Rhee’s mission: Better schools or bust

Education,” said Michelle Rhee, “is the crux.”

The outspoken education reformer and former chancellor of D.C. public schools sat down recently with The Hill to talk about the state of the nation’s educational system and her efforts to change it.

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“In the recent presidential campaign, it was discouraging to hear the candidates always talking about the economy but not talking about the education system that underlies the economy,” she said.

Rhee, who now heads StudentsFirst, a California-based nonprofit she founded in 2010, noted how poorly America’s students fared in the most recent comparative ranking of students from 34 leading nations.

“U.S. students [placed] 14th in reading, 17th in science, 25th in math. More importantly,” she said, “a recent survey of employers showed that 50 percent cannot find people with the skills for mission-critical positions.”

She concurs with the alarming conclusion of a 2012 report by the Council on Foreign Relations, which found that the state of the educational system “puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position and physical safety at risk.”

“Children in school today will be the first generation that will be less educated than their parents,” Rhee said, noting that people are often “shocked” when this inversion of the American dream is presented to them.

“Critics say, ‘So what if America’s education rankings aren’t at the top? America’s schools have always been in the middle of the pack, and it hasn’t hurt us.’

“These people don’t realize that schools in other industrialized nations are leapfrogging ahead of us,” she continued. “Our kids are just not getting the skills they need to compete in the global economy with India, China, Singapore and other nations.”

In addition to growing disparities in job readiness, Rhee pointed out the direct correlation between schooling and a person’s well-being, saying better-educated people are more likely to pursue preventive rather than reactive healthcare.

Rhee, whose book Radical: Fighting to Put Students First was released Tuesday, also noted a correlation between education levels and crime, and lamented the weakness of Americans’ knowledge in personal finance and civic responsibility.

She illustrated what she sees as the basic problem by recounting her own experience.

She began her career in 1992 as a third-grade teacher at Baltimore’s Harlem Park elementary school. In a poor, crime-plagued neighborhood, it was one of the worst-performing schools in the district. But after a baptism by fire, the young teacher began to see a measurable difference.

“I saw kids who people just wrote off rise to the challenges we set for them and improve their academic performance,” Rhee said. “Their circumstances had not changed. They still came from neighborhoods riddled by crime and drugs and poverty. They still came, many of them, from dysfunctional homes. The only thing that changed was the adults teaching them.

“I saw that the problem was not the kids. The problem was with the educational system.”

That revelation became her guiding light. Once she discerned that there was “no shortage of highly effective and innovative instructors out there,” she said the challenge became figuring out how to put promising students and effective instructors together in settings where learning can happen.

“Good teachers are stymied because they are forced to operate in a ridiculous and antiquated bureaucracy,” Rhee said.

Rhee’s fight against the “antiquated bureaucracy” has placed her in direct opposition to the politically powerful teachers’ unions, which helped push her out of D.C. schools. 

“Because of the union, the schools have a policy of last hired/first fired. That just does not make sense. If the Washington Redskins had that policy, then the first one they’d fire would be Robert Griffin III, their best player.

“You need to keep the teachers adding the most value to your educational system, and shed those adding the least,” Rhee said.

Rhee also takes aim at teachers’ pension and benefits system, calling it “unsustainable.” 

“We have to put laws and policies in place to create the environment where great education can flourish,” she said, noting that StudentsFirst has published 37 specific policy recommendations for creating that environment.

“Spending more money on education does not solve it. The answer is that we must fix the fundamentals.”

Her organization encourages state governments, where most education policy is set, to study its recommendations and make the necessary reforms.

StudentsFirst also issues State Policy Report Cards based on their criteria for best practices and international standards. In 2013, no state received an A, and only two — Florida and Louisiana — received a B. There were seven C’s, 11 F’s and 30 D’s.

“The federal government must have a role,” she said. “To hear some of these conservatives say ‘Get rid of the Department of Education’ — that’s madness.”

The federal government should be setting national standards that can be internationally benchmarked, she said.

“We need a common set of academic standards, a common assessment, and a system of accountability,” she said.

Rhee said that while former President George W. Bush’s national education initiative, No Child Left Behind, has its flaws, “the good thing was it set up a system of accountability.”

She also called President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative a “brilliant move.”

“With a relatively small amount of money, the program incentivizes states to improve their education systems.”

She’s for more incentives, saying Washington could award funds from the Title I and Title II programs to states that put more effective policies in place.

In addition to policies that promote quality teachers and more wisely allocate tax dollars, Rhee’s trifecta for better schools calls for empowering parents.

She advocates for “trigger laws,” which give parents a way to intervene in poorly performing schools by removing bad teachers and changing policies. She is also for charter schools and vouchers, all in hopes of arming parents with enough weapons to fight for a better education for their children.

“Parents absolutely need to get involved,” she said. “They need to seriously look at their schools and determine if their children are gaining the skills they need to compete.”

Rhee knows the task she has assumed is huge and problematic. But she holds to her guiding light.

“When a kid comes to school without breakfast, or didn’t go to bed at a decent hour, or the electric bill has not been paid — these and the other poverty factors make learning so much more difficult.

“But we cannot have teachers, administrators and others turn away because of the difficulty. Educators must not doom kids because of poverty. That’s not what we’re about as a nation. Every child has the right to a good education. Dedicated teachers will do a good, effective job in an under-resourced environment.

“It is my very strong opinion that you cannot fix poverty until you fix the educational system,” she said.