Tuesday, June 19, 2007


There's a lot of buzz about Michelle Rhee, who's become head of the D.C. school system at the ripe old age of 37. Ms. Rhee is a product of Teach for America.

Teach for America places recruits after six or seven weeks of summer courses and practice teaching. Some crash and burn when they face real classes. But their survival rate is improving, and those who succeed often resolve to spend their lives fixing all that is wrong with urban education.

Some critics note that, on average, teachers in the program do not raise achievement levels much higher than do other young teachers. They also say that despite some successes, the innovators, who seek new ways of training teachers and running schools, have not found a way to improve learning for the vast majority of low-income urban students.

Despite this, they seem to be well-regarded among prominent voices for educational reform. The founders of KIPP hail from TFA, and Ms. Rhee's colleagues can be found administrating both charters and public schools.

The innovators tend to support smaller schools, closer contact with students' parents, and longer school days and years. They also focus on character education and how much teachers raise student achievement. They want well-trained principals to have the power to hire or fire teachers with less interference.

Some even suggest that school systems should focus on recruiting waves of energetic young teachers, who would spend five or six years in the classroom before moving on, rather than career teachers, who might tire as they grow older.

There's a lot to be said for smaller schools, in my view. However, I do not agree that partitioning one big overcrowded school into five smaller ones equals five small schools. To me, that's another big school with a lot of walls and too many administrators.

And while there are those who feel comfortable depending on the kindness of strangers, I'm not among them. After reading about Nicole Byrne Lau and other charter teachers, I value tenure a lot, as should anyone who sees teaching as a career. That's particularly important when you consider the blatant "chew 'em up and spit 'em out" philosophy espoused by those who suggest the lifespan of a teacher ought to be five or six years.

There are those who equate age with wisdom, and while it's not always true, I still want thoughtful, experienced teachers for kids who need them most. I'm afraid I fail to see the wisdom of working teachers to death, or at best resignation. I don't think I'd want to be on call with a cellphone for hours after I left my job, as KIPP teachers are. Like most people, I'm available at work, and like any responsible person I return calls quickly.

Now I'm told that KIPP does have one 100K teacher, who they trot out for conferences and such. However, Nassau County, where I live, has thousands of them. They all have tenure, they aren't on call, they don't work longer days and years, and they aren't expected to flame out after five or six years. And some of them have been very helpful to my little girl.

In fact, I've seen many great teachers as old or older than Ms. Rhee. The notion of entrusting the education of our children with anyone who can put up with the job for a few years before moving onto greener pastures is offensive, counter-productive, and more worthy of a summer camp than a serious educational institution.

Unless, of course, you've got your eye planted firmly on the bottom line. If your ultimate goal is reduction of Steve Forbes' tax bill, it all makes perfect sense.

Thanks to reality-based educator

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