Mad Members

Everyone is chattering about this full-page ad the AFT took out in this morning’s Washington Post.  [Update here’s a link to the ad (pdf), judge for yourself].  I work in this space and am quite familiar with all the protagonists and the  issues and it took me a minute to make sense of the point of the ad.  Maybe I’m stupid or needed more coffee but  it was really busy and the punchline is buried in two unchecked boxes on the lower right.     So I’m not sure it’s going to move the casual observer to action – or even to an opinion.  It needs a clearer message but it’s probably hard to get that message on paper without giving away the game.

Leaving aside technical deficiencies, clearly the strategy is to appear reasonable everywhere else in order to box in Michelle Rhee in D.C.  But there are two problems with that strategy.  First, at the elite level people get what’s going on (increasingly the press, too) so the whole thing is sort of  over before it even started and that plan only works if they can make this stuff real elsewhere and the clock is ticking on that.   Meanwhile, even those frustrated with aspects of Rhee’s style and tactics are still sympathetic to what she’s trying to do and the obstacles to that.   Second, and more basically, outside of big reform initiatives with lessons I don’t think Michelle Rhee really cares about what’s happening elsewhere and she’ll hold her ground.  She responds to different incentives like the rest of us but peer pressure isn’t one of them.

Unfortunately, it increasingly looks like the only way the AFT is going to get its way in D.C. (and outside of neutering Rhee it seems a little unclear what their way is) is by turning the schools into Verdun, which I think they’re prepared to do.  That’s tremendously unfortunate and in the long run counterproductive to their goals, too.

13 Replies to “Mad Members”

  1. Now you have the analogy right. Its not Ypes but Verdun. But you have the narrative and the solution wrong.

    It was Rheeism that forced a battle that must be fought to the end FOR THE GOOD OF THE STUDENTS. Not only the union, but any self-respecting teachers and believers in the rule of law must fight with whatever they have.

    Get rid of Rheeism and huge opportunities abound.

  2. Michelle Rhee is going to have an effect on the teaching force, but not in the way that she planned. Through her profound disrespect for teachers, it’s easy to see why she and many other graduates of “elite” universities view teaching children with contempt and a job worth pursuing only long enough to write it down on a resume. Members of the “elite” might “get it” but not long enough to accept a teaching post in an urban school. Sooner or later, the American public will see the relationship between this gross disrespect for teachers and the problem this country has in recruiting and retaining the “best and the brightest” into the teaching profession.

    My guess is that the American public will “get it” and understand that the tremendous disrespect shown for teachers, as often displayed on this blog, is responsible for the dearth of qualified people entering the field. The same factors that result in an improvement in the quality of professionals in other fields (nursing, accounting, medicine, higher ed) will work in K-12 education, namely increased salaries, career ladders and professional autonomy. And yes, a little respect from the “elites” would help also.

    As for AFT and other teacher associations, they are beginning to realize that because they have the major stakeholders in their camp, as opposed to the “elites,” they can take control of reform and move it in the direction that is best for students, teachers and other citizens.
    On a personal level I’m hoping to see AFT and NEA expand into a role that is similar to the American Medical Association, an organization that controls almost every aspect of the profession it represents.

  3. Can someone link to an image (or post it) of the ad? I’ve been looking around online and can’t find it anywhere — I don’t read the paper version of the Post, just the Times and locals.

  4. “Rheeism”? Is that really the problem? Does “Rheeism” explain why DC public schools have been among the nation’s worst for two generations? Does “Rheeism” explain why the same problems I encountered as a DCPS student in the 1980s — absent and uninspired teachers, chronic discipline problems, low expectations — remain in so many schools today?

    Folks who want to blame Michelle Rhee for the problems of the DC schools are in essence defending the status quo pre-Rhee — and that is simply unacceptable. Getting rid of Rhee may make some union members and other adults happy but it will only harm schools and kids, and it will make serious reform impossible. Rhee is bringing serious change to this system, and folks who have a vested interest in the status quo simply don’t like it. Let’s hope they don’t win (again). Our kids can’t afford it.

  5. Rheeism is the barrier to collaboratively making improvements. What do you want more – easy scapegoeats or solutions? I if just want to curse the darkness, teachers can give you an earful. But why do you think that we help students caught in miserable schools by attacking teachers and the rule of law?

  6. Thank you, Elizabeth! I was dying to see this ad but couldn’t get hold of the Washington Post.

    This ad says it all. Nothing will be accomplished without collaboration with teachers. The smart people and districts understand that.

  7. “Rheeism is the barrier to collaboratively making improvements. What do you want more – easy scapegoeats or solutions? ”

    There’s subtle irony in that somewhere…

  8. Linda – I agree with you on increased salaries, career ladders, and autonomy. I think all of those make a lot of sense in terms of improving the teaching profession, but I don’t believe they will work in a vacuum.

    I don’t believe that every teacher is deserving of all three of those. The facts are that some teachers are better than others and that it does not have much to do with seniority (beyond the first 3 years). So, why don’t we try to do a better of figuring out who the better teachers are (through a variety of ways) and then pay them more, give them leadership positions in the school, and allow them to run their classes how they way. The weaker teachers should be given support and professional development until they get better or until it is clear that teaching isn’t the best profession for them.

    Clearly there aren’t just 2 buckets of teachers, but isn’t it a requirement to making teaching a better profession to be able to tell who is doing well and make decisions based on it?

    Sadly, I don’t think the AFT agrees.


  9. Mrs. Rhee herself seems to recognise the message of the ad:
    Rhee has asked how to regain teachers’ trust, principals say

    and from the article:

    But one of the principals who met with her last week said teachers don’t trust the evaluation system because they think it is designed to remove them, not help them improve.

    “As they see it, Rhee is all show, has already made all the decisions, and sharing feedback with her is pretty pointless,” the principal said. “My teachers basically said it was too little too late. They don’t ever see her regaining their trust.”

    The school leader said her instructors, “especially the experienced ones, see this new regime as a type of cult of the true believers. Don’t question what they do since they have all the answers.”

  10. Mike,

    Of course you are right about teacher evaluation and remuneration, but I see the problem as an economic and administrative one.

    For many years, urban school districts were so desperate for teachers that all a person needed was “a heartbeat and a degree” to be hired. Such things as experience, student teaching and state credentials hardly mattered as it was easy to get “emergency” credentials. Each year brought a new “emergency” and this went on for over forty years, although mainly for poor kids.

    Once the teacher was hired, the main goal of administration was to keep this person. The principal knew that if a teacher quit in the middle of the year, the students could be stuck with one or more substitutes for the rest of the term. So tenure became automatic and classrooms visitations became infrequent formalities. Unless the teacher “caused waves,” she received “outstanding” evaluations every other year or so. No one asked for more. In most states these sketchy evaluations were reinforced by law.

    Then came the recession and suddenly corporate types realized that Ms. Smith, the brilliant Yale graduate, could take old Mrs. Jones’ place and for a lot less money. If people could just show how “dumb” Mrs. Jones (working class graduate of State U.) is, it would be so easy to get rid of her and her $70,000 salary and replace her with young Ms. Smith’s starting salary of $30,000. And so the talk about teacher evaluations and merit pay commenced.

    Well, I have news for everyone. It’s not that difficult to evaluate a teacher. Everyone knows who is excellent, who is average and who is ineffective. All an administrator needs to do is spend some time in the classroom observing lessons, student/teacher interactions, student work (especially compositions throughout the year) and periodic achievement tests. For promotions and tenure there would need to be a committee of professionals, in order to ensure fairness. Principals have always had the legal right to evaluate teachers, but few have exercised this right for the reasons I have given. Unions have never had this role. Yes, they’ve defended teachers with poor evaluations, but that’s what unions do. Their role is also enshrined in law.

    In conclusion, I believe the lack of careful evaluation of teachers has been a socioeconomic and administrative problem and not a teacher/union concern. Teachers can certainly be carefully evaluated and rewarded accordingly but it will take personnel, time and money.

    All of the above is dependent on a good supply of teachers. If the predicted teacher shortage comes once the baby boomers retire, I suspect urban districts will go back to hiring “anyone with a warm body and a degree” or maybe even “a warm body without a degree.”

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