Kristof, Rhee and “education reform”

by David Safier

I experienced a dozen conflicting emotions as I read Nicholas Kristof's NY Times, column, Education's Ground Zero this morning.

I'm on Kristof's side of most issues. When I'm not, I know I can't dismiss him. Today, though, his column has echoes of the ideas conservatives have been pushing about education. Hence, the conflict.

Here's the thrust of Kristof's argument. The real educational "reformers" are people who want to decrease the power of teachers' unions by giving the district the power to fire teachers, and, as a trade off, increase salaries of the excellent teachers who remain.

He's talking specifically about Michelle Rhee, the current chancellor of D.C. schools, whom he mostly praises for the work she has done, with a few caveats. He calls her "an insurgent from the school-reform movement." Rhee, by the way, is much loved and touted by educational conservatives, and her ideas go beyond firing bad teachers and raising the salaries of the rest.

This is Rhee's second year, and Kristof says, "Test results showed more educational gains last year than in the previous four years put together." I haven't seen the results he's talking about, so until I know more, I'll have to accept his stat. I plan to look deeper to see if it's an accurate and meaningful figure.

Here's the problem for me. The educational right has successfully branded themselves as "reformers" and called the teacher's unions and ed profs the "establishment." Their entire agenda includes what Kristof says — give the districts a free hand to fire bad teachers, raise teacher salaries and (since these aren't folks who want to increase school spending) increase class sizes. But it also includes expanding charter schools with minimum regulation and oversight (I'm for charters, but also for oversight) and making vouchers the order of the day. And the back-to-basics style it espouses favors teaching things that can be measured on multiple choice tests.

By this definition, George Bush is a reformer. Bill Bennett is a reformer. Michelle Rhee is an insurgent reformer. This reminds me of the Christian right calling itself a besieged minority and adopting the language of the civil rights movement. Conservatives are masters at using language to further their agenda, and by rebranding the Christian right as a "minority" and educational conservatism as "reform," they're trying to make the powerful, conservative, moneyed interests look like Martin Luther King and 60s anti-war protesters. Like so much in conservative language, its purpose is to distort and confuse the issue to their advantage.

And I think Kristof and others on the moderate left have been taken in by the language, because it resonates with their civil rights/protest movement memories.

On the other hand, Rhee is worth watching. She's a newbie, and she's already beginning to backpedal a bit on her agenda, saying she was trying to do too many things at once. She's made more than a few enemies, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The question is, who is right, Rhee or her detractors? She could easily crash and burn, leaving little to show for her tenure as D.C. Chancellor. Then again, she could shake things up in D.C. and bring about some much needed change, even — dare I say it? — reform.

So here's the multiple conflict. No one can defend D.C. schools. They're a disaster area. Everyone agrees they need to be changed for the better.  But that doesn't mean the people who come in with what they're calling "reform" know what they're doing. I don't know much about Rhee, but I do know that lots of her supporters are privatizers who would like to use vouchers to move public money into private schools, which I think is a very bad, very dangerous idea.

So, with a skeptical but open mind — what I want more than anything is improved education in the U.S., especially for students from the low end of the socio-economic scale, so I want to see someone come up with some real movement in this area – I'll watch and wait.

0 responses to “Kristof, Rhee and “education reform”

  1. Telling a truth — that SOME public school teachers at least in DCPS where I have a daughter in public school do a very poor job of teaching — is not “attacking public school teachers.” Further, Michelle Rhee and the people who support her plan are also calling for something the union contract currently blocks — paying much more for teachers overall and linking the higher pay to reward teachers who are better at teaching. Today, the contract links pay to achieving degrees (not necessarily correlated positively with good teaching) and seniority. What about two different teachers – both 32 years old with masters degrees. Teacher A is working longer and harder with the same number of students and achieving solid results. Teacher B is slacking off a bit and has a lot going on in her life that sometimes interfers with performance in the classroom. Under the current contract, both get paid the same. Is that right?

  2. -I agree completely with the post – Kristof’s column was truly upsetting. As a teacher at a top ten university who comfortably enjoys a class size of 14 and a total student load of 30 per semester, I would say that attacking public school teachers is the most conservative, despicable, and conspiratorial social act in existence today.

    Teaching is a difficult profession, perhaps one of the most difficult, and many of these public school teachers have to deal with student loads over 100. Imagine how hard it is to keep track of your two or three children; now multiply that stress by fifty.

    The answer to our public school problems: hire more teachers; pay all teachers more; support the unions over rich plutocrats; do away with all silly requirements for teaching public school; enlist the army of unpaid, unemployed graduate students in this country. A masters degree in anything and two years experience is enough. You have to decrease class size before anything positive will happen. Rhee will crash and burn, and may all teacher-haters burn in hell.

  3. David, I’m not sure why you insist in lumping reformers and conservatives together. I’m quite sure Nicholas Kristof favors significantly more funding for public education. In fact, President Obama’s first budget more than doubles federal education funding from $50 billion to $106 billion. I haven’t heard anyone to the left of the Goldwater Institute seriously suggest that class sizes should be increased. One can be in favor of increased funding, increased teacher salaries, and more accountability at the school, teacher and student levels. In fact, those concepts are very consistent, and represent the major tenets of progressive education reform over the last 15 years.

    Two additional points. First, teacher organizations in Arizona are much weaker (by law) than unions in many other states. So the horror stories of union intransigence that we often hear about don’t really happen here. Second, I predict the infatuation with Michelle Rhee will cool pretty quickly. She is confrontational rather than collaborative and no matter how bad “the system” is in DC, constant insults, threats, and battles don’t increase performance. But that doesn’t negate the validity of asking for more accountability in return of higher funding and salaries.