Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ed reform in DC

Phil asked my opinion on the situation in the DC schools. Specifically this,

In late September, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee presented the Washington Teachers' Union with a contract that, if put into practice, would be the most radical overhaul of teachers' work rules attempted since the rise of the teachers' union movement in the 1960s. The contract created two employment ladders for teachers. The "green" track would require teachers to give up tenure in exchange for the possibility of large merit-pay bonuses financed by philanthropies. Under the "green" plan, teacher salaries could reach $130,000. Alternatively, teachers could choose to retain their tenure privileges and stick to a traditional, seniority-based salary ladder with a lower ceiling. That would have been the "red" track. The symbolism was clear. Tenure was "stop;" the slow, reactionary, path. Merit pay was the "go" option.

Ever since American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten appeared at the National Press Club in November to announce that she was ready to negotiate with union-skeptic education reformers, and that "no issue should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair to teachers," the eyes of edu-wonks nationwide have been trained on D.C., curious to see whether the union will make major concessions...

Long story short, the Washington Teachers Union has countered and the two sides are very far apart.

My take, urban schools are bad because urban areas are poorer. Poor kids don't do well in school for a whole lot of reasons - diet, health, parental involvement, the culture of their neighborhoods and their families. Its not that teachers don't matter but I think these fights are about Superintendents demonstrating that they are in charge and flexing their muscles and of course the union doing just the opposite. I don't think Michelle Rhee is going to save the DC school system, same for Randy Weingarten.

The merits of the proposal? Meh, its fine if that's what teachers want to do but I'm skeptical of any long term reform coming out of a program that is grant/philanthropic based. How is this program sustainable over the long term?

My impression is that a lot of the so called reformers don't actually have a clue as to what to do. It's damn near impossible to replicate small successes on a large scale or in different cities. Why? because the socio-economic factors outweigh everything else.

I don't know what the answer is but it's more complex than just giving some teachers a better pay check. I don't think that's a bad thing but we spend way too much time fighting over it. There are huge cultural and economic issues that were decades in the making that have brought down the performance of our urban schools.

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