Rate My Teacher

In the latest episode of Have You Heard, Jack Schneider and I have a spirited back-and-forth with none other than Michelle Rhee. Jack asks her if she’s ready to admit that evaluating teachers on the basis of their student test scores has been a bad idea. I channel Gary Rubinstein and ask Rhee if the teaching profession has suffered as a result of the policies she and her advocacy group, Students First, pushed across the country. And we talk about what’s next for education reform in the time of Trump. So what does Rhee have to say to our questions? Well, you’ll have to listen to find out! Or you can skip ahead and read the transcript.

Jennifer Berkshire:


Welcome to another edition of Have You Heard? I’m Jennifer Berkshire.


Jack Schneider: I’m Jack Schneider.


Berkshire: Jack, I think speak for America in asking the question, how exactly did you convince Michelle Rhee to be a guest on our podcast?


Schneider: That’s a really good question. I promised that you and I would both agree to be evaluated in an objective way, and that we would look at the data at the end of today’s episode and we would fire the lowest performing 50%.


Berkshire: Next time people tune in they’ll hear that you have been replaced, and that I have been put on an improvement plan.


Schneider: I think that’s probably what we can expect for next week, so it’s been nice doing this with you, and I look forward to our final episode here today.


Berkshire: I wish you all the best in whatever career you turn out to be better suited for.


Schneider: I think the service industry is hiring these days.


Berkshire: I thought it would be fun and useful to start out by talking about sort of our dream interview. All the things that we hope that we’ll accomplish in talking to Michelle Rhee, and then our listeners can judge us harshly on whether we meet those metrics.


Schneider: That’s good. First, we’ll set the standards, and then we’ll have a test that is aligned to the standards. I know one thing that I’m hoping that we have a conversation about, and you can tell I’m setting the bar real low, that we have a conversation about this topic. I hope we get to have a conversation about value added measures of teachers, and that we don’t go shooting off into the datasphere, and that we don’t get sidetracked on other forms of conversation, that we can talk about what evaluating teachers by using student standardized test scores has done to the teaching profession, and then I would also like to draw a little bit on the research on value added, and hopefully get a direct response from her that is not her hanging up on her.


Berkshire: I join you in being not at all enthusiastic about what I think of as a data throw down. We’re at a moment where things are so intense and political, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious just how big the issues are that are at stake, and that’s making me even more impatient to have the kinds of conversations about this measurable impact, and whether … Here’s the small keyhole through which we’re going to view the world. I’m not particularly interested in that conversation.


Schneider: Right. That said, I think, and it’s worth actually answering the first question you asked rather than being snarky about it, and to say that Michelle agreed to come on today because she and I blogged with each other on Ed Week for about 10 weeks. I’m not particularly interested in screaming matches, and so one of the things that I have tried to do is engage in a somewhat saner dialogue with people with whom I vehemently disagree.


Berkshire: How’s that working out?


Schneider: It sometimes ends with people hanging up the phone, but Michelle and I had what I thought was a civil and sometimes productive conversation via our blog. I think we wrote a total of 20 entries together, and so she deserves some credit for that as well as for coming on today.


Berkshire: It can be really challenging to talk to people with whom you vehemently disagree about huge issues, and I’m really hoping that we can get into the politics of some of this. The situation is changing quickly. Obviously we’ve had the decision by the Trump administration to rescind protections for transgender students, but around the country, the sort of political situation on the ground is changing, too. Just in the last two weeks you’ve seen Iowa and Missouri basically gut collective bargaining protections for teachers, and if you listen to the debates in those states, you don’t hear a lot of talk about elevating the teaching profession. This is pretty much bare knuckle political stuff.


Schneider: Yeah, and I think that it connects interestingly to what is I think Michelle’s signature contribution to the world of educational policy, which would be a very strong support for measuring teachers via objective, quote unquote “objective” measures, so using student standardized test scores to do that. I think when we’re thinking about the political context right now, and what the Trump administration is likely to push for in terms of K 12 education and possibly even higher education, they will be trying to create a free market, where students will be able to move freely, and shop for whatever school they want to go to or whatever school they can afford to go to. That they will want, as Travis Pillow from Week One suggested, they will want something like a Yelp for schools, which might include the public ratings of their teachers a la the work done by the Los Angeles Times a few years ago, where they published the value added ratings of all the teachers in the LA Unified School District.


Berkshire: Or Rate My Professor with the chili peppers.


Schneider: There may be chili peppers involved in this.


Berkshire: We, on our last episode, we foreshadowed that we were going to be doing this interview, and we threw it out to the world. We asked people to submit questions. We got a lot of them, and I would say that they fell into a few categories. There are many people out there who still harbor very strong feelings about Michelle Rhee, and use the opportunity we gave them to express those feelings.


Schneider: Yeah. Those were questions that weren’t really questions, but they were statements that had been turned into something with a question mark at the end.


Berkshire: Then there were a number of people who were very interested in talking about D.C., sort of re-litigating what happened while she was there, and also talking about how it’s faired into the present.


Schneider: Yeah, and I think related to that was, we saw a number of questions about whether she had changed her mind about anything.


Berkshire: A lot, wanting to know how she assesses the work of the organization that she ran, Students First, and at what point she might be willing to say that it’s necessary to try something else.


Schneider: Right. Yeah. What’s the third category of the thing?


Berkshire: The third category are the things that I am particularly interested in, and that’s …


Schneider: Oh, so these were questions that you tweeted at yourself.


Berkshire: They are, they are. I actually cast the net really broadly. I told all sorts of people that we were going to be talking to Michelle Rhee, and one of the most interesting questions I thought came from a TFA alum named Gary Rubenstein, who wrote an open letter to Rhee back in 2012, sort of worrying aloud that the policy course she was pursuing might lead to teacher shortages, and there was a lot about what he was warning that I think has been borne out. I’m going to pick one question and I’m going to go with that.


Schneider: Okay. That sounds good. I’m going to start with some questions about value added measures, and what the research says, and then thinking a little bit about the teaching profession. Maybe we can transition from there into your concerns about teacher shortages.


Berkshire: I think that’ll do it for now. Let’s get Michelle Rhee on the phone. I’m Jennifer Berkshire.


Schneider: I’m Jack Schneider.


Berkshire: This is Have You Heard? Welcome back to Have You Heard? I’m Jennifer Berkshire.


Schneider: And I’m Jack Schneider.


Berkshire: We have a special guest on the line. Jack, do you want to do the honors?


Schneider: Sure. We’ve got Michelle Rhee here. Hi, Michelle.


Michelle Rhee: Hi, how are you?


Schneider: Good, thanks. For those listeners who don’t know what your background is and what you’re up to these days, would you give us your super short bio?


Rhee: Sure. I started by career in education in 1992, teaching second and third grade in Baltimore, Maryland. After that, went to the Kennedy School of Government. I got a master’s in public policy with a concentration in education policy, started a national nonprofit organization called the New Teacher Project to help recruit new teachers to school districts and state departments of education across the country. Then went on to become the chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools, and then founded an organization called Students First, which was a advocacy organization that looked to really focus the public on better education policies for our kids. That recently merged with an organization called Yes We Can, and I’ve been out of the day-to-day running of that organization for about a year and a half now, or so.


Schneider: Okay. Great, and before we launch into other questions, we have to ask how your meeting with Donald Trump went.


Rhee: It was definitely an interesting meeting, and I’d say that it was different from what I was expecting. I thought that he’d sort of come in and have really clear, like, I’m going to do this, that, and the other thing. Are you on board? I think he was much more kind of open, and listening, and willing to kind of have his policies and his views be shaped by the person who was in that role than I would’ve thought going into the meeting.


Schneider: Unless, of course, the person who is shaping is advocating on behalf of transgender students, I guess I would add.


Rhee: I’m sorry. I didn’t catch the question?


Schneider: Oh, no. I was just making a snarky comment about Donald Trump bullying his Secretary of Education into not supporting transgender students using the bathrooms that they would feel most comfortable using.


Rhee: Yeah. I’ve been reading a bit about that last night and this morning, and I do think that that’s an unfortunate thing. I think that having protections toward transgender youth are, it’s just incredibly important. I think it sends a message to our kids and to our schools about what is important.


Schneider: Yeah, so the first question that I want to launch into is about teacher evaluation, so that’s something that a lot of people will associate you with in terms of policy advocacy. The question is about the degree to which you still support the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate their teachers, given the research on that, and given some broader concerns we might have about the impact on the teaching profession.


Rhee: Yeah, so I still am somebody who thinks that that is an important piece to teacher evaluation. I think I’ve had conversations with you before, or we’ve blogged back and forth to each other before about this. When I started in D.C., and we had a teacher evaluation system that was not linked to student achievement, I think it led to not having a robust performance evaluation system, or teachers where they were getting meaningful feedback and that we could really differentiate between our most effective teachers and those who needed more support and help. I do think that it’s important, but I also think that it’s got to be one component amongst many, and one of the things that I have enjoyed sort of seeing and am proud of is the fact that in D.C. with impact that they have iterated over time what that looks like. I just talked to somebody on Sunday who told me that they had been working with the district to add a component around student feedback into teacher evaluations, which I always thought was another important piece to the puzzle.


I remain there, which is saying that I think that student achievement should be a significant part of teacher evaluation, but it has to be one of many components, and that we’ve got to continue to sort of figure out what the right balance of those things are. I think that if you look at the studies that have been done on impact in D.C., I think that they’ve shown very clearly that that system results in more of the highly effective teachers staying in the system, more of the ineffective teachers leaving the system, and student achievement levels rising.


Schneider: Michelle, I want to push back on that, because there … I don’t mean to sound like I’m being contentious here when I say that it sounds like the logic is a bit circular around the teachers who are identified as highly effective end up staying because they have been identified as highly effective at raising student standardized test scores. A system that identifies them and rewards them is going to keep them, and that’s of course what we would expect. I guess the place that I would push back is on whether or not that is a valid measure of teacher effectiveness, because of course research tells us that there are spillover effects across teachers, and across grade levels, and that there’s non-random assignment, that many teachers test non-tested subject, and that the bottom line worth always remembering is that we want teachers to do far more than just fill their students with the kinds of content that can be tested.


Rhee: Yeah. Absolutely.


Schneider: I’m wondering how valid you think that is.


Rhee: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s why when I started this, I say student achievement, who gains and grows, should be one of many factors that should be taken into account in terms of a teacher’s evaluation. I think we have to constantly be thinking about things, the things that you brought up, like spillover effects, and the fact that some teachers are teaching in subject areas that are not being tested, and yet they can have enormous impact on how kids are learning. All of those things are valid factors that we have to continue to do better on. The fact of the matter remains that in lots of school districts across the country where you’re looking at data around the effectiveness of teachers, there are lots of highly effective teachers who are not being retained at any different levels as teachers who are not doing as well. I think that when you have a system that is identifying who those highly effective teachers are, they’re recognizing and rewarding those teachers for the job they’re doing, and therefore they feel like they are respected, that they feel that they are sort of being valued for their work, and they’re more likely to stay in the district.


Berkshire: Michelle, I want to pick up on something else that Jack asked about the state of the teaching profession. We let our listeners know we were going to be interviewing you, and we invited them to submit questions. As you can imagine, they had many, and so it was very difficult, but we each had to winnow down and pick one, and I picked one by somebody who you may know, a long-ago TFA alum named Gary Rubinstein. He shared with me a letter that, open letter he had sent to you way back in 2012, and he was expressing his concern that the Students First policy agenda was going to end up driving teachers out of the profession, or leading to teacher shortages. It does seem like there are a number of states now that are experiencing severe teacher shortages. I just came from a week long reporting trip in Michigan, and there were billboards on all the highways advertising for substitute teachers. I just wonder, now that you’re away from the day-to-day of Students First, how to state of the profession looks to you. How would you answer Gary’s question today?


Rhee: Yeah. The teacher demand and teacher … Whether there are enough teachers, or whether there’s a teacher shortage tends to be pretty cyclical. When I started the New Teacher Project in 1997, part of the reason why I started it was because there was a huge teacher shortage. There was all this data that said we were going to need two million teachers over the next 10 years. In Texas, they were putting billboards up all over the place, so it was a similar situation at that time. I think that there are sort of ebbs and flows to that. I’d say that over the last five years or so, there’s certainly been a lot of changes in the teaching profession. I think some of those have been things that have discouraged people. I think for example, one of the things that I talk about is the fact that even though I am a proponent of standardized testing, and I think that it is important, and we have a need for it, I also think that there are many circumstances in which there’s an over-emphasis on testing, and I think that that’s problematic, and that that makes people who are in the teaching profession not excited or as excited as they could be about working in school.


I think that in the last five years, things like that have come to the forefront, that have forced conversations that I think are important conversations about what we value, what we want classrooms to look like, what we want the teaching profession to look like. That has caused some people to not be as interested in teaching, or people who were teachers to leave, but I also think that it has also ensured that there are some people out there who understand that before, we weren’t differentiating amongst teachers a lot. Now that there is more differentiation, I think those people feel like the work that they’re putting in, and the results that they’re getting, are being more recognized and valued, which I also think is important.


Schneider: One of the things that I hear when I talk to teachers is that they do believe in evaluation, and they don’t want to protect those few teachers who they view as being ineffective, and actually making …


Berkshire: The bad apples.


Schneider: … Making their jobs harder, but it seems to me that in this kind of policy solution, there are some major unintended consequences that go well beyond the intended impact of rewarding effective teachers and identifying ineffective teachers. You talked about differentiation there, and so the core of the question is about whether or not there are other ways to identify those few weak teachers in every school who are not simply new teachers who need mentoring. Because new teacher wants to defend them, and yet the effort to identify effective and ineffective teachers by relying on test scores has these other unintended consequences, like a narrowing of the profession, like stripping teachers of their autonomy and their professionalism, like undermining trust, which end up affecting all of the good teachers in the building. I’m wonder if we-


Rhee: Yeah, but I don’t necessarily think that needs to be the case, right? I absolutely agree with you, that … You’re absolutely right. The people who are least tolerant of ineffective teachers are effective teachers, right? It drives effective teachers insane when they have ineffective colleagues who are serving with them, who make their jobs harder. I would absolutely agree with that. I’d also say that we had a situation where teacher evaluations were not particularly rigorous. They didn’t use student achievement as part of the assessment. They didn’t use things like student feedback and evaluations, et cetera, and we knew that that system wasn’t working, but we put impact in place in D.C. as an example. We put it in place thinking, “This is going to help improve how we evaluate teachers.” We didn’t put it in place thinking, “This is the end all, be all perfect solution.”


Like I said earlier, one of the things that I’m super proud of the district for doing was continuing to iterate that over time, and they are still continuing to do that. I think that really is right, and I think it’s now, with what you said, Jack, there probably are lots of different ways that we can be doing this, but I would disagree with you. I don’t think that in D.C., the teachers would say that because of the changes in the evaluation system, that in some ways, the teaching profession they feel like has been narrowed or anything like that. I would say that if anything, I think the data [inaudible 00:23:25] as well in terms of teachers’ perception of how they’re evaluated now compared before is that they feel like that their profession of teaching has been more professionalized. They feel like they are getting much better feedback and professional development now through this system than they were before. Does that mean it’s perfect? Absolutely not. It probably still has a way to go, but I would absolutely say that the vast majority of teachers would say it’s better than it was before.


Jack Schneider: Jennifer is giving me the eye to wrap this up, but I do want to just push back quickly and say, that if you look at some of the polling from, for instance, the MetLife survey of the American teacher, teacher satisfaction with the profession has gone down dramatically over the past 10 years. I’m not talking directly about D.C. there.


Rhee: Yeah. No, no, but what I would say is that … You’re saying that these changes in particular may be leading to that, and I’m saying if you look at a city where these changes have been put in place, and done well, and they have continued to iterate over time with teacher feedback in a thoughtful way, that teachers in that city, report more job satisfaction and how they feel about professionalization, and that the evaluation system has improved. This definitely was not enough time.


Berkshire: No, this was only part one. Now we’re moving on to politics. We’re just taking a quick break. I’m Jennifer Berkshire. This is Have You Heard?


Berkshire: And I’m Jack Schneider, and I’m with her.


Berkshire: We are back with Michelle Rhee. Michelle, I want to switch gears a little bit in the few minutes that we have left. I’m seizing the mic from my cohost who had so many questions for you about teacher evaluation, and I want to ask you a couple of questions about politics. Your organization, Students First, earned a reputation for being willing to work with the right to further its policy agenda, especially when it meant taking on the teachers unions. I’m wondering how that looks to you now. I’m getting the sense that there’s a growing awareness that the right’s interest in education reform may have less to do with student achievement than in weakening the Democratic Party through, well, taking out the teachers unions. What do you think about this, and do you, as you look back on your work with Students First, do you have any regrets about the approach you took?


Rhee: I think it’s important that we are able to reach across the aisle and work in a bipartisan way. I am a Democrat. I always have been. I always will be, and I certainly have worked in the past with Republicans who I didn’t agree with on many issues, but there were some issues that we did agree on within education, and we were willing to work together on. It didn’t mean that I didn’t push those people on the areas and topics that we didn’t agree on, but I feel like it actually … When you build relationships with folks, and you show people we can work together on these things, I think it often times makes them more open to hearing your viewpoint on things that you don’t agree on, and can help people get to a better place. Is every actor in all of this stuff a good actor? I would say no, but at the same time, to demonize people who don’t have the same, who have different views as you I think is not a productive thing.


I will say this. I go to places all the time where I have conversations with educators, and they come out after the conversation, and they are like, “You are nothing like what I thought you were. I thought the you were trying … ”


Berkshire: Do you think they mean they thought you were worse?


Rhee: Yeah. They say, “I thought you were trying to privatize public education, and you didn’t believe in public schools, and only wanted vouchers and charters.” That is absolutely not what I believe, and I think that there are a group of people who say, “This is what Michelle Rhee and this is what education reformers stand for, and they are not acting in this way.” I think that some people sometimes in all of this get lumped into that, but actually that’s not the case, and that does prohibit us from having some productive conversation.


Berkshire: Let’s talk about what you think the future looks like for a little bit. One of the things that’s been so interesting about the Education Reform Coalition is the extent to which it brought together conservatives and Democrats, and the last question I asked you I’m really thinking about in a sort of practically speaking, what’s happening at the state level. If you go to a place like Michigan, the reason that there isn’t really a bipartisan education reform effort is that the Democrats have basically been eaten, and I wonder what you see is the future of bipartisan education reform, in particular, given the political reality that we’re in now. What do you see the future of the education reform movement is looking like?


Rhee: I think it’s going to be really hard going forward, to be honest with you, because so many of us Democrats who are working towards education reform are seeing what is happening on other issues that we care about, other social issues that we care about. Those things are so difficult to sort of see, and watch, and hear, that the idea that we could then collaborate with some of those same people on the issues where we might see some agreement, I think is going to be harder over the next while than it has been in the past. Quite frankly, it worries me a bit, and so I … Again, I’m not in the day-to-day of it as much as I was before, but I really sort of wonder how we can forge a way where people from both sides of the political spectrum can come together in positive and productive conversations, and start to build some trust, and have some open conversations, because I definitely am feeling the sort of fear and skepticism from the left of the right because of some of the other issues.


I think those are valid concerns, and I’m not exactly sure how we’re going to work through all those things, but I definitely think it’s going to make it more difficult.


Schneider: Michelle Rhee, thank you joining us here on Have You Heard? We really appreciate you coming on, and talking with us, and engaging in cool, calm, deliberate disagreement.


Berkshire: Thanks, Michelle.


Rhee: Absolutely. Thank you.


Berkshire: Jack, how do you think it went?


Schneider: This is the post-meta.


Berkshire: This is where we assess ourselves.


Schneider: Oh, that’s right. I got to get my scorecard out. I thought it was interesting when we were talking about teacher evaluation to hear her deploy so many caveats about the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. On the one hand, you can read that as an acknowledgement of sorts, that using student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers full stop, that that’s a bad idea. It also kind of scares me, because of course that is still a policy idea on the table, and so while Michelle Rhee has softened her stance, and adapted her position based on readings of research, or looking at how people have more smartly evaluated teachers, that doesn’t mean that everybody has done that. There are still people for whom student standardized test scores are a perfectly valid way of measuring teachers.


Berkshire: We definitely got a softer version of Michelle Rhee. I thought it was really interesting. You could hear real trepidation about what happens next, and I’m hearing that from a lot of people. What does the education reform movement coalesce around now? You didn’t hear quite as much introspection about the role that her organization played in the past.


Schneider: Yeah. One of the things that struck me was the fact that whether or not Democrats for Education Reform, and I am intentionally alluding to that group, whether they and their conservative counterparts were both acting in good faith is kind of irrelevant, given that Democrats for Education Reform and other organizations that would identify as such moved the left pretty close to the center. The new right has no interest in that center, and if the left is center, and the right is really right, the center has shifted dramatically, and frankly, it was a little scary hearing Michelle be worried about where the center is headed.


Berkshire: I love that you’re on a first name basis. I would second that. If you look at what’s happening around the country, it’s really concerning. We talked about this a little bit in our previous episode, that you sense a full scale retreat from the very idea of public education, how it’s delivered, from school buildings, from the institutions that make up public education. We’re not just talking about a sort of narrow battle versus teachers unions, but really an assault on public education.


Schneider: I think that’s a great transition into talking about what our next episode is going to be about.


Berkshire: Our next episode, we’re going to be leaving the K 12 space. I just use ironic italic fingers, and we’re going to look at higher ed.


Schneider: Specifically when we look at higher education, we’ll be looking at efforts to dismantle the public aspects of higher education, and to marketize the … Here, I’m deploying my scare quotes, the higher ed space.


Berkshire: I want to just bring up one other thing. The last comment that Michelle Rhee made about how she thinks it’s important to talk to people that you disagree with. Some of the questions that we got from listeners were questioning why we decided to give Michelle Rhee a platform. I just wanted to say that part of our, part of the goal that we have for this podcast on education in a time of Trump is to really, to bring on people that we disagree with, and interrogate their views.


Schneider: Yeah, and to potentially carve out a little bit of space for common ground, that the right may have taken a very sharp turn to … I don’t know what’s more right than right. They’re off the map, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some space for having productive conversations, and not just for drawing lines in the sand.


Berkshire: That sounds really boring. On that note …


Schneider: My map metaphors.


Berkshire: This is Have You Heard? I’m Jennifer Berkshire.


Schneider: I’m Jack Schneider.


Berkshire: We’ll be back again soon with another episode.