At first, it doesn’t seem to make sense.
Michelle Rhee, the controversial former head of the Washington D.C. school system and the “star” of the anti-union documentary Waiting for Superman, wrote a column for the Huffington Post defending collective bargaining.
That’s right. The woman who famously fired scores of teachers as the D.C. schools chancellor (firings later ruled to be improper) wrote inher column that, while state and local governments certainly need to get a handle on costly items such as pensions…
“…In no way does this mean we should take away teachers’ rights to collectively bargain.”
Collective bargaining for wages and benefits is not the reason American schools fail. Even in “right to work” states that do not have collective bargaining, we still see many of the problems that hurt our schools: bureaucratic inertia, red tape limits on parent choice, seniority-based layoffs, and fiscal irresponsibility. Overseas, many countries see teachers unions drive high standards and expectations for all teachers.
At first it might seem as though Rhee has finally grasped some facts left out of Superman; that Finland, cited in the film as a country with an ideal public school system, has strong unions; that the data show schools in states where teachers have bargaining rights out-perform those in states which don’t.
But before you start thinking that the age of enlightenment has finally reached Michelle Rhee, there is this:
The problem is not collective bargaining. The problems arise when unions use collective bargaining to push for policies that devalue great teachers, such as insisting that all teachers should be treated as interchangeable in terms of performance and pay.
Unions should have every right to continue representing their members, speaking up for teachers as they negotiate salaries, professional development and benefits. But they should not actually be co-managing school systems, and many decisions do not belong on the bargaining table. For example, it would present a huge conflict of interest for unions to be negotiating performance evaluations when unions have to represent effective and ineffective teachers alike. Districts should be able to create evaluations, reward teachers’ success, empower parents with more choices, and run the school system while held to high standards for accountability and success.
This is the trap that Rhee and others want to set for education employee unions; laud them for their work on behalf of their members and suggest that only that work, for their members on compensation and professional development, is appropriate for a union.
What is inappropriate in her view, is for teachers to have a voice about teaching and learning conditions.
Rhee’s new business venture, StudentsFirst, is among several “reform groups,” that hope to redefine the work of the unions representing teachers so that the ability of teachers to have a say in their work is limited.
Beginning last year in Illinois, there was a similar attempt made to define IEA and the other education unions as “focused on the needs of adults” while, it was claimed, “the reformers,” were the only people concerned about the students in the system.
It was a cynical claim designed to divide teachers from their students and pave the way for proposals that would impair the ability of teachers to advocate for high quality teacher and learning conditions.
The plan took a hit when IEA joined with the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Chicago Teachers Union to develop an alternate reform plan, “Accountability for All,” that would help improve teaching and learning while streamlining systems in a way that will help maintain high teaching standards.
The reformers, to their chagrin, were forced by the legislature to negotiate with the unions. Those talks have been going on since early January with a goal of developing a proposal that all the parties – teachers, reformers, administrators and others – can support.
By demanding a seat at the table, Illinois teachers were able to advocate for the ultimate goal of making sure Illinois continues to attract and retain high quality teachers.
All polls show the quality of education that students receive in public schools is a top concern for Illinois voters. Working to protect and enhance that quality is very much the business of the unions representing school employees.
And don’t let Michelle Rhee or anyone else tell you different.
Rhee came to be a national figure by claiming that, by taking rights away from her district’s teachers, she was able to implement changes that sent test scores soaring.
It now appears there might have been some funny business involved:
A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes’ classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.
When test-takers change answers, they erase penciled-in bubble marks that leave behind a smudge; the machines tally the erasures as well as the new answers for each student.
In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill.
On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.
“This is an abnormal pattern,” says Thomas Haladyna, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who has studied testing for 20 years.
Rhee’s defense wasn’t what one could call “data-based.”
“It isn’t surprising,” Rhee said in a statement Monday, “that the enemies of school reform once again are trying to argue that the Earth is flat and that there is no way test scores could have improved … unless someone cheated.”
USA TODAY’s investigation into test scores “is an insult to the dedicated teachers and schoolchildren who worked hard to improve their academic achievement levels,” Rhee said.
It is a little ironic, as Rhee has tried to position herself as the person with all the answers.
This is the sort of thing that could be bad for her business. We’ll see how it unfolds.
UPDATE: Rhee, perhaps after seeing how “Nixonian” her comments looked, more or less recanted them.