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Time Magazine Crowns Education's Next Messiah

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Message Patrick Mattimore
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    “Can Michelle Rhee Save Education?”. That’s the provocative question that accompanies this week’s Time Magazine cover story about the Washington D.C. school’s chancellor. Apparently, the story’s author thinks so. She editorializes that Rhee’s “battle against bad teachers has earned her admirers and enemies-and could transform public education.” The Time reader is promised that he will learn “how Michelle Rhee became the most revolutionary-and polarizing- force in American education.”

    Rhee is pictured on the Time Magazine cover dressed in black and standing in a classroom with a broom- perhaps to encapsulate images of a witch and a muckraking reformer. Who knows? Michelle Rhee is being crowned the latest educational white knight with a silver bullet. Her major accomplishment in her one-and-a-half year D.C. tenor has been to cast a wide web of fear in the teaching and administrative profession as she has moved to dismiss both numerous teachers and administrators.

    Hyperbole aside, Rhee has some good ideas. She has proposed eliminating tenure for teachers and substituting a higher pay schedule. That makes sense as tenure was largely a sort of consolation prize handed to the largely female teaching profession early in the twentieth century as a surrogate for better pay and shield against arbitrary dismissal...”Hey we aren’t going to pay you much, but at least you’ve got some job security.” Rhee, of course, would like to be able to clean house at will, similar to what happens in many charter classrooms now. Rhee appears; teacher vanishes. So she will have a real fight to eliminate tenure.

    Rhee is also guaranteed style points by going after the teacher’s union- a familiar whipping boy largely because the union has never recognized that it needs to get beyond simply trying to get more money for teachers and actually try and do something to improve education.

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    But Rhee will ultimately fail (or rather accept a cushy policy-making post somewhere) largely because her assumptions about teachers are wrong. She’s looking for all teachers to be superstars and thereby applies the Lake Wobegon myth to the profession. “The biggest problem with U.S. public schools is ineffective teaching, according to decades of reseach,” writes the Time journalist with the Rhee messianic complex, a view to which Rhee certainly subscribes.

    Well, first, decades of research have established that the biggest problem with American public schools is the unequal opportunities that children bring to the classoom. That has nothing to do with teaching and everything to do with society’s socio-economic differences, including genetic differences among schoolchildren.

    As support, however, for the problem teacher myth, the reporter cites a lone study by Eric Hanushek of Stanford, in which Hanushek found that students with a teacher ranked among the top 15% of all teachers, will show phenomenal growth in test performance while comparable students with another teacher will stuggle. Putting aside the methodological problem of defining the top 15% of teachers, we have our answer! Figure out a way to get 100% of teachers into the top 15% and we can expect that all our students will be above average. Maybe Time should have added a  cauldron to the Rhee photo.      

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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