My guess is that unless you keep abreast of US politics, you probably won’t have heard of Michelle Rhee. She was, until very recently, children’s chancellor to Adrian Fenty, mayor of Washington, DC, until he was defeated in the Democratic primary on September 14th.
Over her three years in tenure Rhee turned education in Washington schools around and, as The New Republic, put it, ‘imposed competence on Washington’s shambolic schools’. She achieved this by closing failing schools and sacking incompetent teachers. In so doing, she caused the percentages of secondary students passing competency tests to shoot up by 14 points in reading and 17 points in maths; she rationalised the procurement of text books, devised new mechanisms for measuring the performance of teachers, and supported children with special needs; and, she stabilised enrolment in the state school system. To accomplish this, Michelle Rhee did what many mayors and governors throughout the United States would like to do: she took on the teachers’ union, ‘the base of the base’ of the Democratic Party, as Steven Brill in tnr calls it.
When it came to priorities, Rhee was in no doubt where hers lay. In a recent interview on National Public Radio (npr), she said:
“… for me, I think it’s very clear that the focus and main priority of the school district has to be educating its children well, and that jobs have to take a backseat to that. And we can’t forsake what’s happening to schoolchildren every single day in the classroom in the name of maintaining jobs for adults, because I think in many school districts – not just in Washington, D.C. – that has been the case, and that protecting jobs was more important than children achieving. And that’s what’s led to the incredibly poor academic outcomes in this nation.”
Sadly, when Fenty lost the primary and Vincent Gray, the candidate backed by the American Federation of Teachers and a hardline critic of Rhee won, Rhee’s position became untenable and she resigned. This is a significant setback for Obama, whose ‘Race to the Top’ programme has stimulated a raft of legislation throughout the states intended to hold teachers accountable for their performance. It is also a setback for the much needed reform of state schooling in the USA.