Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst tackle persistent problems in public education

theGRIO Q&A - Now the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, Michelle Rhee is using her years of expertise to advise state governments on best practices -- and influence education policy...

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Michelle Rhee received national attention after becoming the chancellor of Washington, DC public schools in 2007. Experiences as a public school teacher before founding an organization that placed teachers in classrooms informed the policies implemented during her term. Rhee’s decisions to closely tie standardized test scores to teacher compensation and shut down underperforming schools made her leadership contentious; yet, her bold approach attracted the attention of municipalities looking for better methods. Now the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, Rhee currently uses her years of expertise to advise state governments on best practices and influence education policy.

Since 2010, StudentsFirst has grown to over one million members by the organization’s count, and helped to pass “student-centered” ordinances in six states. Rhee spoke with theGrio about how putting teacher’s needs above students’ is a tragic mistake that can rob children of the American dream. Her message promoting child-focused policies is powerful at a time when rampant public school failures combined with shrinking budgets have spawned a search for innovative answers.

theGrio: Tell us about your StudentsFirst initiative.

Michelle Rhee: We started the organization for a simple reason. If you look at what’s happened in education over the last 20 to 30 years, it has largely been driven by special interest groups. You have textbook manufacturers, teachers’ unions, testing companies — you have all these different organizations that have tremendous resources and therefore tremendous influence over the system, and over the laws and policies that are created. The fact that those organizations exist is not the problem. The problem is there is no organized national interest group advocating on behalf of children. That means that you end up with a policy landscape and an environment that’s very skewed towards those interests and away from kids.

The whole idea around StudentsFirst was that we were going to start a movement of everyday people in this country — teachers, parents, grandparents, business owners — who are concerned about the state of public education in our nation, who know that in order to compete, American schools have to be the number one in the world, and who are dedicated to making sure that we are putting the right people, policies, and leaders in place that are going to prioritize children and students.

When you began your time as chancellor of the D.C. public school system, per capita spending per child was the third highest in the nation, yet the system contained a high percentage of failing schools. Are people overlooking this lack of a correlation between the dollar amount spent and the success of kids in school environments? Are there other important factors?

There are absolutely other factors. If you look at where we are in this country in terms of expenditures related to student achievement levels, we’re in a really unfortunate situation. We spend more money per capita per student in this country than almost any other developed nation. In many cases twice or three times as other developed nations, and yet our results are pretty poor. And if you look at a scatter plot of all the developed nations in the world, and [what nations] are spending and what their achievement levels are, we are in a quadrant… that you don’t want to be in — which is high expenditures, low achievement levels.

If you look over the last, three, four, five, decades you can see that there has been a wild increase in the amount of money that governments are spending per child, and yet the achievement levels have remained stagnant. So if we had say, tripled, expenditures over a two decade period and our achievement rates had also tripled, then it would be very easy for us to say, “Okay, if you want to cut our budget by ten percent, then this is the kind of decrease in student achievement level that you’re going to see.” But that’s actually not the case. We are seeing in fact some states that have lowered expenditures in the last couple of years and their student achievement levels have risen. So it has created a very difficult dynamic and one in which I think it’s very clear to people that just spending more money doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re getting to get better results.

I think Washington, D.C., and I think cities like Newark, N.J., where they’re spending $22,000 per kid, and their results are also pretty abysmal — those are the proof points to show that it’s not just about spending more money. We have to ask ourselves the questions: how is the money being spent and where is it being spent?

What kinds of things do you think education dollars need to be spent on?

We believe that the best expenditures are those that are spent at the school and classroom level. An example of this is when I got to D.C. We were spending about $1 billion a year on education in the city. And yet when you looked at the amount of money that was actually going to the schools, it was actually only about $403 million. We increased that over time, but it’s not dissimilar to what you see across the country, where the average expenditure for a child in the nation is about $10,000 or a little bit more and yet just slightly over 50 percent of that is actually being spent in the classroom and in the school. It is my strong belief that the more that you spend money on court mandates, on central office bureaucracies, etc., those dollars… are simply not going to have as large an impact on the kids.

Some of your critics have said that you are anti-teachers unions and that you are anti-teacher tenure, which are two aspects of the education system that absorb a lot of dollars. Can you speak to those detractors?

I am not anti-teachers unions. What I am is pro-children. Where the interest of teachers and the interests of kids can co-exist or are aligned, I think that’s great. But there are some places where the interests of the unions actually diverge from what the interests of children are.

For example, if you look at how teacher tenure has played out in this country, it essentially now means that once you have tenure, you have a job for life, regardless of performance. That means that it’s almost impossible and extraordinarily costly and time-consuming to remove an ineffective teacher from the classroom, even if some of these teachers have done absolutely unbelievable things. That is not in the best interest of children. When you have policies in place that dictate that in a time of layoffs, you must lay teachers off by seniority alone, without any regard to effectiveness in the classroom — those policies are not good for children.

So, I’m not anti-anything. What I stand for is putting in place policies that are always going to put the best interests of kids first and foremost, at the center of every decision. If some people want to characterize that as “anti” something else, then that is up to them. But the way that we see it is being very pro-student and very pro-child.
There have been many stories recently about the education gap between black and white students, particularly between affluent white students and underprivileged African-American kids. These findings show that the classroom environment plays a minor role in the total education environment a child is exposed to from birth. This accounts for more of the achievement gap among racial lines than perhaps many educators are considering. Can you comment on this?

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It makes it very difficult when you are dealing with populations of students who come from environments where they may not be getting all the support and resources that they need. Does it make it more difficult for the educators whose classrooms they are coming into every day? Absolutely. Does that mean that we as an education system can then just abdicate our responsibility?

We hear a lot of people say, “Well because of the environments that kids are coming from, you can’t possible expect teachers to make any difference with those kids. You can’t expect them to achieve at the highest levels because of those circumstances.” To me, that is just the most un-American thing that I can imagine. We as a country right now have one of the lowest social mobility rates of any developed country in the entire world. Which means that if you are a child who is born into poverty in this country, the likelihood that you will ever be able to escape poverty is not good. That goes against every single thing that this country stands for.

This country stands for equal opportunity and equal access. Even if you are a child who grows up in a low income environment where poverty is the reality, that you still have a chance to live the American dream and be whatever you want to be, because you can get a high-quality education. In any society, over any part of time, if you look at the best strategy to combat generational poverty, it is education.

So we as educators have to realize that the challenges that poverty bring are real. But we also can’t use that as an excuse for why kids can’t succeed at the highest levels. We simply cannot do that. We still have to know that schools can make a tremendous difference in the lives of children.

What is the role that you see standardized tests as playing in making this difference? A lot of people don’t believe that standardized tests are an adequate way of judging whether students are learning. Towards the end of your career in D.C. there were accusations — that were never substantiated — that teachers may have altered some of the tests because their performance as teachers and compensation were so closely tied to them. How do you feel about testing now as a method of assessing achievement?

You have brought up several things, and I will try to address all of them. One, there are some people who will say that because there was so much pressure on teachers, they may have felt the need to cheat because their jobs were on the line. That’s actually not true. If you were a teacher in D.C., and your kids happened to not do well on the test, you couldn’t be fired just for that reason. However, if you cheated on the test, and that was substantiated, you would be immediately fired. So, if your biggest concern was whether you could keep your job, then the last think you would do is want to cheat. That would seal your fate.

I think that testing has to be put into context. We know that how kids do academically, and how much they grow, is an important part of how we evaluate a teacher. But it certainly should not be the only way. We should look at observations of their classroom practices, we should look at how much they added to the school’s environment and achievement overall.

Standardized testing is a consistent way to measure whether or not children are learning the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in the long run. Is it the only way? Absolutely not. Should that be balanced with other factors? Yes.

What’s next for your organization? If you could name one or two initiatives that you think could be implemented nationwide to drastically help our failing public schools, what would they be?

We are working hard through the rest of this session, which will be several more months, in the 15 states we’re working in to try to get as many laws and policies passed as we can that align to our agenda of making sure that there’s a great teacher in every classroom, that families feel like they have high quality options for schools for their kids, and around governance and fiscal accountability. We’re working hard on that.

I think that there’s never any one thing [that can improve public education]. We have a 37 point policy agenda, and we really believe you have to put all of these policies in place — but if a state wanted to say, “What is the starting point?” I’d say that one critical starting point is around teacher evaluation. And this is one place where we are in tight agreement with teachers unions. Current evaluation systems are not good professional development tools. They don’t do a good job of communicating to teachers exact things about their practice[s] that they can then take and improve upon. And so, teacher evaluations are a good first foundational step for states to take.

What would you say to parents who may not know where to start, if they are encountering a situation in which their child is not receiving the education they deserve?

You have to be an advocate for your child. You have to be very vocal with your child’s teacher, with the school administration, and with the district administration. I got an email the other day from a mother whose child is in the classroom of a teacher who’s great. She’s fabulous, and she and her son’s parents are frustrated, because this teacher happens to be a new teacher and she’s about to get her pink slip. And she said, “This is crazy. I mean for our kid it’s fine, because he’s already had this teacher. But it’s not creating the right environment in the school or in the school district for us to lose an educator like her. So what should I do?”

I said, you have to advocate. You have to let the people at the school district, the board of education, and even the state legislator know that you as parents, as constituents, as voters, believe that this practice is detrimental to children and that you are going to hold them as administrators and public officials accountable for changing this law.

I think that parents need to advocate for their kids on lots of different levels.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb