Nuclear Option

Fixing the education system.
Sept. 8 2008 12:36 PM

Nuclear Option

Today's paper brings the news that Michelle Rhee , the superintendent of the D.C. public schools, has come up with a Plan B to use if the D.C. teachers union refuses to accept her proposed new contract.

Plan A, as I wrote last week, was a contract under which teachers could give up tenure in return for large pay increases. Plan B, essentially, is a system in which teachers lose tenure and don't get large pay increases. Rhee says she and the state superintendent could also change the licensing requirements for the district's teachers so as to require them to demonstrate classroom performance—the kind that would have earned them big bonuses under the contract—merely to keep their jobs.

Advertisement

The story in the Washington Post suggests that Rhee is not only aware of the city's generation gap among teachers, she also plans to take advantage of it.

Rhee's ultimate goal is clear: to weed the District's instructional corps of underperformers and remake it, at least in part, with younger, highly energized graduates of such alternative training programs as Teach for America, where she began her career. Unlike many tenured Washington teachers, those emerging from such programs are unlikely to invest their entire working lives in education. But they will, in Rhee's estimation, be more inclined to embrace her core message: that children can learn no matter what economic and social conditions they face beyond the classroom and that teachers should be held directly accountable for their progress through test scores and other measurements.

What we're hearing from Rhee and other superintendents is that urban school systems as they are currently constructed simply can't be made to work for the disadvantaged children who need their help the most. They need a complete overhaul.

In New Orleans, they had Hurricane Katrina to wash the old system away. In D.C., Michelle Rhee is trying to do it herself.

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a speaker on various topics including education, poverty, parenting, and politics.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.