Two years ago today the education reform documentary "Waiting for ‘Superman’" opened in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The movie reignited a national debate about education reform, and it introduced many Americans to charismatic D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Two years later, Rhee is no longer in charge of D.C. schools, but she remains one of education reform’s most controversial figures.
Her advocacy group, StudentsFirst, pushes for teachers to be evaluated — and get pay increases — based on student performance, for teacher tenure to be eliminated, and for parent-trigger laws to let parents take over struggling public schools. Those laws are the subject of a new education film out this fall called “Won’t Back Down,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as two moms fighting for their kids’ schools. Rhee has been hosting screenings of that film.
Though some critics have been asking whether "Won't Back Down" is anti-teachers unions, Rhee says the film does not take a political position either way. "I think it shows what a community can do, when they come together and they voice their opinions — that they can actually have an impact on a broken system."
But Rhee does say that unions are in a tough spot. Parents are becoming more vocal about wanting the focus to be on protecting children, rather than protecting adults, and the Democratic Party, which has traditionally been very pro-union, has also begun to question some of these teachers unions as well. Rhee says that she favors a more "common sense" approach. "I think that the vast majority of Democrats out there understand that this country is not going to be able to regain its position in the global marketplace until we fix our public education system," she says. "They have to be willing to challenge the teachers' unions on the things that are not working."
And clearly, says Rhee, things are not working in this country as they stand. "Only 37 percent of 4th graders in this nation are on grade level in reading," she says, "That should signal to us that we are in dire straits."
When pressed about her beliefs about getting rid of tenure, Rhee says that "the education system simply cannot continue to operate to the benefit of adults. We have to be looking at how we are always going to ensure that we have the best quality of teachers in front of kids, regardless on how long they have been in the classroom."