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 www.DavidHarsanyi.com.