Monday, November 8, 2010

Allan Peachey: Revolutionising Public Schooling

The other day I came across the name Michelle Rhee. I knew it was a name I had come across sometime in the past. A bit of a memory search and I recalled where it was. It was a “Time” magazine article back in 2008. Rhee had been appointed Chancellor of the Washington DC School District, one of the poorest performing school districts in the entire American public school system, with falling rolls and achievement levels year on year.

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?


Bill Courtney said...

But what Mr Peachey doesn't go on to tell you, is that Michelle Rhee has just been fired after her former mentor lost the recent election as Mayor. Her "reforms" are, indeed, yet to be tested. But they sound very similar to so many of the accountability / choice theories that predominate US and English education systems. What a pity none of them work! Good to see you have discovered Diane Ravitch's book, Mr Peachey, the sub-title of which is: "How Testing and Choice are undermining education". Perhaps a few more quotes might be in order? Why don't you tell everyone that Diane Ravitch has turned her back on the whole choice / accountablity mantra, as she learns just how much harm it has done to US education.

Evan said...

Some wisdom here:

" 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). "

We've seen what Heather Roy and that committee have initiated in terms of aspire scholarships to enable SOME parents to exercise SOME choice of private schools.

Choice won't go much further, there must be a better way.

Goatcabin said...

Better teachers?
We need a better quality of pupil!

Anonymous said...

A country can only do what is possible, and with very powerful unions what is possible is now very limited.
Perhaps having a new grade of teacher - Senior Teacher - that has an annual establishment and substantial increase in salary over and above union rates might work. Such Senior Teachers must be prepared to give up all admin work - trained administrators could do this task better than any teacher; devote themselves to teaching; and be prepared to teach to large classes. International research shows that classes size (of up to 60) has little effect on student learning, so it would make good sense to pay excellent wages to excellent teachers who are required to teach large classes. The Senior Teacher's performance could be monitored by the "value added" technology, which is precise and which compensates for poorly motivated or prepared students. An ST who fails the end of year performance assessment reverts to ordinary pay scales and ordinary status.
The teachers reading this must realise that we cannot tolerate a situation where 20% of all school leavers are functionally illiterate. And reducing class sizes will only reduce teacher quality in the long run since propsective teachers are selected for entry into the profession on the basis of quality. More teachers, less average quality. Furthermore, a poor teacher who cannot handle 20 rowdy and misbehaving pupils will not be able to handle 18 rowdy, misbehaving children. Reducing class size is the wrong answer to a serious problem.

Thomas said...

I am a teacher. Once a student - not in my class - came into my workshop swearing most vulgarly at another student. I consequently filled in the required reports, forms and what-not. Then I went up to the local police office and laid a complaint. Upshot? Nothing. Just a really quick visit from the Principal at 7am expressing his concern, not at being the victim of offensive language, but that I had laid a complaint with the police.
As for the police? The police liaison youth officer visited the Principal. Nothing else happened. Sucks eh?

Anonymous said...

Yes, we want and need good teachers but who wants to work in an environemt where you are ground down by ever increasing demands and paperwork plus the lack of commitment to proper standards of pupil behaviour?

Money alone is not an adequate recompense.

While denying teachers tenure seems attractive it does create situations where teachers will not speak out on current problems, will comply with the latest fads without raising any objections and will learn to keep their heads down.Not all Principals and administrators are reasonable and rational human beings.

I say that we do need genuine school and curriculum choice with the option of keeping the bureaucrats with their disruptive agenda away from our children.

Until we have this we are not going to see any significant improvement. The people who have the power in the State school system are the ones who have allowed waffly curricula and widespread ill discipline.

The system wasn't broke before they got their hands on it but it's certainly broke now. Other countries have gone down the school choice road but unless enough parents cry enough they and their children are going to be stuck in this educational morass.