Rhee's fresh insight on education

Rhee's fresh insight on education

September 26th, 2011 in Opinion Free Press

The fact that almost everyone has been in school at one time or another may be why almost everyone has an opinion on how to improve schools. After all, you can probably remember teachers who made a positive difference in your life, and you can probably remember others who were less effective.

But even people with very different views on how to improve education could appreciate the no-nonsense approach discussed in Chattanooga last week by Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system.

It is no secret that the District of Columbia has one of the nation's highest rates of per-pupil spending on education -- but long had some of the worst academic outcomes. In the face of enormous resistance, Rhee sought to change that during her time in Washington.

In a visit to the Times Free Press and in a speech to hundreds at the Tivoli Theatre, she called for making students -- not political agendas nor employee issues -- the true focus of public education.

She enthusiastically embraced school choice -- including the expansion of charter schools, which impose fewer bureaucratic rules on teachers and administrators and give them a chance to zero in on what really works.

Quite properly, however, Rhee did not offer a blanket endorsement of charter schools. In her experience leading the schools in our nation's capital, for instance, she found that some low-performing charter schools slipped in alongside the excellent ones. So she said strong measures of accountability should be in place to deal aggressively with ineffective charter schools.

Rhee also supports voucher programs that help low-income students in under-performing public schools attend private schools. Just such a voucher program proved successful in the District of Columbia.

And while her concern for children is evident, she rejects the idea that students should be praised -- in the name of building their self-esteem -- for work that is below what they are capable of doing. Encouraging a competitive spirit among children is not a bad thing, she said, and it prepares them to compete in an increasingly globalized economy.

Rhee applauded Tennessee's efforts to restrict teachers unions' collective-bargaining powers, noting that a union's primary focus is its members, not necessarily students.

And most refreshingly, she rejected outright the notion that students cannot rise above difficult circumstances.

Speaking at the Tivoli as part of the George T. Hunter Lecture Series, she declared, "I refuse to buy into the proposal that, because kids are poor, they cannot learn."

Those are words of wisdom, hope and encouragement.