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To Shut Down Or Invest More In Failing Schools?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will speak with a former education official who has had a change of heart about some of the school reforms she once championed. Diane Ravitch will be with us in just a few minutes.

But first, we turn to two education leaders who have become major voices nationally, owing to their work on the local level. Michelle Rhee is the former chancellor of Washington, D.C.'s public schools. She left that position two years ago and founded Students First, an advocacy organization. Michelle Rhee, glad to have you back with us once again. Thanks for joining us.

MICHELLE RHEE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And we're also joined by Alberto Carvalho. He is the current superintendant of the Miami-Dade public schools. We should also mention that the Miami-Dade County School District is the licensee of WLRN Public Media, our partner in this broadcast. Welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

ALBERTO CARVALHO: Thanks for the opportunity.

MARTIN: We're glad to get the two of you together because you both have the experience of running a large urban school system. Superintendant Carvalho, Miami is the fourth-largest school system in the country. What is the one thing that keeps you up at night more than any other?

CARVALHO: All right. The mere fact that, as Secretary Duncan said recently, that far too many young men and women drop out of school, don't get to finish high school and they're condemned to a life of poverty, a cycle that has been so pervasive in generations before them. And that keeps me up at night and - but, you know, every morning, I have an opportunity to wake up and change that, and I think that's exactly what we're achieving here in Miami Dade and opportunities created by forcing the key issues to be addressed.

Number one, high quality and effective leaders, effective teachers, innovation and parental empowerment. By providing choices, they're appealing to parents and students alike.

MARTIN: Michelle Rhee, you've been actively participating in our education conversation on Twitter at hash tag #NPREdChat. We appreciate that. Now, you were never known for holding back when you were superintendant, but I did want to ask if there is something you can say now that you're on the outside that you could not say or did not say while you were running a school district.

RHEE: Well, honestly, Michel, you know that one of the things that I made a priority in my administration was to be very honest with people about what was working in the school district and what wasn't working in the school district and I think to Secretary Spelling's point, that oftentimes in education, we are so concerned with making the adults sort of feel good about themselves and, you know, how can we all live in harmony, that we have been all too willing to turn a blind eye to the realities that are happening to children in our classrooms every day.

So I think we really do have to have more of a focus on making sure that we can be very honest about the shortcomings of our public education system because we're not going to be able to fix the problems until we acknowledge that they're there.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk to both of you about two issues that are really present in conversations around education right now. One is school choice and the other, of course, is teacher evaluation. So let's take the choice question first. Michelle Rhee, that you closed some 23 schools in the District of Columbia. It doesn't sound like a big number, except that it's a small space.

And I'd like to play a question that we received in response to one of your tweets. Here it is.

BRIAN BENNETT: Hello. My name is Brian Bennett and I'm a science teacher in South Bend, Indiana. Michelle Rhee tweeted: Open enrollment policies allow some children to choose a school that is better suited to their education needs. My question is what happens to schools that don't offer open enrollment? Overcrowding and closing schools is no way to improve.

MARTIN: I mean, I - Michelle Rhee, I think that, really, the broader question here is that - and the criticism is that offering this choice doesn't have the desired effect of improving the other schools. And I'd like to ask what you say about that.

RHEE: Well, I think that that's actually not true. I mean, when you close schools, it doesn't result in an overcrowding of schools. In situations like we had in Washington, D.C., we simply were operating far too many schools. We were operating schools that were half empty and, therefore, we were spending a lot of money in ways that wasn't having an impact on children.

So, in schools where you have - school districts where you have declining enrollment, you really do have to right size the district in order to have a better utilization of resources. And I think that, if you focus - if a school district does focus on closing down its lower performing schools, then - yeah - the options that students are going to be left with are the higher performing schools.

MARTIN: Michelle Rhee is the former chancellor of Washington, D.C.'s public schools. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about education reform. I'm joined by her and Alberto Carvalho. He's the superintendant of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Could you take on the question, Superintendant Carvalho, of the teacher evaluation question? It's a big issue here and a lot of school districts around the country. You implemented a policy for teacher evaluations that judges teachers based on how well their students score on standardized tests, but you know, as we were talking about - we've been talking about throughout the program, there are those who argue that this actually discourages teachers from teaching the students who are the hardest to teach, the most disadvantaged, the most - have the most needs because they're not going to achieve the same results and they're going to be penalized for it in compensation. Could you talk about that?

CARVALHO: Surely. That's certainly a potential unfortunate consequence. But, you know, if you're respectful about the process and you're inclusive and you actually develop a partnership with teachers and those that represent teachers, then you can get to a better place for both teachers and students alike. It does not have to be an either/or proposition. It can be a both/and win for all. That's exactly what we did at Miami-Dade. We negotiated contracts. We negotiated the implementation of Race to the Top, for example, with performance pay for teachers, tying teacher financial incentives to student outcomes and we did it in a respectful way of recognizing not only student achievement data, but also the peculiarity of the classroom and the student that the teacher teaches.

Not ignoring conversations about poverty, not using as an excuse, either, language or disability. Putting all of that in the same table of conversation. And we were able to negotiate a teacher contract and an evaluation process that's respectful, that provides performance pay, ties student achievement data to the teacher's evaluation, but it was negotiated. It was through negotiation, not imposition.

I'd like to revisit the last issue. That, too, I don't think is - we should not be embracing simplistic answers to really complex problems. And I think, when we simply say, you know, the school's not performing. Let's shut it down. Why not try to improve it first?

So I'd like to speak briefly about the Miami-Dade phenomenon. Yeah. When I became superintendant, there were 19 schools that had never been anything more than an F or a D on an A through F scale, nine of which were condemned to be shut down by the state for performance.

Now, I became superintendant. I decide that, rather than simply shutting them down, I was going to try to improve. Now, I had to change everything. I did have to fire the nine principals. I did have to change faculties, but we did it in a responsible and respectful way.

Two years later, every one of these schools has improved dramatically. Graduation rates went up as high as 50 percent in some of these schools. The graduation rate in these schools are now higher than the district average and the state average. Miracles are possible if we're determined to make them happen.

MARTIN: Michelle Rhee, do you want to add to that?

RHEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is this a matter of communicating respectfully? Go ahead.

RHEE: Well, I think that, you know, one of the things that we have to realize is that there are schools in this country that have been failing children for generations. Not where aggressive reform measures have been taking place, with is what Dr. Carvalho is talking about, but where, year in and year out, people are saying, well, we just need to invest more money. We need to invest more money. We need to - you know, we need to not close these schools down.

And what I would challenge people to think about is this. Let's take this into a different realm. If I took my shirts to a dry cleaner and seven out of every 10 shirts that I took, they failed to actually do it. There was a burn mark on them. What would we do? Well, we would stop taking our shirts to that dry cleaner. We would not say, well, you know, in order for the dry cleaner to become better, we need to keep taking our shirts there so that they can invest in better equipment and better training for their employees, etc. No. We wouldn't do that because we would say, these are my shirts. I don't want them to get ruined.

If we take that kind of care with our laundry, then certainly we have to take equal amount of care with our children every day. We can not afford to continue to send our children year in and year out to failing schools, hoping that, through a new five year or 10 year plan, it'll get better, especially when so many of these schools have been failing for so long.

So - yes - we should absolutely invest in, you know, very aggressive and rapid turnarounds in some cases, but we just can't - we can't be in a position where, in some communities, we're allowing the schools to fail generation after generation.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. This is a rich and important conversation. We hope it will continue. Michelle Rhee is the former chancellor of Washington, D.C. Public Schools and founder of Students First. That's an advocacy organization. She was with us from Ohio Public Radio in Columbus.

Alberto Carvalho is the superintendant of Miami-Dade Public Schools. He was with us here at member station WLRN in Miami. I hope you'll come back and see us again. Thank so much for joining us.

CARVALHO: I will. Thank you very much.

RHEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.