Photo: Galloway School

Photo: Galloway School

Amanda Read’s conversation with Michelle Rhee about American education.

Since she announced her resignation from D.C. Schools and started her own website, Chancellor Michelle Rhee has been inundated with e-mails.  In the midst of it all, she graciously offered to answer some questions that I had for her.

Amanda Read: The Washington Post reported that you and presumptive mayor Vince Gray arrived at a “mutual decision” that it would be best for you to step down now.  In what ways did you and Gray agree and/or disagree about your reform plans for D.C. Schools?

Michelle Rhee:  The mutual decision we came to was more about the fact that we decided to put the politics aside and make the decision we felt was right for the students in our school system. With all the speculation in the news about whether it was better for me to quit, or the chairman to fire me, it became clear that people were starting to get distracted. A long period of uncertainty wouldn’t be good for either the children or the staff trying to do right by their students every day.

We didn’t go through in our discussion and list where we disagreed and agreed on every issue, as that’s something we’ve learned over working together for the past three years. Our disagreements are also pretty well documented in DC Council hearings, etc., but what we definitely agree on is that we both want to do the right thing for kids and keep the momentum moving forward. This was the best way to do that.

AR: According to data published earlier this year in Education Week, the U.S. graduation rate peaked right before the 1970s at 77.1%, at least a decade before President Jimmy Carter established the Department of Education.  The graduation rate has, for the most part, been declining ever since (to about 68.8% now), despite the increase in federal funding given to the Department of Education.  Do you have any idea why this is?  What could be done to change this trend?

MR:  This is a huge question and there is no pat answer that will cover everything, but our graduation rate actually has been rising recently.  Turning things around system-wide and across the country is a complex challenge. If I had to boil it down, I’d say the three most important things are ensuring high expectations, great educators and accountability, but there’s a lot of work that has to happen to accomplish each one.

My team and I at DCPS worked on a strategic plan that lays things out in more detail if you’re interested:

AR: What do you think about President Obama’s suggestion that a longer school year would bring improvement?

MR:  I agree 100%, especially in urban districts where we have students who are far behind. Before they’re going to become as competitive as they need to be in a global economy, they’re going to have to catch up. We shouldn’t be spending any less time on academics than the countries who are surpassing us are!

AR:  What do you think about President Obama’s emphasis on early childhood education as a national education policy?

MR:  I agree with this too. The research backs him up that excellent early childhood education programs are the key to securing the advantage we used to have as a country in graduating students equipped to succeed.

AR: The Arizona school choice case, Garriott v. Winn, will be heard before the Supreme Court on November 3, 2010.  Do you have any thoughts on this debate?

MR:  You’re the first person to ask me this! I will leave it up to the court on the nuances of constitutional law, but I do have a gut reaction as a parent. To me it is the greatest institutionalized injustice in America that we have some kids who have access to a great education just by nature of where they live, while others are denied the education that is also theirs by right according to our laws. It goes against everything we believe in as a country.

I cannot imagine how heart wrenching it would be to see my kids falling behind in a bad school without having the financial resources to change that fact. Until we’ve seen to it that no parent has to go through that in the United States, my thought is we have to do as much as we can to ensure that more parents have a choice in the matter of their children’s education.

AR: Regarding specifically the scenario with D.C. Schools, you wrote: I know they are working furiously in a system that for many years has not appreciated them — sometimes not even paying them on time or providing textbooks. Those who categorically blame teachers for the failures of our system are simply wrong. Rather, teachers are the solution to the vexing problems facing urban education.”

On a national scale, what do you think empowers good teaching in urban education and education in general?  What most hinders the abilities of teachers and students?

MR:  This is a great and complex question. There is a lot we can do to empower teachers to do the heroic jobs we need them to do. The challenges of poverty make the job so much harder, and there are plenty of obstacles it puts in children’s way. It also doesn’t help when school systems aren’t giving teachers the basic supports such as the textbooks they need!

We have to flip this whole thing on its head to finally give teaching the respect it deserves. This happens not just by providing the basics and applying innovative practices such as merit pay and real recognition for success. It also happens by setting high expectations and introducing rigorous assessment systems that say this work is incredibly important and we believe people thrive when challenged in the right ways. When we get this right, we have schools across the country actually overcoming these obstacles and proving that our kids can do it if they have the right tools.

AR:  Have you decided what you will be doing next?

MR:  Not yet!

Read more of Amanda’s column Not Your Average Read in the Communities at The Washington Times.

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