Government Reform

A Rhee of Hope

Will Michelle Rhee fix D.C.'s notoriously dysfunctional school system?


Though I've seen evidence to the contrary, experts assure me that children are the nation's most precious natural resource. Logic, then, says that teaching is the most important profession in the country. And by extension, firing teachers who consistently fail to do their job should not be very controversial.

Still, political parties come and go; teachers don't. All the while, urban school districts remain on a stable trajectory, headed from horrendous to Mississippi.

Who knows? Perhaps there's hope. The country's top minds on education have cooked up a surefire solution to tackle this emergency: They're having a contest!

Race to the Top is a nationwide competition that rewards states with cash prizes if they embrace a stunningly tepid catalog of reforms. Naturally, one of the more contentious measures is the institution of a genuine teacher evaluation system. Believe it or not, in some extreme cases, these evaluations may be used by superintendents and principals to determine which teachers should be hired or fired.

As you know, teachers never are supposed to lose their jobs. In Denver, teachers are granted effective "tenure" after only two years of service. (Fortunately, this will change in a few years.) In New York City, the infamous rubber rooms often house teachers talented enough to pull down six-figure salaries but not moral enough to be permitted near any children.

In 2006, 8 percent of eighth-graders in Washington, D.C., could perform minimal math, yet not a single teacher was fired for stinking up the place. In fact, as D.C.'s chancellor, Michelle Rhee, points out, for years, more than 90 percent of teachers in her district were evaluated as having "exceeded expectations."

All of this makes Rhee's decision to fire 241 Washington teachers—after they failed a new (real) evaluation system—a precedent-setting moment. Another 737 teachers could face a similar fate unless they significantly improve their performances. Does anyone doubt that many of them will?

Rhee—appointed by a liberal mayor in the bluest of American cities—is a radical in the best sense of the word. Bureaucrats succeed through a devotion to risk aversion. But Rhee came into the job and immediately commissioned an outside audit of the entire school district, laid off scores of administrators and nonessential staff, and closed more than 20 underperforming schools.

While most of the media zeroed in on Rhee's firings—amounting to 6 percent of the work force—they failed to focus enough on the generous deal she struck with Washington's teachers union (which now is suing, naturally). Teachers who excel by raising student achievement can earn up to a 21 percent pay increase, not including additional merit pay.

Good teachers—most teachers—should be excited about the advantages they still will have over private-sector employees. Government, after all, always will find plenty of money for education.

The removal of a lifetime guarantee of employment or a generous pension might prove to bring about a more robust attitude to those teaching. The majority of educators don't need it, but some may.

Many of you have been searching for any sign of courage in government. Though Rhee ultimately may not be successful in bringing accountability to union-controlled schools, her mission is as praiseworthy as any we've seen in years.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his website at


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  1. In 2006, 8 percent of eighth-graders in Washington, D.C., could perform minimal math, yet not a single teacher was fired for stinking up the place. In fact, as D.C.’s chancellor, Michelle Rhee, points out, for years, more than 90 percent of teachers in her district were evaluated as having “exceeded expectations.”

    Clearly those teachers just need a raise to properly compensate them for their education and experience.

  2. To be fair, when the “expectations” are to get through the year without any of your students setting you or the building on fire, these evaluations are probably on target.

    1. The teachers evaluated also scored points for not being serial student molesters.

        1. I think we’ve discovered Kevin Jennings’ replacement.

        2. Goddamnit Zoltan. That gets my “Maybe it would be better if we were wiped off the planet by malevolent Aliens” Award for the day. God fucking dammit.

  3. They haven’t actually learned anything, but I’ll bet their self-esteem is through the roof, and their statist indoctrination is complete. Mission accomplished, as far as regressives are concerned.

  4. Good teachers?most teachers

    Most of anything is utter shit…except for government and media employees, in conservative or libertarian critiques of government or media.

    Yellow Sturgeon’s Law.

    1. So you’re saying that progressive critiques of government & media employees would be along the lines of “most of them are utter shit”


    1. It’s almost like you could have read Harsanyi’s article before posting your link. Crazy, huh?

      1. Harsanyi’s article was overly vague and should have included links to stories like this one.

      2. Heh, wrong article. 🙂

    2. The comments on this article are delicious.

      1. Indeed they are. The Beast has been wounded. Apparently all DC teachers are like the children at Lake Woebegone, above average.

    3. Elizabeth Davis, a computer concepts teacher at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School in Northeast, said teachers were at a disadvantage because they were being evaluated on a new set of criteria — the teaching framework — that they were still trying to learn.

      So it’s OK to evaluate students on something they are still trying to learn but not teachers?

      1. Translation: the union hasn’t figured out who to bribe yet.

      2. What is a “computer concepts” teacher? I think I had a couple of those at Berkeley, who imparted to me knowledge of turing machines, Von Neumann architecture, binary arithmetic and floating point representations, computability and undecidability, the linear algebra necessary to understand basic video effects, the knowledge of complex graphs helpful in understanding networks, the notion of a formal protocol, etc. But I’d be very surprised (and impressed!) to see such topics discussed in high school.

        1. She stands in the room with the kids who are using the ‘computer lab’. Her job is to help them out if they get stuck.

          They don’t get stuck. Most laughingly pass through the pathetic school firewall and play online for the duration of the class.

          They’re well beyond her in using computers.

  5. What evaluation did they fail? Are we talking about walking a straight line, spell 10 words correctly, what?

    1. Nevermind, Jason’s link explains things. Sounds like there’s potential for real progress. I hope the lawsuits crash & burn.

    2. Their union dues check cleared.

  6. I love this woman.

  7. Also, why is it we haven’t heard anything from parents of children in the DC school district about this? All I hear is the media crying about union-busting and firing poor old teachers who didn’t do anything wrong. I’d like to hear from the people who actually matter–the ones who are closest to this thing.

    1. Michelle is an old neighbor of mine. We were going through some home videos recently and there she was at my daughter’s 2nd birthday party. Her oldest is only a few weeks younger than mine.

      When she got back into town before she started the chancellor job, she called up my wife and got together with her for lunch in downtown Silver Spring, which is right outside of DC. She told me that black women kept coming up to her throughout the lunch and wishing her good luck on changing things.

      From what I’ve been reading, she still largely has the support of the parents, because she’s the first person to ever challenge the DC system, which was not even up to 3rd world standards. They know that real change won’t happen overnight.

      But, just the fact that she has the teacher’s union on the ropes makes her all sorts of awesome in my book.

      1. I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. . .and I’m all out of bubblegum.

        1. That’s the strangest part of all this to me. To me, she’s the nice mom across the street who had the same day-to-day issues with a first born as we did.

          Now, she’s the ultimate street fighter who takes no prisoners. I still have trouble reconciling the two.

  8. I wish Ms Rhee every sucess. But in Detroit, emergency administrator Robert Bobb, who has instituted the most common-sense reforms you can imagine in an attempt to address the cess-pit of graft, corruption and educational failure that is the Detroit Public Schools, now requires armed police protection. I suspect that the time it will take for Ms Rhee to come to a similar point will be measured with an egg-timer.



    1. Agree 100%. It already happened to this poor guy

  9. How the hell did this wonderful woman get into this position?? This just isn’t supposed to happen.

    1. I think this to myself every time I make love to my wife.

      1. ME TOO!

        1. Fortunately for you, this thought only crosses your mind twice a year.

          1. +1000

    2. She was politically appointed. Don’t worry, in about 5 years you’ll see her running for public office.

      1. Alice is right here. The possibility for her to buy a huge house in the DC area will only be realized when she completely sells out to the establishment she meant to shake up. Rhee has good intentions, but the inhuman machine that is public education is an unstoppable juggernaut of graft and waste. Eventually, it will envelope her.

    3. Just like Rudy Guilliani.

      He got is claim to fame from BEING TOUCH. Didn’t matter who he screwed or helped. This JOHN WAYNE approach is the FUTURE in American Politics.

  10. Mayor Fenty, who has placed his political future on Rhee’s success, is being attacked by the techers’ union and federal and city employee unions. His job is on the line because the people who have their hands out, and are relying primarily on the government will likely vote for Gray, a typical DC weasel. I don’t live in DC, but I work there. It feels like a better city now.

    1. The problem is that while Rhee has been doing great things, Fenty has been doing not-so-great things. Corruption, incompetence, and an utter lack of transparency are hallmarks of Fenty’s administration. I’m not saying that Gray will be better (or worse), just that other than appointing Rhee and staying out of her way Fenty hasn’t done a damn thing worth even faint praise.

  11. No doubt unions illogically protect “tenured” teachers who should be fired, but why is it that whenever I read an article like this, nobody talks about all the irresponsible and lazy parents that leave off their kids at school as a free day-care and don’t give a darn what goes on as long as they come out with the Ds that get them through to the next level without drama?

    Sure, there ARE teachers that shouldn’t be teachers, and the public education system needs reform, but I’d venture that the lion’s share of America’s educational problems are in the culture of “DVDs and Drugs” parenting.

    The crappy public education system is a product of it being an inevitably corrupt public system, not necessarily because “Teachers are evil.”

    1. If it’s parents’ responsibility to make kids learn, then — great! Teachers are just babysitters with books and we can pay them all $10/hr. Fiscal crisis solved.

      1. I always thought this was a good idea. Thirty kids in a room for an hour gets the babysitter $300 just for one class, that’s babysitter rates. The problem is that people who feel teachers alone are responsible for poor performance should have been with me when I observed a first grade girl tell her teacher, “Fuck you, I ain’t doin any of this shit”. So the teacher takes gas when this little shit does poorly on the annual tests.
        Politicians and critics should shut up until they have spent at least a few days in an actual classroom and get at least a short view of the zoo.

    2. Teachers aren’t evil. But they aren’t omniselfless perfect beings either. There are good teachers and bad teachers and there seems to be systems that can tell the difference.

      Fire shitty teachers. Where’s the damn controversy?

    3. You have to look at the history of TENURE. It came to be because the School board is politically elected. The superintendent and principals are appointed.

      Teachers were regularly loosing their jobs due to cronyism (by elected officials placing in family members) or be cause the teacher wasn’t following the current ‘moral agenda’.

      The question is as follows:

      a> have tenure and risk not being able to fire lazy teachers

      b> have a polical system in appointing teachers where teachers are vitually no security of keeping the job.

      It’s a looser either way. Just have to pick the lesser of the two evils. And, today, teachers and other union workers are targets.

      1. Too bad the question isn’t

        a) continue with the politically driven, inevitably corrupt “public” school system, which is justified by an unattainable socialist utopian dream; or

        b) privatize the schools and let the free-market have its usual effect of driving down costs and driving up quality, consistency, and availability of the desirable thing at issue.

    4. …nobody talks about all the irresponsible and lazy parents that leave off their kids at school as a free day-care and don’t give a darn what goes on as long as they come out with the Ds that get them through to the next level without drama?

      I am starting to see references to this issue in some of the news reports about education refore now that several years of NCLB have passed.

      The quotes from teachers and administrators allude to the fact that there are some things money can’t buy and that it is difficult to overcome deficiencies at home.

      But to answer your question more directly: since most of these parents are low income/minority in status, any criticism of them will be labeled ‘racist’.

  12. “Next on UNN: Are your kids using stimpacks?”

  13. I’m going to say what I know most of you puss-bags are thinking:

    Just because teachers are “educated” and had “the right connections” and sold out for cushy relatively high paying jobs, it does not mean they actually deserve said jobs. In fact, many of these “teachers” should be flipping burgers, picking up litter, or giving out $2 hand-jobs behind the Wendy’s dumpster instead of being charged with educating minds at all.

    Even good teachers in our system are screwed by the self-perpetuating beast of inherent immorality that is the public education racket.

    Drax’s solution:
    Plan A- Don’t have kids that need to be educated in the first place. “Forget” to pay taxes. Blow brains out when the feds come for you.
    Plan B- Become the head of a world-wide adult entertainment empire and use the proceeds to hire a private tutor for your brats while secretly living in the Antarctic wastes.
    Plan C- Accept it and wallow that fact that your valedictorian grandchild won’t be able to spell valedictorian.

    1. Plan B if not for that thing. Plan A sounds fun!

  14. I have a better idea!

    Let the FREE MARKET take care of education.

    Take all regulations away and let private businesses run schools. Eliminate the mandate that children need to go to school at all. This way, parents that can’t afford to send their kids to school won’t have to.

    And, to assist those parents that have to money to educate their own children, they can depend on the various charities to help them out.

    It’s the Milton Freedman (Libertarian) way. I’m sure it’ll make America a better place.

    1. Hilarious.

      Let me reply to your yawn-inducing sarcasm with a theoretical question: Tell me, would a child be better off learning a useful trade then wasting 12 years of his/her life learning about the inherent evil of the white man and rote memorization while becoming just another zombie to fed the lies that sustain your tiny brain?

      I knew plenty of farmer kids who spent 12 years in public education just to become, you guessed it, farmers. What could they have learned in school that could have possibly enriched their success as farmers, and is that actually worth $15-30K a year. If the outcome is the same regardless of the means, why should the means be dictated at all. And sure, plenty of people break away from the family trade but that has little to do with their “education” and more to do with their need to “get the fuck away from mom and dad.”

      In closing, an “education” now is just an excuse to pay people more for work that a plucky intern could do more competantly for free.

      1. I wasn’t being sarcastic. I hear this argument time-and-time again from conservatives/libertarian.

        It’s the New America. Why should people with NO kids pay for the education of the kids belonging to other people?

        People with kids should take personal responsibility for having kids and pay for their education…if they care to be educated.

        And as far as ‘plicky interns’ (as a side note, my personal favorates :> ), are you proposing that we fire the work force and only use free interns?

        1. Or, instead, we can spend billions to send them to public schools where they also often get no education. Hmmm.

          Schools don’t really add much value. In a time when books were rare and expensive they were necessary for anyone to learn much. In an age where you can download all that knowledge for free, they’re basically very, very expensive daycare centers with overpaid babysitters.

          1. U obviously don’t have kids.

        2. Suppose you didn’t have to pay taxes for schools AND could get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit if you did pay for someone’s education, whether that of your own kid’s or someone else’s, and whether through direct payment of tuition or via donation to a scholarship fund. The well-to-do would have a big incentive to subsidize the education of others, and parents could more easily afford to send their kids to a school of their choice. In this country, people are very generous toward schools and children. Scholarship funds would have a great many donors, and schools could arrange payment-in-kind to expedite the enrollment of disadvantaged kids in many cases.

          When compared to our current system which, as others here have observed, sucks in billions of dollars and STILL spits out millions of poorly educated or downright UNeducated “graduates,” I think we would see a net benefit from privatization, as measured by the number of kids who would end up actually knowing something useful that would empower them in their lives, or help them mature into decent people.

          Free-market forces would do what they always do: drive costs down and drive quality, consistency, and availability up, with the result being that a good private school education would become AFFORDABLE to people of modest means, and ATTAINABLE (through charity scholarship, at least) to people of few or no means.

      2. Which useful trade? The one that will be shipped to Mexico or India in a few years? Like computer programming, electronic technician?, etc.?

        1. Car Mechanic, electrician, plumber, general construction worker, any myriad of salesmen, taxi driver, writer, farmer (You want me to recite all the occupations 1st graders are familliar with?)… You know, shit that will still have to be done here regardless of how many jobs are “lost” overseas.

          As for the more technical jobs, well, if a kid/teenager/young adult wants to build aircraft why should he be forced to waste his time learning about things that have naught to do with building aircraft. It’s not like the current system is actually preventing immigrants from India, Africa, China, Cambodia, Laos, South Korea etc from taking these jobs anyway considering their more viable system of education and brutal parentally administered beatings. The only marketable skill of most Americans in the tech sector is the ability to get a security clearance by virtue of their citizenship.

  15. I never said that parents should pay for their own children to be educated without public help. I said that vouchers should be distributed so that children can go to the schools of their choosing.

  16. There is no way to fix “our” schools. The only way to have better schools is to have no government involvement whatsoever.

    The poor can be subsidized just like we do for them for housing and food, but there is absolutely no way there will be “good” schools that parents want to send their kids to as long as voters have anything to do with the schools.

  17. The only way to have better schools is to have no government involvement whatsoever.

    Do u also mean that there should be no mandate for children to go to school as well? Or, do u mean government shouldn’t run schools?

    1. Have you ever been to an inner city school?

      Anyways, there is no mandate for children to go to school, nor any need. My sister never spent a day in high school and is now at Stanford.

    2. And seriously — visit a failing inner city school and tell me what good public education does. There may be a way to educate these kids, but this sure as hell isn’t it. Give parents vouchers and give the free market a chance to develop a solution.

      1. I’m from the Bronx.

        The public schools are completely useless. I don’t think the free market would help either.

        I really hate sounding like a clique, but in the inner city, it’s the parents. If not, the mother. The father is absent and, in fact, many of these kids have no idea who the father is. These people are uneducated themselves. They also grew up in a time where an uneducated person can get a labor job…these don’t exist today. They wouldn’t know a good school from a bad school.

        Besides, you will ALWAYS need GOVERNMENT RUN SCHOOLS for ghetto kids due to the behavior problems and other issues these kids bring.

        1. Because us darkies are so inherently stupid right? Oh massa please save me from my stupid violent black skin.

          1. Sure, just step over here to this shower…..

  18. It’s past time to bust up the teacher’s union. Just think, all those recent college grads with no jobs – there’s your source of scabs. Lock out the teacher’s union and bring in the scabs. How hard could it be?

    1. Somewhere, a million liberal arts grads are singing your praises.

  19. I think that if we want to discourage lazy asshats from going into teaching, a pretty good way to do it is to adopt a year-round school schedule. The old 180-day school calendar is a relic of the days when America was an agrarian society. But it’s a boon for folks who want to be given 12 months of pay for 9 months of work.

    I have to work year-round – why can’t they? I know that the usual excuse is that teachers have to take continuing education credits and, gee, the only time they can fit it into their busy schedules is during the summer. Well, I have continuing education that I have to do as well – but I obtain those credits on my own time, just as most professionals do.

    1. I agree. School should be all-year-round.

    2. Or we could pay them for 9 months of work (60k for 12 = 45k for 9). However, that probably won’t stop the lazy ass-hats from being lazy. It will just make them poorer lazy ass-hats, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing.

  20. Mayor Fenty has some big issues, but appointing Rhee was definitely one of his better moves. Fenty’s challenger is a relative political newcomer by DC standards, but he’s basically representing the old Marion Barry crowd. In other words, if Gray wins, expect all of this reform to go out the window immediately.

  21. As an ex-teacher (levels 4th grade to university), I can vouch for the value of COMPETITION in choosing a school. I taught at a private school in New Orleans for 3 years, then switched to the public system for more pay. I lasted 3 weeks and then resigned. It was so awful that I became a libertarian at that moment. Voucher system is the only way.

  22. No doubt unions illogically protect “tenured” teachers who ought to be fired, but why is it that whenever I read an editorial like this, nobody talks about all the irresponsible & lazy parents that leave off their children at school as a free daycare & don’t give a darn what goes on as long as they come out with the Ds that get them through to the next level without drama?Thanks for sharing this article with us.

  23. I like this article and Still, political parties come & go; teachers don’t. All the while, urban school districts stay on a stable trajectory, headed from horrendous to Mississippi.Thanks for sharing this article with us.

  24. I think we would see a net benefit from privatization, as measured by the number of kids who would end up actually knowing something useful that would empower them in their lives, or help them mature into decent people…

  25. I am surprised by the level of ignorance in these comments. It’s obvious that many posters have no concept of the interactions between dynamic factors involved in education.

    Personally, I think schools should have the ability to reject students for issues like insubordination and absenteeism. These are the two biggest issues inside high schools. The only issue that has a greater effect is a poor education from preK-8.

  26. It’s obvious that many posters have no concept of the interactions between dynamic factors involved in education.

  27. Thanks so much for your great page, this is the stuff that keeps me awake through out these day.

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