Michelle Rhee obviously doesn't mind controversy. She spurred a ton of it when she turned the Washington, D.C., school system upside down until she parted ways with a new mayor there in 2010. Since then, she's helped Republican governors in Tennessee and elsewhere strip teachers of tenure rights. She's further stung teachers and public school supporters by advocating charter schools and vouchers for private-school tuition.
Her grit for tough battles nonetheless helps excavate terrain that has too long been fenced off from public exposure and candid conversation. At the center of this ground is the critical ore of teacher evaluations, and the need she sees to make them public.
Rhee, who spoke at the Tivoli last night to kickoff UTC's annual George Hunter Lecture series, comes to this topic with considerable experience. She started teaching after college with Teach for America and went on to found the New Teachers Project in 1997. That national non-profit endeavor trained 23,000 mid-career professionals in teaching over the next 10 years, and launched Rhee into the national spotlight.
Speaking to an editorial board conference at this paper before her address at the Benwood Foundation-sponored forum, Rhee made a nuanced argument for what's "broken" in many of America's public schools, and why teacher evaluations, free of tenure and union rules, should be made public in a fair "context."
Teachers, she logically argues, cannot be fairly evaluated solely on the raw data of test measurements for student achievement toward target grade level norms. Too many teachers are required to work under conflicting curriculum models, goals and testing demands without the benefit of textbooks and adequate resources. And teachers, Rhee allowed, also can't be blamed for external factors over which they have no control -- attendance, parental involvement and other pertinent social issues.
What she says they must be graded on, however, are competent measures of individual student improvement in a specified time frame, and frequent classroom evaluations of their performance and teaching skills.
In her tenure as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system, she said, teachers were principally evaluated on the basis of at least five sessions of active in-classroom observations, and the "growth" of student learning in specified time period as reflected in applicable test scores. For well-performing teachers, she advocated incentives through higher salaries and bonuses. She also fired hundreds who failed her competency standards, and put hundreds more on notice.
Rhee said she came to understand the need to make evaluations of teachers public, particularly for teachers on notice for poor evaluations, when she received the evaluations of two teachers in the same grade at the same school, and then realized one of her children would be in the classroom of a teacher who was poorly rated.
How can you can not inform parents that their child's teacher is on notice as ineffective, Rhee asked.
She also made it clear that her support for charter schools and public vouchers for private-school tuition came with caveats: strict accountability, and termination of charters and vouchers for schools that fail to perform well under a broad range of criteria. Education reform, she cautions, should not mean a free pass for alternative school models.
Ultimately, Rhee says the nation won't see "the kind of transformation the public wants" in public schools until school systems establish full transparency in both student and teacher performance. If that's true, it suggests a heavy burden on "context," and scrupulous attention to the factors that disadvantage so many students.