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Is Michelle Rhee the new face of education reform?

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As Rhee sees it, money will motivate teachers to do better and those who don’t will be (and deserve to be) let go. She believes there’s nothing wrong with the kids. “It’s the adults,” says Rhee. [Editor’s note: The original text said Rhee sees teachers, administrators, and in some cases parents as the main problem. But she never identified parents as part of the problem.]

Yet quantifying teacher performance, especially in a poor district like Washington D.C., can be problematic. Some teachers inherit a class of underachieving students. Moreover, the district has difficulties recording the most basic statistics accurately. When Rhee took charge, for instance, she didn’t have an accurate count of how many children with special needs attended her schools.

She says teachers will be evaluated through a number of lenses – student performance,
classroom observations, general professionalism.

Yet not all the teachers she’s fired so far have inspired plaudits from members of the Washington Teachers’ Union and some local parents. Some fault her for acting too hastily, others for jettisoning good instructors.

“Teachers are feeling the pressure to show progress, and if they don’t show progress, they’re afraid they’re going to lose their jobs,” says Angela Morton, principal of Smothers Elementary School.

Questions persist, too, on whether Rhee can recruit enough qualified teachers to fill the vacancies that would be created by any massive turnover. “You can fire people who aren’t doing a good job, but if you then don’t have good people to put in their place, it can backfire,” says Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan who serves on an advisory board with Rhee. “I think it’s frankly more than just finding good teachers and paying them enough. You can pay people as much as you like, and they still couldn’t teach a kid to read.”

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