At a Teacher Town Hall event in Birmingham last week, educational reform leaders discussed Alabama’s future in education while outside, members of the Alabama Education Association (AEA) led a relatively quiet protest.
The demonstrators held signs warning of the detriments of what has been dubbed educational “Rheeform” for one of the panelists, former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. But although the event was billed as a “town hall discussion,” AEA representatives argue that their views received short shrift inside the meeting.
Audience members were encouraged to submit questions to be answered by a panel consisting of Rhee, former head of Washington D.C. Public Schools and founder of Students First; Dr. Steve Perry, principal and founder of Capital City Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, CT, named one of the country’s top schools by U.S. News and World Report; and George Parker, a veteran math teacher and former president of the Washington Teachers’ Union in D.C.
Rhee, Perry and Parker raise the ire of some traditional educators because their ideas about reforming education include shutting down low-performing schools, firing poorly performing teachers and that neither unions nor tenure should be able to protect the jobs of teachers whose students don’t achieve.
“Teachers are the most important in-school factor predicting student success,” said Rhee. “Not everyone with a pulse who passes a criminal background check should be a teacher. We need quality instructors.”
The educational budgets for Birmingham and the state of Alabama have already been approved for this year, but Teacher Town Hall, an outreach program of Students First, the educational lobbying organization started by Rhee, specifically chose Birmingham as a stop on their tour partly because education is a race issue.
“In the game of life, students don’t always start in the same place. Four out of five African-American fourth graders are not reading at grade level,” said Sacramento, California Mayor Kevin Johnson, who is Rhee’s husband and event facilitator. “Eighty percent of those never catch up, are twice as likely to drop out, and three times as likely to be suspended or expelled. Education is a race issue.”
Parker said that “Teaching the academic skills of teaching to a teacher is not enough. Teachers must also understand the culture of the kids they’re teaching. They must have some sense of the historical perspective these kids are coming from. I believe,” he added, “the reason we have so many black boys in special education is not because of lack of academic ability, but a lack of cultural understanding on the teacher’s part.”
A major point of debate was charter schools and whether they should exist in Alabama. Currently, Alabama is one of eight states not allowing charter schools, defined as those which receive public funding but operate as private entities. Among other reasons, charter schools stir controversy because when demand outweighs the available classroom space, students are chosen using a lottery system.
The introduction of charter schools in the state would allow parents to remove children from failing public schools to enroll them in the charter schools, provided the child is chosen in the lottery. Currently, Alabama students attend public school determined by where they live and are zoned, unless their parents enroll them in private schools.
The Teacher Town Hall panel said school choice — whether between public, private, home, charter, magnet or neighborhood school — is the best option for students and parents alike. AEA argues, however, that this will allow the students who are able to choose — i.e., whose parents can drive them across town to a different school or move to the vicinity of another school — to get a good education, leaving those who do not have the ability to choose stuck getting a poorer education.
It comes down to either shutting down a failing school, as Students First advocates, or saving and improving it, as AEA favors.
Another point of contention for AEA protesters was Rhee herself. Rhee has publicly admitted to taping students’ mouths shut during her first year as a Teach for America teacher and, despite her advocacy for public schools, is believed to have one child in private school based on her evasive responses to questions on the matter during an interview with The Los Angeles Times.
During Rhee’s second and third years as a Teach for America teacher, she taught a combined class with another teacher and students’ test scores were noticeably raised. As recently as this year, Rhee was under federal investigation for widespread cheating during her term as chancellor of D.C. public schools, though no evidence to convict her of wrongdoing has come forward to date.
“As a local, state and national award-winning educator with 25 years experience, and as the president of AEA, I feel comfortable speaking on behalf of our members when I say we do not give any credibility to anything Michelle Rhee says about education reform,” Anita Gibson, AEA president, said in an interview.
Despite the salty nature of the ongoing debate, the Teacher Town Hall organizers said their main goal is to generate honest dialogue about education reform.
“Conversations about education reform have become divisive. The answers to challenges are not polarized extremes,” Rhee said. “For example, the answer is not to do away with standardized tests or to use them for everything. They should be used as a means to an end. Conversations need to happen at the middle ground and debates need to center on solutions, not mudslinging.”
Several times during the event last week, organizers noted that Teacher Town Hall invites local education union leaders to their events via email so that they, too, may participate in the dialogue, but Gibson says she never saw an invitation.
“I never received an invitation to attend the event. We [AEA] saw the press release on al.com,” said Gibson.
The few AEA members in attendance contended that their questions were deliberately picked over by the Teacher Town Hall volunteers. The invitation allegedly sent by Teacher Town Hall to local education union leaders reads in part, “These free-flowing conversations will provide an excellent opportunity for teachers to engage in candid discussion and provide valuable feedback on key reform initiatives.”
Some attendees said there was no free-flowing “discussion” involved, however. Members of the audience submitted questions on cards and Teacher Town Hall volunteers chose the questions the panel would answer. Questions chosen included What is the goal of this event?, What is the number one thing teachers can do to improve the quality of education on a daily basis?, and What can we do to better prepare teachers in the university system to be teachers?
At the end of the event, AEA members requested that their unaddressed questions be answered, but when one representative of the union spoke out, Town Hall organizers called security to quiet her down. Eventually, she was allowed to ask her question: “[In the event of school choice] what happens to the kids who can’t go to other schools even if they’re given a choice?” Perry’s reply that school choice was the best option was the only answer given.
“This wasn’t a town hall meeting because there was no conversation and no opportunity for rebuttal,” said Bobby Pierson, president of the Shelby County Educational Association.
Perry said at the meeting that whether educators want it or not, education reform is coming. “Education reform is here. Get in where you fit in or get left on the sidelines,” he said.
It seems both sides were able to agree that they want the best education possible for school children but exactly how to accomplish that remains a bone of contention between them.