Former Chancellor of Washington D.C. schools Michelle Rhee hosted a "Teacher Town Hall" event in Philadelphia Monday night. Rhee joined CNN contributor and Capital Prep Magnet School Principal Dr. Steve Perry and former Washington Teachers Union President George Parker in the hopes of engaging in "an open, honest conversation on ed reform specifically with educators."
During Michelle Rhee's three-year tenure as Chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school district, she ignored teacher-seniority provisions, implemented a generous merit-pay system and caught the attention of the national spotlight as DC's standardized test scores skyrocketed in her first few years on the job.
Soon though, reports of test cheating tainted Rhee's reputation, and by 2010, with the election of a new mayor, she resigned. Some who've followed Rhee's reign closely say she left DC schools in worse shape than when she came. Rhee disagrees, and now advocates for her brand of education reform on the national stage.
Speaking at Temple University's student center Monday night, Rhee, Perry and Parker sought to quell fears about what they called the "misinformation" surrounding the reform conversation.
Instead of relying purely on standardized test results, Rhee said teacher evaluations must be comprehensive in nature — taking into account students' demographic information as well as the teacher's relationship with the school community.
Rhee assured the audience of mostly teachers that she felt teaching was "one of, if not, the hardest job in the entire country," and said she only implemented reforms by analyzing policy decisions through her perspective as a mother of two children in the D.C. public school system.
"I'm not going to put a policy in place that's not good enough for my children," said Rhee.
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The audience bristled at times, calling Rhee "disingenuous," while questioning the corporate backing behind many education reform organizations. Many audience members also expressed displeasure with the way organizers structured the town hall. Many felt the event didn't deliver the "honest conversation" that was billed, and felt the moderator too quickly quashed the room's dissenting voices.
In an interview before the event, Rhee specifically spoke to the challenges currently facing the cash-strapped Philadelphia School District — saying it could learn much from DC's reforms.
"Looking at things like getting rid of 'last in, first out' policies, or making sure that principals can choose teachers that they believe are going to add the most value to their school program, those are the things that are going to make the most difference to the kids," Rhee said, "especially in these times of deep budget cuts."
(To hear the full, unedited interview with Rhee, where she discusses the DC cheating scandal and speaks directly to her critics, click the 'play' button above).
Debate rages on
Former Washington Teachers Union President George Parker (who now works for Rhee's advocacy group Students First) agreed with Rhee on all of the reforms. Although he fought against Rhee during her tenure in DC, Parker says he changed his educational philosophy when he decided that his union advocacy wasn't ensuring the best education for children.
But Parker put much of the blame for poor school performance on principals who he said were trained to be "supervisors," not "leaders."
"If you want teachers to go into low-performing schools," Parker said, "make sure you have great leadership in those schools."
Jacqueline Palmer was one of the educators in the room who sympathized whole-heartedly with the panelists. Palmer used to teach at a traditional district school, but now greatly prefers working for a charter that already adheres to many of the work-rule policies for which the panel argued.
"My experience has been really wonderful working in a school that is performance based," said Palmer. "I feel supported, and validated, and I become a better teacher everyday.
Rich Migliore — who spent 20 years teaching at (the now closed) University City High School, and 14 as an assistant principal at various city high schools — felt the panel spent too much time focusing on what teachers do wrong and not enough on how to give them the supports to get better.
"You know they talked all about how to get rid of bad teachers," said Migliore, "but they didn't talk about how to get good teachers to come here, how to retain good teachers, and how to create a professional, collaborative environment within our schools."
As the reform debate rages on, Philadelphia schools are now in their 2nd week of classes — operating with bare bones resources, as the district and its teachers union remain at odds over a labor contract that expired at the end of August. Superintendent Hite is asking for wage, health care and work rule concessions from city teachers. He says the changes would save enough for the district to bring back more laid off staff instead of operating at the current level.