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Teachers and the Law

Can the school system change?

Michelle Rhee knocked the Washington DC school district for a loop when she took over as the Chancellor of Education in 2007. With the backing of Mayor Fenty, and the law on her side, Rhee cleaned house by closing more than 20 schools, firing 100 workers from the district’s bureaucracy, and firing more than 270 educational employees including teachers, principals, and assistant principals. Along with the 270 teachers she fired, Rhee also put over 700 on notice for failing to meet accountability standards.  (Ripley, 2008). This essay will look at the justifications behind Rhee’s actions and will evaluate the effect of her actions on students and schools.

Who is She?

Michelle Rhee upset many people when she came on the scene. Not only was she young and female, but she was also a Korean American in an area filled with African-American students and their families. Rhee “had no experience running a school, let alone a district with 46,000 students that ranks last in math among 11 urban school systems” (Ripley, 2008). Straight talking, and not one to suffer fools gladly, Rhee came from an upper-class background in Ohio. She admits herself that she was "the worst pick on the face of the earth" (Ripley, 2008). Rhee’s no-nonsense attitude didn’t win her many friends, but her aim wasn’t to make friends; she was there to make things better for the students, and that’s just what she did.

Is This Legal?

Rhee was given a great deal of power when she took the position of Chancellor. Mayor Fenty had made education his priority, and he gave Rhee “authority that might make other superintendents envious (or nervous)” (Haynes, 2008). Rhee didn’t need authorization for her restructuring plans, and city agency heads were warned that not cooperating with Rhee’s plans could mean the loss of their jobs. “As a result, Rhee is [sic] virtually in a category by herself, a hyper-powered, supercharged school chief with unprecedented autonomy to make sweeping changes (Haynes, 2008).

Rhee relied on the basics of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act to make sweeping changes in education reform. It’s not easy to fire a teacher, especially one backed by a union, but Rhee didn’t let that stop her. Once a teacher has tenure, they are almost locked into their job, but Rhee felt that teachers had to be held accountable for their poor performance in the classroom, and if they couldn’t prove their worth, they were shown the door.

“Getting good teachers in the classroom and rewarding them for their work has always been a key aim of reformers. Alas, that also requires getting the dead weight out of the classroom and off the payroll” (McGurn, 2010). Rhee made personal visits to schools all over Washington DC, and clearly found many of the teachers lacking in innovative and effective classroom practices. She found the dead weight, including the principal at her daughter’s school, and wasted no time in moving them out of the system.

In justifying her actions, Rhee called on a rarely used statute known as bumping rights. Bumping rights allow teachers with seniority to ‘bump’ less tenured teachers from their position even when they lack the necessary skills needed to be effective in the classroom. “In 2008, Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee dusted off a decade-old statute permitting principals to weigh other factors alongside seniority when making staffing decisions” (Hess, 2009). Teachers were no longer able to call on tenure to guarantee their position. Each one of them had to prove that they were effective in the classroom, and that they were doing the best they could to educate their students.

Another move Rhee made was to work at renegotiating teachers contracts. She proposed that teachers who were willing to give up tenure, and would agree to subject themselves to accountability assessments, could make as much as $130,000 in a year. Those who refused would keep their tenure, but would be out of the running for the bonuses Rhee proposed. Of course, tenure doesn’t 100% guarantee employment. While it may be harder to get rid of tenured teachers, it is not impossible.

Were These Changes Justified?

Although students and their families were quite upset by Rhee’s actions, many were able to see the merit in her plan after the fact. Allante Rhodes contacted Rhee about the conditions at his school. When all was said and done, and his principal was dismissed, Rhodes was devastated. He wrote, “"I refuse, NO! we [sic] refuse the students of Anacostia to let her go” (Ripley, 2008). In the end though, after he saw improvements at his school, Rhodes had to admit, “That the school is functioning better” (Ripley, 2008).

In my opinion, Rhee was perfectly justified in making sweeping changes that sent a shockwave throughout the countries educational system. While I don’t agree with standards testing, I do feel like teachers need to be held accountable for what goes on in their classrooms. I’ve only been teaching for a year, but I have already experienced several teachers who have simply given up on teaching their students, and I think that’s unfortunate.


I think Rhee did a great job of cleaning house, and I wish there were more like her in the country. I don’t know if things are the same in every school, but at my school, disciplinary problems are huge. Teacher’s hands are tied, and we don’t get the support or back up we require. Our principal is a great person, but he would have been one of the first to go if Rhee had come here. He is ineffective, and his constant backpedaling when it comes to student discipline has the teachers frustrated and angry. The students have learned that they can get away with horrible behavior because no real punishment is ever handed down.

Although I do believe it is the teacher’s responsibility to teach effectively, I also believe that teachers need support from their administrative staff. When much of your time is spent dealing with teenagers who refuse to behave appropriately in the classroom, you cannot teach the other students effectively. I wish we had a Ms. Rhee here in Lincoln County because I know our school would be much stronger under administration that is more effective.


Haynes, V. (2008, August). Shake-Up, Shakedown in D.C., a la Rhee. Retrieved November 10, 2010, from Scholastic

Hess, F. (2009, October). Cages of Their Own Design. Retrieved November 10, 2010, from Educational Leadership

McGurn, W. (2010). Main Street: Giving Lousy Teachers the Boot. Wall Street Journal .

Ripley, A. (2008, December 8). Can She Save Our Schools? Retrieved November 10, 2010, from Time