever be smart enough to pick up on such success?
at 12:51 AM