Michelle Rhee: 'Witchfinder general' of America's classrooms flies in to give Gove her gospel
Richard Garner meets the woman who lives to sack teachers
Richard Garner has been Education Editor of The Independent for 12 years and writing about the subject for 34 years. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a disc jockey in London pubs and clubs and for a hospital radio station. His main hobbies are cricket (watching these days) and theatre. On his days off, he is most likelt to be found at Lord’s or the King’s Head Theatre Club.
Wednesday 27 June 2012
Michael Gove yesterday endorsed the policies of an American education expert who advocates sacking large numbers of incompetent teachers.
Michelle Rhee has earned a reputation as a "witchfinder general of the classroom" in the US, identifying under-performing teachers and forcing them out of the profession.
She also advocates dramatic pay rises for talented teachers who help pupils obtain good grades.
This week she flew into Britain to pass on her experience to ministers and education officials – and the Education Secretary indicated that her hard-nosed policies could well be adopted here.
"Michelle points out in everything she does that what they [children] need is the most effective teacher who demands the highest standards and is relentless about that," Mr Gove said.
"If we are ever going to achieve something like social justice we need to transform those [disadvantaged] schools.
"The way to do so is to be uncompromising in our standards, to make sure the teachers who are not doing a good job move on and that we support the teachers who are doing a good job by paying them more and giving them freedom to genuinely inspire the next generation."
Ms Rhee's main message is simple. "The main aim is to ensure there is a high-quality teacher in front of every classroom every day," she told The Independent.
"The most highly talented teachers will be recognised and rewarded. The ineffective will either quickly accelerate or – if they don't do that – they're removed from the classroom," Ms Rhee said.
"I don't think it's anything but common sense and what we as parents would expect."
She developed her ideas for radical changes to teaching when she became chancellor of the education service in Washington DC. "I noticed that only 8 per cent of eighth graders were at grade level in mathematics," she said. "Yet 98 per cent of teachers were rated as outstanding. You couldn't square the circle."
She quickly introduced a new style of assessment under which teachers were graded either highly effective, effective, minimally effective or ineffective.
"Part of what we outlined was that teachers who were highly effective could get paid twice as much money as they could under the old system," she said. "The ineffective teachers stopped teaching and the minimally effective were given one year to improve – during which there was a freeze on all pay increases."
Teachers were assessed on a combination of their pupils' academic performance, and their own contributions to the school community – such as arranging debating societies and school sports.
"Things above and beyond the call of duty," Ms Rhee explained.
She is full of praise for the thrust of Mr Gove's education reforms. "I can see the country seems on the right tracks in terms of the reviews you have," she said.
She believes, though, that England has similar problems to the ones she inherited in Washington.
"I think there has been little more than a handful of teachers dismissed for performance reasons in the past few years," she said.
"In the United States, it has been very, very similar – in other professions like the law and medicine it has been much easier to dismiss through incompetence."
Her plans for forcing out poor teachers and regular classroom inspections would incur the wrath of British teaching unions. But, having faced down similar opposition in the US, Ms Rhee is bullish.
"People said we were crazy when we set out on our policies in Washington DC," she said. "Now half the states are looking at new measures for assessing their teachers."
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