Withering “Rhee-form”

Over the last week or so, there has been an unusual spate of news reports, research studies, and op-eds published suggesting that the current teaching quality reform—or perhaps better titled “Rhee-form”—agenda may be beginning to wither.

The narrow focus on judging teachers by student test-score gains is losing ground. No longer can we use value-added measures (VAM) on once-a-year, bubble-in, multiple-choice assessments, and then pay teachers with higher VAM ratings more and fire those with lower ratings. Perhaps the withering reform agenda, owned by both Republican and Democratic presidents, has something to do with the indictment of Beverly Hall, former superintendent in the Atlanta Public Schools, and the claims of the enormous pressure she put on principals and teachers to immediately raise test scores.

Or it could be the news broken by John Merrow about Michelle Rhee, the “poster child” for promoting high stakes accountability and blaming teachers for poor student test scores. A memo John uncovered reveals that Michelle is likely culpable for rampant cheating on standardized tests in the beleaguered inner-city schools of  Washington, DC.


We must evaluate teachers on more than just their students’ high-stakes standardize tests.

Even well-meaning politicos and policy wonks struggle to admit that their favored teaching quality strategies are flawed. However, I am beginning to see a chink in their armor. For example, more than five years ago, the Aspen Institute, in efforts to overhaul teaching evaluation, recommended that states  be “required to put in place systems for measuring the learning gains of a teacher’s students through value-added methodology.” Moreover, “student achievement [could] count for no less than 50 percent” of the formula for identifying those who are effective or not.

Now, as reported in a New York Times op-ed piece, the Aspen Institute is claiming that “an obsessive focus on holding teachers accountable for test scores without an equal emphasis on actually improving classroom teaching—could fatally undermine the effort to create meaningful evaluation systems.” The Aspen Institute now is taking a page out of the teacher unions’ hymnal.

Focusing on the right types of reforms

At the same time, the New York Times, in a dramatic reversal of its typical opinion page promotions, suggests that charter school reforms and Teach for America-type shortcuts into teaching are distractions at best. Jal Mehta, following in the footsteps of Linda Darling-Hammond’s 1996 NCTAF report, reminds readers that “teaching is a complex activity that is hard to direct and improve from afar.” Jal asserts, much like Linda did, that it is time to professionalize teaching—which will no doubt require “money, political will, and the audacity to imagine that teaching could be a profession on a par with fields like law and medicine.”

In the vacuum created by indicted reformers, and amid growing evidence of the limitations of their policy prescriptions (and the harm created by them), I suspect there will be another effort to professionalize teaching in America.

Unlike in the past, when attempts to invest in the profession have routinely dissipated, this time America’s teachers will be more clearly heard and embraced by a public who has deep trust in those individuals who teach our nation’s students. The Internet and online networks will help the public understand the complexity of teaching, the potential of professionalism to transform public education, and the wrong-headedness of narrow, top-down Rhee-forms that do not come close to serving students first.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a mentor and friend for 30 years, often reminds me (and so many others) that the “process of creating better schools is hard work” and is never “without struggle.” In light of all the efforts to de-professionalize teaching of late, from those on both sides of the political aisle, I can hear Linda echo one of my favorite poets, Langston Hughes (and the many who inspired him): “Keep your hand on the plow! Hold on!”

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  • Ed Fuller

    VAMs and SGPs

    Unfortunately, at least 20 states have adopted using student growth percentiles as one metric for evaluating teachers, scjhools, and principals. SGPs are even worse than VAMs because SGPs don’t even try to control for factors outside the influence of teachers, schools, and principals. While I think you are correct that tyhere is some back-pedaling going on, I see most states ignoring these new calls for raitonality and are actually implementing evaluaitons that we know are simply inaccurate and unfair (read every state that has adopted a SGP method).See schoolfinance101 for a full breakdown on these issues.

    • BarnettBerry

      VAM and school Rhee-formers

      Ed. Your analysis — as always – is spot on. I see big problems brewing in other states like Colorado where politicians have pushed a SGP model into their teacher eval model. However, there are many teachers who are putting together alternative ways to design and implement a results-oriented system of personnel evaluation that avoids the pitfalls created by policies borne out of politics and ideology as opposed to sound evidence and tools that will improve teaching and learning. Massachusetts is trying to do it the right way. 

  • Arnold F. Fege


    You make excellent points as usual Barnett.  The question might be posed:  what did we learn, if anything, about implementing change that is just, fair, equitable and research and evidenced based.  With the common core, ESEA waivers and STEM, I see hints of a top-down, test obsessed, quick-fix. teachers in training, and market based strategies that has led to hurtful consequences for children, teachers and parents.  Are we about to repeat the NCLB past? We have a growing research base:  Linda Darling-Hammond, Tony Byrk, David Kirp and others have pointed to sound policy, practice and performance,   I like the Frederick Douglas quote when asked by a college student what are the next steps in the fight for equity.  His response was:  “Agitate, young man, agitate.”  Certainly, in remembering Jackie Robinson, we honor not only a great athlete, but an activist who saw his role as a baseball player as means to a larger end. This time around, we hopefully can build common cause around the hard work about which you site and for which we willl need to advocate and be active, and keep our eyes on the larger end.   

    • BarnettBerry

      Getting to the next level

      Arne. Thanks for your big picture analysis and comments. Politiicians and Rhee-formers so often dichotomize policy choices to advance their political agendas. I am  sanguine about the simple fact that the American public has trust in teachers (unlike the Rhee-formers) – and soon (thanks to this thing called the Internet) they will be more well-known and embraced as a collective.  Watch what happens in Florida!