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Battle over education: Michelle Rhee, Tim Pawlenty and teacher unions

Michelle Rhee
Michelle Rhee

WASHINGTON — When Michelle Rhee announced she’d be stepping down as the head of Washington, D.C.’s public school system, one of the first statements of support came from Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

“Michelle Rhee's resignation is more evidence of the corrosive impact of teachers' unions in American schools,” Pawlenty began, after a salutary sentence that labeled her a “superwoman” of education.

That endorsement came a month after Pawlenty opined in the National Review that “America wants school reform,” where he again slammed teachers unions as America’s “education cartel” — “an indulgence we can no longer afford.”

In fact, over the past month and a half (beginning with that op-ed and culminating in Rhee’s departure) Pawlenty has subtly yet clearly laid out his education platform for the nation. It merges his aspirational record in Minnesota (that is, what he’s glad he did and would have liked to do but couldn’t) with related policies that fall outside a governor’s state-focused purview.

His self-association with Rhee, meanwhile, gives a large window into what Pawlenty views as an exemplary record that he would say ought to serve as a model for other school districts across the nation.

“When the governor announced that he wouldn't seek reelection last year, he said he'd spend more time helping conservative causes when he can,” said Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant. “Since education reform has long been a priority for him, it's not surprising that he's speaking out in support of reform champions like Michelle Rhee.”

The unions Pawlenty blasted, especially the ones he butted heads with so frequently in St. Paul, had a vastly different take.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Gov. Tim Pawlenty

“I think what he is trying to do is say that he is a hard-liner on teacher unions and that unions are bad,” said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “I think he’s grabbing on to the celebrity of Michelle Rhee and saying that that justifies his failed policies over the last eight years.”

As with anything Pawlenty does between now and early next year, the usual caveat applies — he hasn’t officially announced anything about his future plans. But it’s plainly obvious that he’s preparing a run for the White House and this education platform he’s unveiled is a step in that direction.

Pay for performance
Experts say that Pawlenty is making a clear statement about what he values by associating himself with Rhee’s education doctrine.

“It’s seeing teaching quality as the key factor in improving failing schools in particular and trying to approach the improvement of teacher quality both by financial incentives for high performance and for some methods of being able to release teachers who are seen as low performers,” said Robert Floden, the co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University. “She’s probably the most extreme example of someone who let a lot of teachers go on the basis of her judgments on their performance.”

Pawlenty being big on pay for performance will come as no surprise to Minnesotans who watched him attempt to implement the Q Comp program, which allows schools to opt in to a performance pay system in exchange for more money (though just 44 of 338 districts have opted in so far).

“My administration created the nation’s first statewide performance-pay program, linking teacher compensation to classroom and student achievement rather than just seniority,” he proudly wrote in the National Review. “We wanted to do so much more, and could have. But the teachers’ unions blocked us at every turn.”

The other planks of Pawlenty’s education platform:

  • Make private and religious schools an “option for all Americans, not just the privileged few.” Those words are usually code for vouchers;
  • Performance incentives not just for teachers and principals, but also for schools, districts and states.
  • Increase the focus on “alternate-format” schools, including home schools and technical schools;
  • Create “charter states” that can avoid federal regulations if they hit certain performance metrics.

Pawlenty’s education Superwoman
Pawlenty’s embrace of Rhee and shots at the education unions are somewhat synonymous.

Rhee resigned the chancellorship of the D.C.  Public Schools last week after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was defeated in the district’s August Democratic primary. Among the reasons most commonly cited for Fenty’s loss: Rhee, and the $1 million the local teacher’s union poured into the race hoping to get rid of her.

Start by acknowledging that Washington’s public schools — especially at the upper levels — are generally perceived as dreadful. President Obama, in a frank moment on the “Today Show” last month, said he enrolled his two daughters at the elite private Sidwell Friends school because he didn’t think they’d be able to get the quality education he wanted for them at a D.C. public school.

Rhee couldn’t do much about the fact that many D.C. kids hail from dangerous neighborhoods, poor families where the child’s only guaranteed meal is lunch at school and homes where English is a second language. She also couldn’t do much inside three years to reverse the persistent trend of well-off and well-educated parents either moving out of D.C. or, like Obama, placing their kids in expensive and exclusive private schools.

But she could do something about the schools themselves, and specifically the teachers and school administrators leading them.

In a bid to save money, Rhee closed 21 schools. She replaced principals she deemed incompetent and fired more than 240 teachers. She wanted to end teacher tenure and replace it with a strict merit pay system, but after a year of tough negotiations she settled for a landmark deal that allowed her to fire those “incompetent teachers” while issuing bonuses to high-performing educators.

Yes, student test scores edged higher in her three years at the helm. But many school officials and parents complained that she didn’t take time to listen (especially to divergent opinion) and that she moved too hastily — charges that have also been leveled by some at Pawlenty.

Rhee describes herself as impatient, and critics say she didn’t listen to others before ramming through those reforms. At the end of her tenure, her approval ratings were underwater. Polls showed that a majority of D.C. public school parents who voted cast their ballots for mayor in favor of the guy who would get rid of her.

There are two schools of thought on the chancellor, alternately portraying her as either St. Joan of Arc or the Wicked Witch of the East. Either she was heaven-sent to fix the failing schools but politically martyred by those who opposed change when it threatened the status quo, or she was ousted from above after a reign of terror over Munchkinland.

Pawlenty is clearly in the former camp.

“Despite — or maybe because of — the early success of her school reforms, the teachers' unions worked tirelessly to stop her, showing no compassion for the thousands of children stuck in failing D.C. schools,” Pawlenty said in that statement lauding her. “Despite the teachers' unions' success in defeating Michelle Rhee, her leadership is inspiring to reformers everywhere and will make it harder for the unions to defend the failed status quo.”

Multiple efforts to reach Rhee for this article were unsuccessful. But the day she found out Fenty had lost (incidentally, while at a screening of an education documentary that lauds her called “Waiting for Superman”) she reflected to the Washington Post:

"I think part of the problem in public education to date has been that we all have to feel good, let's not ruffle too many feathers," she said, noting that when she arrived in 2007, eight percent of the District's eighth graders were doing math at grade level.

"I am not going to sugarcoat that," she said. "I am not going to make you feel better about that. That is an outcome that is absolutely criminal."

Pawlenty, Rhee:  ‘acrimonious relationships’ with unions
For Pawlenty, talking education makes some amount of sense, analysts said.

“Education is an issue Pawlenty knows well, he’s thought about it for a long while and he’s put out some ideas on how to handle the problems,” said Larry Jacobs, professor and director of the Humphrey Institute of Political Affairs at the University of Minnesota. “It’s also a good issue for him because it crosses boundaries - you can be a conservative on education and still appeal to some independents and even some waffling Democrats.”

Like Rhee, Jacobs said, Pawlenty “had a very acrimonious relationship with the teachers unions.”

Dooher, whose union represents about 70,000 Minnesota teachers, recalls meeting with Pawlenty to discuss reforms. He didn’t get far - in fact, Dooher said those who didn’t agree with the governor were labeled obstructionists.

“We want to make sure that any change that happens is going to be for the betterment of our children and not because the political soup du jour, and I think that’s what Pawlenty is pushing right now — this seems to be a popular thing and therefore he’s going to grab on to it and not really have a concern if our schools in the state or nationally better — only if it helps him promote his national agenda.”

Further, Dooher said, the governor didn’t do much of anything to bridge Minnesota’s achievement gap between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children. And, he added, successes like being tops nationally in ACT scores had little or nothing to do with the man in the governor’s mansion.

Under Pawlenty, Dooher said the state Department of Education became a “mouthpiece” for the administration’s policies and a sort of policing agency, rather than one that supported school districts. He said the same would happen on the federal level if Pawlenty were elected president.

“I think in terms of Pawlenty, we are doing well in spite of his failed policies,” Dooher said. “For eight years he sort of put forward the same failed things and now that he has aspirations for higher office he thinks that he’s some great education reformer.”

Of course, even the negative relationship Pawlenty has with the teachers’ unions may wind up helping him electorally. “He’s not going to win the Republican nomination for president by agreeing with the teachers union,” Jacobs noted.

Conant wouldn’t get drawn in on the campaign aspect of the Rhee association, or Pawlenty’s education rollout, instead saying it’s “premature to contemplate 2012.”

However, Conant added that “it's a safe bet that whatever the governor does after he leaves office, he'll remain a strong advocate for education reform.”

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Comments (25)

What is desperately needed is “comprehensive education reform.” This reform would empower families and children, rather than empower democratic special interest unions.

With comprehensive education reform, our children would be able to have the some kind of education that Mr. Obama enjoyed and the education his children currently enjoy.

Until this type of education reform takes place, we will continue the same cycle of giving more money more money to the education monopoly who then will give more money to the democrats.

//This reform would empower families and children,

It's amazing the extent to which some people have adopted a consumer mythology as viable public policy. You see the same thing with healthcare, the idea that given sufficient choices people will buy the best product.

This is a public policy fiasco because it substitutes markets for public policy. Markets are all about making money, and 50% of those who try to compete in markets with new ventures fail and go bankrupt. This means that huge amounts of resources are wasted in failed ventures. Now an economy under normal circumstances can absorb that failure rate, and so what if some guys new idea for a toothbrush fails in the market. But when your talking public policy and institutions that perform vital and necessary civic functions that failure rate is unacceptable and harmful to the social fabric of our nation and state.

We don't need someone to "invent" education or health care, these systems already exist, we know how educate people, we've been doing it for thousands of years. The problem isn't teacher pay, or unions, or innovation. The problem is a lack of sincere and concentrated focus. Instead of pouring our resources into a systems that work teaching a data driven curriculum, we're wasting huge amounts of resources on failed entrepreneurs and fuzzy culture war curriculum.

It's important to remember that this whole thing started back in the 80s with the Republican demand for back to basics curriculum's. At the end of the 70 we had a huge amount of experimentation and innovation in our public school systems but the Republicans blamed the schools and the Universities for the generation gap and all it's perceived evils. The back to basics demands ended up turning the schools into a cultural battle ground. We've spent more time arguing about the pledge of allegiance than we have math scores over the last 40 years, and it shows.

So now the latest Republican plan to fix education, having failed with the back to basics gambit, is to bust Teachers Unions. Once again you see absolutely no effort to discuss curriculum beyond fatuous demands for creationism in biology classes. The schools are turned into a battle ground for market ideology driven attacks on labor. The effect is obscure the issue rather than clarify the problem and focus on solutions we know work, just like the health care debate.

Rhee's successor is in for a tough ride.

She raised academic outcomes in three years; if that trend isn't continued, or God forbid, reversed, there will be hell to pay.

Rhee did some good things in Washington but it's way too early to conclude that what she did was specifically effective in raising academic outcomes. What's also been pretty clear to me along the way is that the management style she chose was pretty likely to get her fired sooner rather than later, making it pretty much impossible to fairly evaluate her impact on Washington schools.

Even though we can't be exactly sure what the long term effect of her short tenure in Washington schools will be, we can be very certain that her relentless campaign of self promotion will continue unabated.

"Yes, student test scores edged higher in her three years at the helm. But many school officials and parents complained that she didn’t take time to listen (especially to divergent opinion) and that she moved too hastily — charges that have also been leveled by some at Pawlenty."

According to that quote from the article, she did a major portion of her job (improve test scores)....but lost it because she angered people at all levels (unions and parents). We can all relate to that!!

Attributing a small improvement in test scores to Rhee and Rhee alone, or a weaker Teachers Union is probably a mistake. If you'd seen a dramatic increase, maybe, but this may not even be a statistically significant increase. This may be yet another example of Republican celebration of mediocrity.

Some people have a knack for generating big controversy but small results.

What you say is true, Paul.

But vis-a-vis public education, there are many more that seem to have a knack for generating big controversy and no results.

Three years positive movement? Our largest school districts can't make that claim in their dreams.

Given Rhee's unpopularity with the teachers union and some parents, I'd guess she was walking the right path.

Once again, the kids will pay.

Diane Ravitch has an interesting review of Waiting for Superman in the New York review of books. I'd encourage people reading - and commenting on - the article to read it.

Link: http://bit.ly/cbcROZ

"Some fact-checking is in order, and the place to start is with the film’s quiet acknowledgment that only one in five charter schools is able to get the “amazing results” that it celebrates. Nothing more is said about this astonishing statistic."

"Michelle Rhee gained her teaching experience in Baltimore as an employee of Education Alternatives, Inc., one of the first of the for-profit operations."

"But contrary to the myth that Guggenheim propounds about “amazing results,” even Geoffrey Canada’s schools have many students who are not proficient. On the 2010 state tests, 60 percent of the fourth-grade students in one of his charter schools were not proficient in reading, nor were 50 percent in the other. It should be noted—and Guggenheim didn’t note it—that Canada kicked out his entire first class of middle school students when they didn’t get good enough test scores to satisfy his board of trustees."

Do it for the children, Tom? Yah, fersure.

More of the same:

"While blasting the teachers’ unions, he points to Finland as a nation whose educational system the US should emulate, not bothering to explain that it has a completely unionized teaching force. His documentary showers praise on testing and accountability, yet he does not acknowledge that Finland seldom tests its students. Any Finnish educator will say that Finland improved its public education system not by privatizing its schools or constantly testing its students, but by investing in the preparation, support, and retention of excellent teachers. It achieved its present eminence not by systematically firing 5–10 percent of its teachers, but by patiently building for the future. Finland has a national curriculum, which is not restricted to the basic skills of reading and math, but includes the arts, sciences, history, foreign languages, and other subjects that are essential to a good, rounded education. Finland also strengthened its social welfare programs for children and families. Guggenheim simply ignores the realities of the Finnish system."

All teacher's unions bad, Tom? I don't think so...

Rhee made a point of offending people. That's what got her the job, it's what made her the darling of the media, and it's what got her fired. And it's what got her off the hook from actually sticking with a job long enough so that her performance could be meaningfully evaluated.

Now she gets to play the martyr which she will no doubt be able to trade in for another, more lucrative, less accountable job, leaving the kids of Washington D.C. thoroughly in the lurch.

Bill, does any of that discount the fact that the DC school system saw tangible results after just three years under the leadership of Michelle Rhee?

Thought not.

Did the teachers union use any credible stastics in their fevered campaign to remove her?

No, because the data favored her.

You're welcome to continue to sing the non-existant virtues of the status quo, Bill.

But your song is fast becoming a solo.

While you tune, I am happy to provide this sonata from the late chief legal council of the teachers union, Bob Chanin.

http://tinyurl.com/25t4bw5

For the children, indeed.

Hiram, with all due respect, to conclude, in the face of the all out offensive mounted against her by the union, that Rhee abandoned her post willingly is one of the most bizarre things I've seen on MinnPost this week.

Well, to be technical, she did resign, but she would certainly have been fired. Michele went out of her way to antagonize people, and the reasonably foreseeable consequence of that is that she would get fired. Her deliberately sought unpopularity was a significant factor in bringing Fenty down, in fact.

Nice sidestep on the point about unions, Tom.

To be expected.

And the blind belief in test-scores as "the answer" and firing those teachers who "don't measure up" will only lead to further disaster in the classroom, witness Ravitch's comments.

I'm not trying to convince you of anything Mr. Swift. How's that time machine?

It's for the children.

Michelle Rhee resigned because she could not get along with the new mayor, Tom. I'm sure she'll land on her feet. Aren't there some rumors that she may be education chief in New Jersey for some right wing governor? Being a right-wing martyr can be very profitable, just ask Mrs. Palin...

D.C. schools are tied into the larger District of Columbia government, where patronage is king. It's a case study on why public schools should not be part of the Mayor's office--directly or indirectly.

Absolutely no research demonstrates merit pay increases teacher productivity, and actually an extensive study by a university group with no dog in the fight just a few weeks ago revealed it did nothing to increase teacher or school effectiveness. For a parent with a child in public school, knowing the system was doing everything possible to raise the performance of every teacher would mean a lot more than knowing the teacher across the hall from my child was earning 2x as much as my child's teacher. Every one covets Finland's school achievements-- what do they do--revere the teaching profession, totally unionized teaching workforce, avoid standardized tests, and programs that keep children and families out of poverty. I'm not saying all of that is the silver bullet here--lots of differences between the countries, but it's more fact based than the unsubstantiated ramblings.

How about commenting about Minnesota's schools, rather than D.C.'s? Minnesota schools are at the top, nationally, of many measures of excellence, despite the slams of Tim Pawlenty.

Michelle Rhee doesn't work here. Neither does C. Pearson Yecke. Swifty will try to paint Minnesota's schools and teachers by using the example of the Minneapolis district because it fits his narrative. Unfortunately, that example is unlike almost every other district in the state. It's problems cannot be used as a prescription model for all districts.

Minnesota has long had open enrollment, charter schools, and post-secondary education options. These are reforms that some critics elsewhere have called for, citing union obstruction. Minnesota has them and still has strong teachers unions. Minnesota public schools are great, no thanks to the Pawlentys of the world.

Bill, when was the last time you can recall that a physicist was hired that couldn't describe the limits of a function...or a burger flipper that can't tell "well done" from burnt to a crisp.

We all face do-or-die tests in life.

Even the children the public schools have tossed to the streets.

There is no time machine, Bill. It's all in your head.

If only I had the resources like that of Dr Canada and the support like that of The Finish government and the schedule and class load of their teachers.

Thanks, Bill Gleason, for mentioning Diane Ravitch. I highly recommend reading her articles or books to anyone who laments the current fever to make education a competitive rather than a cooperative endeavor, to demonize unions and to blame absolutely everything on teachers who have no control over what happens to child outside the schoolroom.

Ms. Ravitch was Assistant Secretary for Research in George Bush's Education Department until she became totally disillusioned with No Child Left Behind and quit her job. She now warns, and I'm sure she's right, that Race to the Top is just a little less draconian version of No Child.

John Kenneth Galbraith used to speak of "the convenient social virtue" of those who worked for the satisfaction of contributing to the community in occupations like teaching, military service, and nursing. Their "virtue" lay in accepting the gratitude and admiration given them IN PLACE OF A LIVING WAGE by the recipients of their efforts -- until they discovered that joining unions could correct that underpayment without destroying the inner satisfaction they gained from their work.

The effort to kill unions has been underway since the early 1980s. Unfortunately, Rhee is just one of many Americans fighting to take away the right of workers to organize.

Japan, Finland, Israel and a number of European countries have teacher unions. If the U.S. all of a sudden gets rid of the latter, students will all of a sudden realize higher academic achievement levels? Shazzam, shazzam!

Japan, Finland, Israel, United States of America.

Mike, one of these things is not like the others. Can you tell which one it is?

Bonus question: Do you know why it's different?

Once again, the private sector can provide the ultimate solution to excellence in education. Demonstrate excellence or die. Another related issue ; Do the teachers unions think their contracts/entitlements are sustainable? How much of our state budget is currently spent on education? The ponzie schemes and pyramid scams should give the unions a clue. If not have some of the more competent math teachers run the numbers. We are bankrupt by any business definition.

People who claim that "pay-for-performance" leads to improved outcomes for children should cite their evidence. An ideological/religious belief, "it should work that way because captialism explains all," may be a fine way to have an opinion but it's a totally bankrupt way to make public policy. Good public policy is made when there's evidence that something works.
Want to know what there's evidence for? I'd say 3 things. 1)Geoffrey Canada's approach, which is to spend $35,000 per child on comprehensive child-family services (Kent, if you think the unions are expensive, wait till you see the bill from the "reformers!") 2)Recruiting the very best and brightest into teaching from the start (see Finland, for example), which would require dramatically increasing teacher pay to be commensurate with doctors, etc., 3)reducing the social forces, (read, poverty) that surround the lack of educational achievement in the inner city. That's gone largely undiscussed here but let's recognize that the US has vastly more poor people than any of the other high-achieving education countries (see comparison with Finland) and that's where the lousy educational achievement is. I work professoinally with preschoolers and I can tell you that when the average poor child reaches Kindergarten they are already WAY behind the kids in Edina. YES, it is the job of education systems to do right by children, to offer them the very best. But we are living a societal lie when we say the whole problem (or even most of the problem) is the education system.
I expect people will jump all over me from various perspectives for raising the issue of poverty but if you are going to do so, please do 2 things 1) refute it with DATA that says that I'm wrong, and 2) analyze the mechanisms behind poverty-wealth disparity (such as the incredible disparities in the oral language development of the average child in poverty vs those in the suburbs. YES, the average school in the inner city is not nearly the quality of the schools in the burbs. But they are also trying to educate children who have had much less opportunity to learn for 5 critical years. What the achievement gap says is, so far, we have found no way through education to ameliorate the negative effects on brain development of spending the first 5 years of your life in lesser learning circumstances.