Behind the Rhee-toric

/ 20 January 2012 / Parents United

Michael Diedrich, Minnesota 2020, January 20, 2012 –

My Favorite Person in the Whole Wide World, former D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee, has a certain trick she uses when advocating for paying teachers based on test scores. Instead of reinforcing the implied assumption of such schemes that lazy teachers are the reason we haven’t achieved educational equity, she frames the issue in terms of rewarding exceptional teachers for their work. It’s a feel-good approach that comes across as pro-teacher despite advancing a demeaning approach that doesn’t work.

Don’t just take my word for it. Check out Rhee’s recent commentaryin Education Week. She leads off by discussing a recent study out of Harvard that explored the long-term effects of teachers on their students. After establishing that teachers aren’t paid enough and that exceptional teachers have exceptionally good long-term effects on their kids, Rhee pivots to argue, “The new study confirms that what matters most, and what teachers really ought to be rewarded for, is the ability to help kids make academic progress.”

Sounds good, right? The only catch is that the systems that do what Rhee’s talking about have a terrible track record. New York City’s experiment with paying teachers based on their kids’ “academic progress” (i.e. test scores) was junked after the notoriously lefty RAND Corporation found it hadn’t achieved anything. The use of testing and evaluation systems like the ones Rhee supports create pressure on teachers and schools to cheat; we’ve seen this in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Rhee’s own D.C., among many others.

Rhee’s argument falls back on the myth of the Exceptional American, manifested as the cinematic superteacher. It assumes that gains in a couple of tests – generally math and reading – are a sufficient proxy for overall learning, even though they’re not. At its core, her proposal lapses into the same fallacies about data that undermine most of our discussion of education reform.

This isn’t to say that seniority and credentials are the best way to pay teachers. Nonetheless, we need to be wary of Rhee’s style of argument, as it moves from a good premise (excellent teachers deserve excellent pay) to a bad policy (we should pay and retain teachers based on test scores). After all, we don’t want to get tricked into a system we’ll come to…wait for it…Rhee-gret.