What's Missing In Rhee's Restructuring

Sunday, February 3, 2008

I wanted to believe in Michelle Rhee.

The D.C. public school system desperately needs bold reforms. When the chancellor decries the achievement gap between Tenleytown and Anacostia, I applaud. But recounting the offenses of a failing system only gets us so far.

Rhee seems focused on buildings and bureaucracy, not on strategies for improving teaching and learning. She has the wrong diagnosis, or she lacks the skills and experience. Either way, she hasn't put forward a plan that addresses what happens in the classrooms.

As a parent of an eighth-grader, I am still voting for hope and optimism by keeping our child in the D.C. public schools. As a former high school teacher and school reform leader, I am concerned that Rhee's restructuring effort is missing the mark.

Recently I served as the community representative on Rhee's Quality Review Team assessment of Wilson High School. Under the No Child Left Behind law, 27 D.C. schools must go through a restructuring process for failing to meet "adequate yearly progress" over the past five years. Each of those schools did a self-assessment, and then a team sent in by the chancellor did a one-day review. Tomorrow, those reviews will go to Rhee, and she will decide the future of these schools. The stakes are high.

Our brief Quality Review Team process generated some insights, but the final report was written by a young man brought in from a California consulting firm called Insight, not primarily an education organization. The members of the team will never see their own report. The ratings we were asked to offer were based on 10-minute classroom observations. But there will be no interaction with school staff members to see whether the hasty judgments are even accurate.

Other school districts have invested in developing professional growth systems aimed at improving the quality of teaching and learning. Montgomery County used Jonathan Saphier's Research for Better Teaching to help the District and the teachers union design their skillful-teaching training and Peer Assistance and Review Program. Prince George's County brought in Lauren Resnick's Institute for Learning.

But the District's public school system rejected these in-depth programs as too costly. Meanwhile, there is plenty of money to hire consultants from Insight and other such organizations to help reach judgments that can be used to justify turning over management of the schools to outside organizations or charters.

Rhee's priorities have been to get rid of central office employees and to close 23 schools. I would have much preferred to see underutilized schools become multi-use community centers that could also house the school system's central offices. But what is Rhee's plan to improve the caliber of teaching and learning?

Quality teachers are not found; they are made through a well-crafted infrastructure of support for instruction. School districts that have embarked on the daunting task of creating quality systemic support for teaching and learning have learned that it's hard work. Headhunting operations such as Teach for America and the New Teacher Project do not substitute for such a system. Using hasty Quality Review Team judgments to cast blame is just too easy.

We're still waiting for even a hint of Rhee's plan to address what's been missing in the way of system support for quality teaching and learning. I hope that discussion begins soon.

-- Mark Simon


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