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McCain Is Right On Michelle Rhee And Vouchers

Who would have predicted that D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is right up there with Sarah Palin as media magnet, would become the subject of one of the more sniping disputes in the final presidential debate?

Barack Obama and John McCain went at each other over whether Rhee supports the concept of giving vouchers to D.C. schoolchildren so that they might escape the city's struggling public schools and attend private school on the taxpayers' dime.

Yes, she does, McCain said--twice. No, she supports charter schools, Obama insisted.

Who's right? McCain is right about the vouchers. (Obama's right about the charters, but McCain never disputed that part.)

Here's the evidence: In an interview in the Wall Street Journal last December, Rhee said answered a question about whether the city's congressionally-imposed voucher program should be renewed by saying, "I would never, as long as I am in this role, do anything to limit another parent's ability to make a choice for their child. Ever."

Obama is right to focus on the District's extensive charter school system as the primary alternative to the regular public schools in the city, and Rhee certainly talks much more about the charters than about vouchers. But while she and Mayor Adrian Fenty may not care much for vouchers, neither has lifted a finger to oppose them, and Rhee's consistent message has been that she welcomes all choice and hopes to improve the city's schools to the point that they can compete for students against the available education alternatives.

Meanwhile, there's a good new profile of Rhee in The Atlantic and you can read it here.

And Fast Company has more on the Rhee/vouchers issue here.

By Marc Fisher |  October 15, 2008; 11:30 PM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Not actively opposing something is not the same as supporting it. Washington City Paper got a response:

Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee strongly believe that all families in the District of Columbia must have access to excellent public school options, and are committed to ensuring that students in every ward are afforded this opportunity. While Chancellor Rhee hasn’t taken a formal position on vouchers, she disagrees with the notion that vouchers are the remedy for repairing the city’s school system.

Posted by: Evan | October 16, 2008 4:44 AM

Unless Chancellor Rhee can develop some type of coherent guidelines that clearly illustrate how the teachers of the District will be judged any type of rewards that are being promised are merely an illusion. According to her press releases and what many teachers believe it will be possible for all teachers in the DC schools to earn well over $100k. If this is true then the bar will have to be set fairly low and the funding for this endeavor will have to be guaranteed in perpetuity lest this appear to be merely some type of quick fix concocted to interest folks in Rhee and not the nuts and bolts of education. I am of the opinion that Michelle Rhee really knows very little about public education and even less about developing solutions to the crisis in the DC PUblic Schools. More than likely she'll slog it out for a few years and then move on to the Gates Foundation or to some type of professor emeritus position deep behind the ivy covered walls of academia and emerge periodically during political campaigns or educational forums as a quote source. Both her organization the New Teacher's Project and Wendy Kopp's organization Teach for America are much better at attracting grant money than they are at affecting real change in the classroom. Most alums of TFA feel that their time was poorly spent and they went in unprepared and very few actually stay in the classroom. Of course, they won't tell you that on the record but feel free to call either organization and ask them for their teacher retentions rates/test scores and you'll find that they're much the same and even slightly lower than the normal rank-and-file educators. And in regard to test scores, do a little meta analysis of test scores and you'll see that the TFA scores are actually lower in many cases. TFA in general and Michelle Rhee's approach in the District of Columbia are really indicative of the low worth that Americans place on education and the total lack of quality solutions that have been generated over the past few decades. People this isn't any made for TV movie, it will take some hard work.

Greg Boyd

Posted by: Greg Boyd | October 16, 2008 9:08 AM

Ahh, a TFA hater commenting on a post that had nothing to do with TFA and stating his beliefs as if they were facts.

"Most alums of TFA feel that their time was poorly spent."

Um, I'm a TFA alum and I don't feel this way. Neither does anyone I know. I'm sure a few feel this way, as in all careers, but most? Nope.

"very few actually stay in the classroom"

Again, not sure where you're getting your information from. Two-thirds of TFA alums stay in education, and over 90% of those who do remain in low-income schools or communities. After education (66%), the next most popular sector for alums is law at only 8%. So TFA alums are actually overwhelmingly remaining in the field of education.

Test scores: "they're much the same and even slightly lower than the normal rank-and-file educators. And in regard to test scores, do a little meta analysis of test scores and you'll see that the TFA scores are actually lower in many cases."

Well, test scores might be lower than the national average of ALL schools: suburban, urban, good, bad, etc. But when TFA corps members are compared to similar schools (as any study does), the results are completely different. Let's examine:

The Effects of Teach For America on Students by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. (2004):

"The study found that students of Teach For America corps members:
* Make more progress in a year in both reading and math than would typically be expected.
* Attain significantly greater gains in math than the students of other teachers in the study, even when compared to veteran and certified teachers.
* The study also found that corps members are working in the highest-need classrooms in the country, where students begin the year on average at the 14th percentile against the national norm."

Making a Difference? The Effects of Teach For America in High School by The Urban Institute/CALDER Research Center (2008):

"The study found that Teach For America corps members have a positive effect on student achievement relative to other teachers, including those who are fully certified in their subject areas. The incremental impact of having a Teach For America corps member was three times the incremental impact of having a teacher with three or more years of experience."

Teach For America National Principal Survey by Policy Studies Associates (2007):

"- Nearly all principals (95 percent) rate Teach For America corps members as effective as, if not more effective than, other beginning teachers in terms of overall performance and impact on student achievement.
- Nearly two-thirds of principals (61 percent) regard Teach For America teachers as more effective compared with other beginning teachers."

In fairness I think Stanford has produced a study which indicates that TFA teachers are not very effective. But on the whole, Greg, just about everything you said fails to mesh with the facts. You're just making stuff up to support a grudge.

Posted by: Ben | October 16, 2008 9:51 AM

Greg and Ben you both make very good points. However, I must side with Greg. I know many teachers from TFA, and they are no longer teachers to this day after an average of 2 to 3 yrs in the classroom. My son attended a charter school in DC where most if not all of the teacher have left. They are TFA alum. I read an article in the post a couple of years ago which tracked the teaching progrss of 3 TFA alums in an elementary scholl in Southeast DC. One teacher left after six months. Another teacher left after 18 months, and the third was leaving at the end of the school year, which was her 2nd year.

My wife and I have had private discussions with TFA alums who admitted that they were not well prepared for the dynamics they faced. Now in my personal experience, the more senior, but tradentional, teachers are much better prepared, tactful and creative with the students.
For the record, Ms Rhee taught in Baltimore public schools for 3 years and admitted she failed as a teacher. However, she believes her talents are better as an administrator than a teacher. I don't understand how you could fail as a teacher, admittedly, but you are skilled to train and prepare other teachers to teach. MMMMM, That's strange.

Posted by: Keon | October 16, 2008 12:10 PM

You may personally know many teachers that left after 2 years, but nationwide, 66% of TFA alums stay in education.

I think the training is about as good as it can be, as it continually improving. The only thing that can really prepare you to teach in a struggling, chaotic school is actually doing it. I have by and large found the opposite to be true of older teachers in such schools, though by no means do I wish to group them all together. There are surely many excellent ones. But there must be a reason why a majority of principals prefer TFA teachers, no?

I have to take issue with your statement that Michelle Rhee "failed as a teacher." She has admitted that she was a failure as a first-year teacher; however, the next two years her students jumped from the 13th percentile to the 90th percentile.

Again, in fairness, those precise numbers
come from Rhee, but those at the school at the time confirm that her students made drastic gains, and she received media coverage for her success. So she hardly failed as a teacher.

None of this is to say that TFA is perfect (it's not), or that it can single-handedly cure the woes of urban education (it can't). But it's hardly a step in the wrong direction.

Posted by: Ben | October 16, 2008 1:29 PM

TFA teachers are no more unprepared for the situations they are in than any other teachers. let me add some more anecdotal evidence to the "conversations" commenters have had with TFA alums: i taught in baltimore for four years. during my last year there, i was the second most experienced teacher in the school; that is to say, i lasted longer than most of the "traditionally trained" teachers that showed up. one year i watched 3 different non-TFA teachers abandon the same 4th grade class; one of those quit before the first day of school.

michelle rhee and DCPS don't need to take a position on vouchers because, right now, vouchers don't take any money away from DCPS; the program is funded by congress, so it has no bearing on DCPS's budget.

and fenty and rhee haven't "lifted a finger to oppose them"? really, marc? you know as well as anyone that congress imposed vouchers on dc and that the program would never have been adopted by the dc council or by popular vote in the district. they could lift all ten fingers and toes and nothing would happen.

Posted by: chris | October 16, 2008 1:59 PM

Not sure how this turned into a discussion of TFA. Anyway, wanted to make a point about the data on the DC school voucher program.
Obama was correct to point out that data suggest that the DC school voucher program actually is not effective at changing student outcomes. The Dept. of Education released a report this year which points out that there is no significant difference between students who did receive vouchers and those who did not. Report here:

Why would McCain want to implement these kinds of programs across the country when they don't work? Seems like wasteful spending.

Posted by: Wes | October 16, 2008 2:49 PM

Im a TFA alumni from 5 years ago and Im only one of two from an orginal cohort of 25 that have stayed working within our orginal geographic area.

My personal experience with TFA is that many volunteers are extremely arrogant and cannot think outside of building their resumes and working within the confines of TFA's limited education ideology.

I work in a very small school district on a reservation, where our two elementaries have some of the highest test scores in the state, but our middle schools and highschool have horrendous achievement and dropout rates amidst an annual influx of TFAers.

Having worked at elementary, middle school and highschool environments, im tired of seeing exceptionally bright young people hate school after they reach adolescence because of a school culture that revolves around teaching to a test and has little to do with real learning and growth.

Schooling in our country unfortunately does not equal education. Its more about imposing norms and socializing kids into thinking that conforming and going through motions is somehow tied to learning and that irrelevant subject matter is more important than self knowledge.

What good is it if your students reach the 90th percentile in fourth grade because you focus on drills and state testing through scripted programs when they forget everything during the summer and begin to hate the tediousness and nonsense of of school by the time they reach sixth grade.

Ive personally had students who were capable of reading at a college level at the sixth grade, but hated anything related to school.

Thats not to say, you can have a tremendous impact on the lives of children within the classroom, but after a while you realize the problems lie with our vision and are also structural in nature.

As for Michelle Rhee and other reformers, real reform will only come when we let go of our limited vision of education based on ridiculous tests and standards, whose implementation is based more on profit motive for private testing companies as opposed to improving the mental environment for our children.

Id like to see policy makers, reformers, Obama, Mcain, Palin, teachers, administrators and so called expert take the 8th grade standardized test to see if their proficient. How many educated people are smarter than our idealized fifth grader in Jeff Foxworthy's show and have won a million dollars?

Im very confident most adults taking such tests would have a very difficult time not only getting some of the problems right, but explaining how they arrived at their answers.

Posted by: O | October 16, 2008 4:08 PM

Ben, you cite two different percentages 90% and 66%. Which is it? And any test that is monitored by teachers is immediately suspect. TFA and NTP are both shams when held up to to the empirical light. I spent eight years in education and schools make Enron look honest. Teachers change standardized test answers all of the time. MIchelle Rhee, NTP, TFA, are related because they're indicative of the quick fix new math mentality people possess in regard to education. I worked in a number of urban schools and when I pointed out that many of the students couldn't read I was told that I was transmitting low expectations to my students who had recently arrived in my class. If you're white, which I am, both black and white parents and teachers will brand you a racist for telling the truth about schools. You want to know the truth. Get ready.....many teachers have trouble figuring out their grades even with the help of calculators and software. Teachers have the lowest SAT scores by and large.

Greg Boyd

Posted by: Greg Boyd | October 16, 2008 11:37 PM

"Ben, you cite two different percentages 90% and 66%."

What I said was, "Two-thirds of TFA alums stay in education, and over 90% of those who do remain in low-income schools or communities." So 66% of TFA alums stay in education. Of this 66 %, 90% of them remain in low-income schools or communities. Hopefully this clarifies.

"And any test that is monitored by teachers is immediately suspect ... Teachers change standardized test answers all of the time."

Other than ETS tests, what test isn't monitored by a teacher? They all are. Are you saying any test kids take in school is suspect? There are surely some teachers who cheat, but "all of the time" seems both extreme and categorical.

"MIchelle Rhee, NTP, TFA, are related because they're indicative of the quick fix new math mentality people possess in regard to education."

I can't speak for Rhee (though like any superintendent she sort of has to shoot for a quick fix out of political necessity, no matter how unrealistic that may be), but TFA isn't at all about a quick fix. It's a two-tiered approach: trying to help kids in the classroom today, but also changing the political and policy discourse on the achievement gap in the long term. Nor have I ever once heard the phrase "new math" during my time in TFA so, again, I think you're just taking your unsupported opinions and trying to make them facts.

"many teachers have trouble figuring out their grades even with the help of calculators and software. Teachers have the lowest SAT scores by and large."

Right, so clearly there's a need for a better talent influx into urban classrooms. This is the problem TFA tries to combat!

Posted by: Ben | October 17, 2008 10:49 AM

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