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Book review: The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District

The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District

By Richard Whitmire

Jossey-Bass

$29.95

My kids spend a lot of time in the principal’s office.

They’re not in trouble. My daughter drops in during recess and lunch to knit. My son swings by to play Monopoly.

Every student at this west-end elementary school is welcome to pay a visit at any time. The door is always open. This student-first attitude from the principal, combined with outstanding teachers and staff, is exactly what my wife and I hoped for when we went house-hunting a decade ago. Living in a safe neighbourhood within walking distance of a great public school topped our wish list.

We got it and our kids, who love going to school and already know more than their dad, are off to a fast start.

Many kids and families in Washington, D.C. weren’t so fortunate. Their city’s school district had the lowest academic scores in the United States. Too many of the city’s schools did a better job of turning kids into dropouts rather than graduates.

The problem wasn’t poverty. Poor kids in other cities were outperforming poor kids in Washington. The real problem was summed up in a sign posted low on a wall at a D.C. elementary school. “There is nothing a teacher can do to overcome what a parent and a student will not do.”

“For those children, the sign was a daily admonition that the teachers were not responsible for students’ failings,” says author and veteran education reporter Richard Whitmire. “We’re not the reason the test scores at this school are awful. We’re not why D.C. schools rank at the bottom all of the nation’s schools. Look to yourself, look to your parents. You are to blame. We’re doing the best we can with the flawed kids sent our way.”

Whitmire says that in the minds of teachers, administrators and the school district, family formation, race and poverty added up to destiny. It wasn’t their fault, or responsibility, if kids failed to learn.

Michelle Rhee didn’t agree. In 2007, Rhee was appointed by Washington’s mayor to serve as superintendent and turn around the city’s public schools. Rhee was a Teach for America rebel with no prior experience running a school district. She had previously led The New Teacher Project, which recruits high-quality, non-traditional teachers for school districts. From that experience came Rhee’s belief that great teachers and strong principals have the single greatest impact on student achievement.

Rhee wasted no time driving major reforms. She gutted the bureaucracy at the school district’s headquarters, reducing staff by half. Rhee fired incompetent staff and ended the long-standing practice of sending poor performers from central office into schools. “The worst central office disaster was the special education operation, which was so incompetently run in 2007 that it sucked up $203 million a year and comprised 20 per cent of the school budget,” says Whitmire. “Over the years, platoons of lawyers had found an easy mark in the special education system, whose paperwork deficiencies allowed the lawyers to win court orders that sent students to expensive private schools.”

Rhee closed 23 low-enrolment schools with lousy test scores. When she arrived, the district had 101 elementary schools but needed only 86 to meet current and future demand. “The dollars that should have been going to the children instead were spent on maintaining too many boilers and painting too many lightly used hallways,” said Whitmire.

Principals were put on notice and dozens were dismissed. They had a year to “lock down” and regain control of their schools. In years two and three, they had to drive measurable teaching and learning improvements.

Rhee and her team rolled out a teacher evaluation system. The teachers then ratified a contract that tied their pay and job security to their evaluation scores. Rhee issued $45 million in retroactive pay increases to 650 high performing educators who could now earn six-figure salaries, terminated 165 poor performers and another 737 teachers were put on notice and told they’d be fired within a year if they failed to measure up. Jobs for life and last in-first out rules no longer applied.

Rhee pulled off major reforms in her 3½ years on the job, drove up student performance on reading and math scores and increased enrolment. But in the fall of 2010, she stepped down as superintendent after the mayor who brought her to Washington lost his re-election bid.

The best chapter in Whitmire’s book should be mandatory reading for any reformer who’s quarterbacking large-scale transformational change. While she did a lot right, there were a few critical missteps. Rhee failed to create public buy-in for reforming the D.C. school system from adult-centred to student-centred. Parents rallied behind schools that had failed their children.

Rhee fought battles that didn’t need fighting. She took on councillors who’d agree in private there were too many schools yet publicly condemn closures. “The political brushbacks added up,” said Whitmire.

Rhee made some terrible media judgments, like appearing on the cover of Time magazine in a classroom with a broom in hand. Or telling Fast Company magazine that among the teachers she laid off were people who had hit or had sex with students. Or inviting a PBS camera crew to watch her fire an unsuspecting principal.

As well, Rhee drove out some good teachers. While she made a point of praising high performers, the media opted to only focus on quotes and soundbites where Rhee singled out lousy teachers. And Rhee came up short on school supports. High-performing school districts offer teachers and principals online tool boxes to help with anything and everything. “When Rhee arrived in D.C., the district had solid learning standards but not much else in the way of academic supports. Although Rhee took steps in that direction, her efforts bordered on the frantic.”

Whitmire says it takes a crazy person to produce results under the conditions Rhee faced in Washington. “Ultimately, The Bee Eater is the story of a crazy woman taking on a crazy school system. It’s also about what it actually takes to achieve what just about everyone agrees is not only the right goal but also the necessary goal for the future of our country.”

Every child, whether in Washington or the west end of Hamilton, deserves a quality education from teachers, principals, staff and a union fully committed to putting students first.

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