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November 16, 2008

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For months I have been trying to figure out who Michelle Rhee reminds me of. It's Sarah Palin! You are so right. Let's hope that Secretary of Education is only a rumor. That would be the undoing of Obama's administration. Now she seems to be flying all over the U.S. boasting about how many people she has fired. How can she possibly assist other counties and states with their educational problems when she is unable to find the solution to the problems in DC? It's like lipstick on a pig.

" Let's hope that Secretary of Education is only a rumor."

I agree. A nasty, nasty rumor.

I'm not a Michelle Rhee fan and I'm certainly no expert in education, but I do know that the Washington, D.C. school system is a basket case.

In 2005, the District's public school students scored at the bottom in reading and math among 11 major city school systems, even when poor children were compared only with other poor children. Two of three District students were not proficent in reading, and three out of four fell below math standards. That compares to 1 in 3 nationwide, even when just counting low-income students.

Is money the problem? The District spends $12,979 per pupil each year, ranking it third-highest among the 100 largest districts in the nation. But most of that money does not get to the classroom. D.C. schools rank first in the share of the budget spent on administration, last in spending on teachers and instruction.

In other words, relatively speaking, teachers are underpaid. This is one of the problems that Rhee is trying to fix by proposing to more than double teachers's salaries in exchange for their relinquishing tenure.

It's not as if people are unaware of the problem in the District. Multiple studies have certified the District's basket-case status and numerous "reforms" under multiple superintendents have been trying to improve its schools for decades.

I have no idea whether Rhee's plans will work -- it's too early to tell. But nothing else has worked and doing nothing is not an option.

Again, I'm not defending Rhee, but for those who are so hypercritical, I ask one question. If you were the D.C. schools superindent (now called Chancellor), what would you do?

As a big Obama fan, I'm surprised that you would ask. If Rhee truly wants to succeed in her stint as head of DC schools --long term, and not just as a platform for some other prestigious job-- she should emulate the President-elect and practice the politics of conciliation and inclusion, NOT the scorched earth bullying and intimidation tactics that have characterized her short tenure so far.

It's no surprise at all that she has alienated so many teachers and parents.

If I were the super --Chancellor-- I would first begin the arduous process of real reform. Rhee's idea of reform seems to be hiring as many teachers as possible to teach to the test. Get those test scores up, and she has done what she was hired to do.

The first step in genuine reform is to hire principals who are educational leaders well schooled in educational research. The chancellor, through her principals, should then empower teachers to develop instructional programs and structures that meet the needs of the students they teach. That means, essentially, poor black kids.

Forget about test scores and "higher standards". What these kids need is a classroom experience that relates to their real lives at home and in the community. Success won't come overnight, but getting the kids to buy into their schools is the first step toward that success.

If I were in charge, I'd also forget about trying to push reform through charter schools --especially union-free charters. Research shows that charters do little better, and often worse, than traditional schools in raising so-called student "achievement". (I despise that term. Schools should be about learning, not achievement.)

Rhee's biggest mistake has been to demonize the unions, thus the push for charters. That's what happened in New Orleans. Now the Katrina ravaged city has TWO profoundly disparate and unequal systems --a charter system for the good kids, and traditional schools for everyone else.

Thus far, from what I've read, the New Orleans experiment has been a disaster. I expect the same in DC if Rhee follows that course.

OK, so far you've proposed two things not to do --charter schools and teaching to the test.

You've also proposed hiring principals "who are eduational leaders and well schooled in eduational research." Rhee has, in fact, fired a number of principals and hired an equivalent number of new ones although I have no idea whether the new hires would meet your standards -- whatever they mean. Tell me what qualifies a candidate for principal as an "educational leader?" And precisely what "educational research" would you have these new hires use to fix the D.C. school system?

Beyond that, I repeat my question. What would you do? The remainder of your proposals -- "meet the needs of the students they teach," provide "a classroom experience that relates to the [kids'] real lives at home and in the community" -- are so mushy that I wonder if there is any there there.

Give me something more concrete and tell me where it has worked in other inner cities.

Again, I'm not defending Rhee. She may very well turn out to be the disaster you predict. But she does represent change -- maybe bad change, but change undeniably. Defending the status quo -- unions and public schools only -- and proposing not much more than mush does not sound like a workable alternative.

Read the link to real reform. Then if you're still puzzled, go back and read any of my many posts on how schools should be restructured --with team teaching, small communities of learning, integrated instruction, and the flexibility to group and regroup students during the school day to maximize learning.

The first step, though, is to stop obsessing about test scores. Standardized tests may be good tools for teachers to use, but they're poor measures of student learning.

Actually, I had already read your "real reform" link, but, now having re-read it, I am reminded of the questions that occurred to me the first time through:

1. You say that in team teaching, "teachers end up working with fewer total students in a team setting." How does that work? Don't the total number of students and the total number of teachers in any class day remain constant?

2. You say that team teaching involves "working with heterogeneous, usually randomly assigned, teams of students." But then later you propose to "group and regroup students to meet their educational needs," even sending gifted students to a different building if necessary. How do those two things square? And, in a racially mixed school, doesn't grouping and regrouping to meet educational needs risk creating de facto racial segregation? As I've said before, I'm no expert on education, but one thing I'm pretty sure of is that the non-cognitive lessons learned in public schools -- including, especially, those involving how a student perceives herself as fitting into a social or racial pecking order -- are every bit as important as the cognitive lessons.

3. You pooh-pooh test scores in favor of "real student learning." Sounds good, but without tests, how will you know if "real student learning" has been achieved? Or do the hoped for but unknowable ends justify the means?

4. Finally, where has such reform worked? And how do we know that it's worked?

1. Teams of students usually number anywhere from 90 to 120, depending on the number of teachers involved. I've worked on both 3 and 4 teacher teams. If I hadn't been on a team, I'd probably have faced 150, perhaps 180, students per day. Maybe more.

2. Teams of students are randomly assigned, therefore they're as heterogeneous as the school itself. They typically include special ed students.

Aside from reading and math, the teams stay together for all core subjects --science, social science, language arts, even P.E. Students are regrouped for reading and math for obvious reasons, but the schedule --team generated-- is completely flexible.

3. Tests are fine for teacher and classroom use, but no serious educator believes that tests alone are adequate measures of student learning. Authentic assessments of reading, writing, speaking and math problem solving can, and do, take place in the classroom. Want to know whether a student can coherently express himself in writing or speaking? Have her write an essay. (That's a requirement in Oregon, by the way.) Or have him give a speech. (Another requirement.)

The possibilities are endless, just more time consuming (and more expensive in some cases) than computer scored multiple choice tests.

4. It's worked at middle schools throughout Hillsboro, OR, but especially at my school, Evergreen. The parents and teachers and students know that. Who else matters?

Good points all. I'm almost there, but one last question.

You extol schooling based on "educational research." I just read an article that reported the failure of a program that, according to the article, was based on just that -- educational research.

The program is called "Reading First." According to the article, the program requires schools to use instructional techniques "supported by scientific research." These techniques include awareness of individual sounds, phonics, vocabulary, reading fluency and comprehension.

But a study conducted by the Department of Education, which itself, to the tune of $6 billion, the sponsor of Reading First, concluded that students in the Reading First program have made no greater progress in understanding what they read than students who are not in the program.

So if this research-based program failed, what faith do you have that other research-based programs will succeed?

"Reading First" is entirely politicized --think Bush and NCLB-- research, designed to promote programs that stress phonics and to denigrate whole language in reading instruction. It's been highly controversial for some time now.

I'll send along some info about it when I have time to look it up.

I like the writing structure of your blog and it does a pretty decent job of presenting the material.

Love those! I enjoy following your posts on facebook and rss!

It's great to hear from you and see what you've been up to. In your blog I feel your enthusiasm for life. thank you.

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