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Patt Morrison Asks: Hard lessons with Michelle Rhee

No one, it seems, is lukewarm about Michelle Rhee; she's a pass-fail figure, inspiring or polarizing.

In the name of reforming public schools, the onetime Teach for America teacher, depending on your viewpoint, either trailblazed or bulldozed her way through Washington, D.C.'s school system as its chancellor, closing schools, firing people and raising student scores -- and questions about the tactics.

Now she is extending her agenda nationwide with StudentsFirst, which supports culling bad teachers, school choice for parents and tightfisted budgeting — all of which she sums up with the word "accountability." She's in Los Angeles on Wednesday, on a public "listening tour" with her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Class will come to order!

President Obama says we have to embrace education reform and stop teacher-bashing. Is he right?

Absolutely. I personally have never heard someone teacher-bash, but teachers are definitely feeling a lot of angst, and part of what we have to do is strike a balance. Teachers understand change needs to happen. Reforms have to occur, in areas that deal with union contracts and that sort of thing. We have to deal with school finances. We have to get to a place where we can talk about these things without that coming across as being anti-teacher.

You've been called a teacher-basher yourself.

This is part of the problem. When I go out and talk, teachers every single time come up and say, “This is not what I was expecting. We've been told you're anti-teacher. You're actually very pro-teacher, and what you're saying is very reasonable. You're saying let's recognize the most effective teachers, identify those who are not effective and quickly develop them or move them out of the profession.”

If you say these sorts of things, you get framed as a teacher-basher. I was a teacher. My sister was a teacher. As a society, we have to respect teachers a whole lot more. But things about the profession need to be changed. When you point those things out, you can't be seen as a teacher-basher. It doesn't help the discourse at all.

Arizona may end collective bargaining for public employees. What is the role of collective bargaining for teachers?

I'm a die-hard, lifelong Democrat, so I believe in collective bargaining. I just think [it] has its place in some areas and not others. I believe teachers should be able to bargain around pay and benefits [but not] things that, when bargained away, could be extraordinarily detrimental to kids, [such as] the [length of the] school day and school year.

Where do you part company from Republicans on education reform?

I'll give you one example. I am a proponent of school vouchers for low-income kids who would otherwise be trapped in a failing school. Really right-wing people say, “This is great; she's a Democrat, a person of color, and she's for vouchers.” Then they hear why [I'm] for vouchers, and the [requirements], and they're like, “We don't like her anymore.”

I believe in vouchers for low-income kids only if we have strict accountability systems [and] kids are [improving] at higher rates. The right-wingers say, “Let the market correct itself; let's give every kid a backpack with the money in it and let them go where they want.” I don't agree. It has to be pretty heavily regulated. We don't let any crazy person with a propeller run an airline, right? There is a point at which the government has to ensure some things are taking place, or not taking place.

Schools start to sound like Congress -- Americans dislike Congress as a body but like their individual members.

About 80% [say] they think the public education system is bad -- C, D or F is the grade they give. But ask how they feel about their own schools: 80% of them give their own school an A or B.

How much are parents versus schools responsible for kids' performance?

That's the beauty of the value-added [teacher eval-
uations]. You can control for factors outside the control of teachers — socioeconomic status, attendance, things like that. Some teachers walk in on Day 1 and 90% of the kids are already at grade level. Another teacher walks in on the first day and 13% will be at grade level.

There is not a single person I know who's ever said, “Let's measure teachers solely on the basis of test scores.” And yet that's the rhetoric. The system we put in place in D.C. counts academic gains, but that's only 50%. The other 50% includes observation of classroom practices, how the school overall did, a teacher's contribution to the school community.

You've said charters are not the end-all and be-all; some haven't performed much better than public schools. What's the magic there?

Ask the highest-performing charters the most important thing, they'll say the ability to staff schools the way they need to.

But there are some poorly run charter schools. The problem is we've given charter schools more authority and autonomy but haven't followed through on the accountability side.

Where I differ with some of my Republican colleagues, I don't think charter schools are the answer. They're a part of [it]; I do believe we can fix the traditional public school system.

Should there be a dual message to lawmakers -- let’s reform union contracts, pension reform, evaluations -- but let’s also put more money into smaller classes, more teacher pay, for example?

The overall message right now is not we need to put more money into the system. [In] Washington, D.C., or Newark, N.J., we’re putting in $22,000 per kid and the outcomes are absolutely abysmal. You have to change the fundamentals of how the system works first or you’re going to be throwing good money after bad.

The California Assembly passed a bill allowing districts to deny charter school petitions if they "negatively impact" a school district's finances.

That is ridiculous. Districts have an incentive to keep children regardless of whether they're serving those kids well. [So] we basically chain the doors instead of allowing kids the option of a higher-performing [charter] school, simply because it would be bad financially for the district? Why should they be able to keep the dollars for a kid they're not serving [well]?

Some argue that charters cherry-pick students and schools end up re-segregated.

I just don't see that playing out in reality. There are laws that if there are not enough spaces for the demand, you must hold a lottery and choose [students] randomly. Now, some charters try to game the system. If a kid gets into their school who has significant special needs, they say, “We can't serve this kid.” But you have to make sure charters are not allowed willy-nilly to do that.

Atlanta teachers and principals corrected students' wrong test answers. USA Today reported too-good-to-be-true scores in other states and in Washington, D.C.

What should be our takeaway[s] from that? One should be that school districts should have very tight security test protocols in place and ensure these kinds of things are minimized. Unfortunately, you're always going to have people who make the wrong decision.

What about another takeaway: that the cheating was a consequence of pressure to get good test scores, which may not be the same as learning?

I would guess cheating has happened for a very long time, in all kinds of circumstances, whether you've got high potential rewards and consequences or not. I can't tell you what is motivating these people. We made it clear that if you were caught [cheating], you would lose your job.

The ACLU in L.A. is suing districts that have been charging for books, for tests, for supplies that don't seem to be extracurricular only.

That's absolutely right. In California, ask any school district how much money [it] gets per kid, and they'll tell you a much lower amount than California is allocating per child.

There's a huge disconnect because a lot of the money is not actually going to the districts; it's going to pension funds and pension-and-benefit liabilities.

Is there anything you'd take back -- perhaps your firing of a principal in front of PBS cameras?

[I would take it back] to the extent that [it] communicated a message that I was unfeeling or didn't care about people. [My] point was that it's important to hold people accountable. That principal was leading a school that was a hot mess. If you're not serving our kids well, we're not going to let you work in our school district anymore.

Did you have an ideal teacher?

I had a high school English teacher named Chuck Lundholm. He was the kind of teacher who made you want to come to school -- not necessarily because he was super-fun or easy, but you learned something every single day.


This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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