Obama Can Help Rhee Fix DC's Schools

Tackling teacher tenure could launch meaningful education reforms

One of the hot items for kids this Christmas is the "Imagine Teacher" game for Nintendo DS, where kids role play as teachers. The goal of the game is to build up the enrollment of a new school based on your performance as a teacher. As the game's description explains: "At the beginning your class only has a few kids because most of the kids in town are used to going to a school located in the next town over. It is your job to bring those students back to make your classroom and school the best place to learn."

The game's designers have taken a page from Michelle Rhee's playbook. The DC school chancellor's education philosophy stresses the value of teacher talent and results over tenure. As a recent Time magazine profile explained, Rhee has "a relentless focus on finding--and rewarding--strong teachers, purging incompetent ones and weakening the tenure system that keeps bad teachers in the classroom."

Ms. Rhee has proposed an innovative teacher contract to let DC's teachers choose between two pay scales. They could get massive raises, earning up to $130,000 a year, if they take merit pay and give up tenure for one year, which would make it easier for Rhee to fire bad teachers. Or they could keep tenure and earn much less money. To date, the local union has refused to let teachers vote on Rhee's proposal.

"Tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions," Rhee told The New York Times. "But has no educational value for kids; it only benefits adults."

Michelle Rhee is not alone. In New York, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has revitalized the way teachers are hired by implementing an "open market" hiring system. New York ended "force placing" practices that required principals to hire available teachers even if they weren't qualified or a good fit for that school. Now principals have the authority to pick the teachers who are the best suited for their schools and needs.

There are a handful of urban school leaders across the country trying to improve our schools and revolutionize the teaching profession by making higher teacher quality the cornerstone of education reform in America. These leaders are urging a shift in labor practices to attract better teachers. They want to give teachers more pay, flexibility and fewer bureaucratic rules. They want teachers rewarded for the student outcomes they produce, not for holding advanced college degrees. The goal is to liberate teachers by exchanging today's prescriptive work rules and automatic tenure for more flexibility to innovate in their classrooms, higher salaries and advancement opportunities that are based on whether or not their students are actually learning and improving.

A December report from the Center for American Progress demonstrates why teacher quality is so crucial, especially for high-poverty students. The study found that students with a teacher in the top quartile of the talent pool achieve are getting the equivalent of an extra two or three months of instruction per year, compared with kids who have a teacher in the bottom 25 percent. They concluded that consistent exposure to high-quality teachers substantially lowers the barriers to academic success imposed by poverty and that teacher quality is much more important than oft-talked about reforms like class size.

President-elect Barack Obama should join the fight for good teachers. During the campaign he stressed merit pay for teachers. The current tenure system doesn't reward teachers based on results, just seniority and years in the classroom. It is time to stop rewarding poor teachers for time-served.

In the recent Time cover story, Rhee suggested the incoming Obama administration could make a big difference in her battle with the union over teacher quality, saying, "It would send a huge message if this administration actually took a side on where we are with union negotiations here."

Obama has called Rhee a "wonderful new superintendent." And he has the opportunity to help her change the direction of our failing public schools.

This Christmas kids are asking their parents to buy the "Imagine Teacher" video game. But parents shouldn't have to imagine the day when good teachers are rewarded and bad teachers are fired. It's time for the education establishment to put the interests of students first.

Lisa Snell is Director of Education





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