Close to Home — Michelle Rhee the Sprinter

Sunday, November 23, 2008

In her second year as the District's schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee looks like a sprinter. In less than two years, with the full support of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, she has already cut central office administrators, fired principals, closed schools and challenged the teachers union on seniority transfer rights and tenure.

By comparison, Atlanta Superintendent Beverly L. Hall and Austin schools chief Pat Forgione each served a decade and showed strong gains in students' academic achievement. They were long-distance runners. Fixing urban school districts takes marathoners, not sprinters.

Look at Alan Bersin, who ran out of gas as San Diego's superintendent in 2005. Determined to lift student learning rather than preserve school officials' status quo, he reorganized the system and fired administrators. He went after collective bargaining rules that protected seniority rights and incompetent teachers. Union leaders fought him by seeking national and state allies and turning to parents. He exited well before fulfilling his reform agenda.

My point is not that union leaders block reform. In some cities they work closely with superintendents. Nor should superintendents play nice with unions to avoid conflict.

But sprinter superintendents err in jumping on unions too early in their long-distance race for better student achievement. They suffer from ideological myopia. They believe low test scores and achievement gaps between whites and minorities result in large part from knuckle-dragging union leaders defending seniority and tenure rights that protect lousy teachers. Such beliefs reflect a serious misreading of why urban students fail to reach proficiency levels and graduate from high school.

As important as it is to get rid of incompetent teachers, doing so will not turn around the D.C. school system or any other broken district. The failure of urban schools has more to do with turnstile superintendencies, partially implemented standards and other factors that trump the small percentage of teachers who are just putting in time.

This error in thinking has occurred often in districts where impatient superintendents have demonized unions, only to discover that they have stumbled into a war as a result. Once union leaders were convinced that they were fighting for their survival, they converted the battle into an "us vs. them" struggle. When that happens, kiss reform goodbye.

Rhee's ideological push against unions comes much too early in her tenure to improve teaching and learning. Such initiatives fail because they can turn the entire D.C. teaching corps -- including first-rate veteran and mid-career teachers -- against any classroom change. Rhee may deceive herself into believing that teacher whispers about forming another union will split a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers that was founded in 1925. It won't.

"Us vs. them" is not predestined. Boston's Tom Payzant and Carl A. Cohn in Long Beach, Calif., served more than a decade in their districts and received national awards for raising student performance. Neither saw teacher unions as foes to be squashed. They convinced union leaders that it was in teachers' best interests to work with them. Trying to destroy the union will not throw 4,000 teachers behind the mayor and chancellor.

Were the untimely face-off with the D.C. teachers union to spiral into an ugly scrum, angry union leaders and teachers would reach out to allies on the D.C. Council and elsewhere to join against a mayor and chancellor viewed as determined to destroy their organization, much like President Ronald Reagan was with the air traffic controllers union in 1981. Such conflict could possibly end in the mayor dumping his talented chancellor. Another round of high hopes for the D.C. schools would be dashed.

If Rhee knows in her gut that teaching is the heart of good schooling, she needs to think less like a Teach for America sprinter and more like a long-distance runner.

-- Larry Cuban

Palo Alto, Calif.

The writer is a former D.C. Public Schools teacher and was superintendent of schools in Arlington from 1974 to 1981.


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