Rhee: “Now is the Time to Act” in Education Reform

January 14, 2011 05:47

The latest embarrassing rankings of U.S. students by the Program for International Student Assessment compared to their international peers (of 65 countries, American 15-year-olds were 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math), can focus the nation on the need for change.

The Americano:

Michelle Rhee was chancellor of the public school system in Washington, D.C., from 2007-2010. Many consider her one of the most advanced thinkers in the field of public education. Others, particularly those in teachers unions, see her as the devil; the woman who fired tenured teachers if she found that they had lost their skills.

She transformed the Washington D.C. public school system, increasing the number of charter schools and promoting teachers for their accomplishments, not for their seniority. Rhee quit her job when the major who employed and backed her was defeated in last November’s election. She is the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst.

On Tuesday Rhee published an op-ed article in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. As usual, what she had to say was direct and to the point. She is an important voice to those who believe America’s public schools must improve if this country is going to remain the most powerful nation in the world.

What follows is an edited version of Ms. Rhee’s article in the WSJ.

“In the past year, 46 states grappled with budget deficits of more than $130 billion. This year could be worse as federal recovery dollars dry up. And yet, for education reform, 2011 could be the best of times.

“California, to name one example, bridged its $25.4 billion budget gap by cutting billions from public education. It is now forced to cut another $18 billion to fill its current deficit. . .

“On the bright side, public support is building for a frontal attack on the educational status quo. And policy makers are rising to the challenge. . . .

“Three weeks ago, I founded StudentsFirst, a national organization to defend and promote the interests of children in public education and to pursue an aggressive reform agenda to make American schools the best in the world. . . .

. . . Several governors, in states such as Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico and Nevada (all now governed by Republicans) have been interested in how we might join forces. Mayors in big cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Newark want to push the envelope, too.

“This week StudentsFirst is introducing its legislative agenda, ‘A Challenge to States and Districts: Policies that Put Students First.’ It is a comprehensive set of policies and legislation that we believe must be adopted to create the right environment at local and state levels, where transformational school reform can take hold.

“We do not pretend that we are the first to advocate for the ideas in this agenda . . . However, we do believe that the fiscal crisis, and the latest embarrassing rankings of U.S. students by the Program for International Student Assessment compared to their international peers (of 65 countries, American 15-year-olds were 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math), can focus the nation on the need for change. . .

“StudentsFirst’s efforts will center on three key areas:

“• Treating teachers like professionals. Compensation, staffing decisions and professional development should be based on teachers’ effectiveness, not on their seniority. That means urging states and districts to implement a strong performance pay system for the best teachers, while discontinuing tenure as job protection for ineffective teachers.

“The budget crisis inevitably requires layoffs of school staff. Teacher-layoff policies are a good example of how recognizing quality over seniority translates into responsible decision-making during difficult economic times. Currently, layoff decisions are based on seniority. . . However, research . . . shows that when teacher layoffs are determined by seniority it hurts students and teachers.

“• Empowering parents and families with real choices and real information. Parents, especially those who live in lower-income neighborhoods, have limited educational options for their children. StudentsFirst believes that states and school districts must remove the barriers that limit the number of available seats in high-quality schools. This includes allowing the best charter schools to grow and serve more students. It also means giving poor families access to publicly funded scholarships to attend private schools. All children deserve the chance to get a great education; no family should be forced to send kids to a school they know is failing. . .

“• Ensure accountability for every dollar and every child. Due to the financial downturn in the states, it is critically important to ensure that every dollar spent on public education has a positive impact on student learning.

“States will continue to find it difficult to solve budget deficits if they continue to ignore problems surrounding the current structure of their benefits and pensions for teachers and administrators. For example, states and districts must shift new employees from defined-benefit pension programs to portable, defined-contribution plans where employees can contribute a proportionate amount to their own retirement savings. This will help ensure that states aren’t draining their budgets with pension payouts.

“Sometimes only a shakeup in the school governance structure can bring about fiscal responsibility. After all, the buck has to stop somewhere. . .

“Now is the time to act. With 28 new governors, 10 big mayoral races this year, and shifting ideological balances inside of old political parties, there is a real opportunity for change.

The Americano/Agencies

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