Michelle Rhee is 'Not Done Fighting' against public school teachers and unions

At an after school event, December 8, 2010, aimed at what former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee said was giving urban teachers voice in educational reform, educational data consulting firm Teach Plus hosted a by-invitation-only discussion with educational entrepreneur Michelle Rhee. Michelle Rhee on the cover of Newsweek (December 13, 2010) echoes the same corporate attack on veteran teachers that she made when she was on the cover of Time two years earlier. The Newsweek article by Rhee appears at the bottom of the Substance report here.

Teach Plus events utilize electronic audience-surveyed responses to presentation questions to generate discussions among participants. The surveyed group consisted of almost 90 teachers. More than half on them were from charter schools. The majority in the room had been teaching from 3-10 years, and their students are mostly high school aged.

All of this data was acquired with the first three survey questions, and was measured on various bar-graphs that the audience could see.

After an introduction that described Rhee as having “the most hits on the Internet regarding education,” Rhee took some time to describe the changes that she implemented as chancellor of Washington D.C. Public Schools. “What changed were the adults in the classroom, and that changed the academic trajectory,” she told the audience.

Rhee described what she said was her attempt to “sit-down at the table” with educational groups including various teachers unions, Rhee’s educational reform company The New Teacher Project, and others who have a stake in educational reform as being “difficult and unproductive.”

“[We] can’t have everyone in the room, or you won’t get anywhere. In the Civil Rights Movement, people weren’t sitting around saying ‘what can we do?’ they took to the streets,” she told the Chicago group.

Rhee admits that her policies and positions are controversial and hard for many to swallow. On the cover of the December 13th, 2010 Newsweek, Rhee declares that she’s “not done fighting.” Rhee left Washington DC after residents voted out Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had appointed Rhee D.C. schools chancellor even though her experience consisted of two controversial years as a Teach for American classroom teacher in Baltimore and running the New Teacher Project. Fenty's loss in the D.C. Democratic primary was attributed to the large discontent among organized teachers, at least 241of whom were fired from their teaching positions under what Rhee claimed was based on "failure." The overwhelming majority of the veteran teachers Rhee fired in D.C. were over the age of 30 and African-American.

Rhee recently launched her new organization, StudentsFirst to garner support for her position on education reform. While teachers, parents, students and “everyone else” are welcomed on the homepage, Rhee stands firm on her position towards teacher unions.

“The purpose of teachers unions is to protect the privileges, priorities, and pay of their members. And they're doing a good job of that,” she said. Though it is clear from Rhee’s point that unions have no place in the educational reform discussion, participants at the Teach Plus event were very engaged in the question responses which focused on teacher tenure, merit pay, and changing teacher evaluation.

Teachers were concerned with the extent to which poverty affects their students’ learning. “When I go into my classroom I need to believe that I can fix anything, but I know the problems are greater than that,” said Andrew R. a teacher in a charter school who attended Rhee's December 8 Chicago event.

Aaron, a CPS teacher commented, “I see the purpose of tenure – a teacher needs academic freedom – but I don’t feel that in it’s present form it protects me. I was almost laid off for no other reason than seniority.”

In sum:

- 95% of participants Agreed or Strongly Agreed to the statement that “All children can achieve at the highest level regardless of socio-economic background.”

- 77% Disagree or Strongly Disagree that teacher tenure is helpful in the education system.

- 71% Agree or Strongly Agree that merit pay for teachers will can have a positive impact on education, and

- 74% Agree or Strongly Agree that the school day should be longer for students. 