School Debate: How To Educate

It’s hard to overstress the importance of our public schools – they are a great equalizer, having opened opportunities for many poor, underprivileged, and minority children. Today it’s more important than ever that our nation produces top-notch students to compete in a global market. But not all of our schools – particularly inner city schools – are performing up to par. Washington, DC spends the third highest in the nation per student, but has the worst results. New York City has a lackluster track record, as well, where graduation rates have hovered at around fifty-percent. There’s no question something must be done.

Something is being done. In Washington, DC, the 37-year-young mayor, Adrian Fenty, has taken control of the school system and placed 38-year-young Michelle Rhee in charge as chancellor. She blew into town last summer and the dust hasn’t settled yet. Rhee comes from the same reformist-minded group as Joel Klein, who has been the chancellor of New York City Public Schools since 2002. The question is: are the right things being done to improve these school systems?

David Brooks of the New York Times has described there being two education camps within the Democratic Party: the “status quo camp,” which “argues that poverty and broad social factors drive high dropout rates and other bad outcomes. Schools alone can’t combat that, so more money should go to health care programs, anti-poverty initiatives and after-school and pre-K programs.” The other one is the “reformist camp” that supports “after-school and pre-K initiatives. But they insist school reform alone can make a big difference, so they emphasize things the status quo camp doesn’t: rigorous accountability and changing the fundamental structure of the school systems.”

Michelle Rhee definitely is a member of the reformist camp, as is her mentor, Joel Klein. We’ll first learn about the changes Rhee has made from Clay Risen, who wrote a lengthy profile of DC’s chancellor in the November issue ofThe Atlantic. He kicks off our new and ongoing series on the subject of education reform.

Read Clay Risen’s article about Michelle Rhee, “The Lightning Rod.”

Learn more about her mentor, Joel Klein, here and here. Or just wait to hear him interviewed next in the series (airdate TBD).

Throughout this series, Bob will be talking to school leaders, such as Klein, and education experts, such as Diane Ravitch, who contends some of the changes being made by the “reformists” signal a push to privatize our schools without improving student performance. We’ll be discussing that, the role of the teacher, how to evaluate teachers, how to evaluate students, No Child Left Behind, and more. In the end, these are questions we just can’t afford not to answer.