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What if we managed teachers like a CEO would?

October 6, 2010, 1:13 AM UTC

A turnover in the mayoral office in Washington, DC has all eyes on DC schools chief Michelle Rhee, who says that education reform is always going to leave some people very unhappy.

By Tory Newmyer, writer

Michelle Rhee, the District of Columbia schools chief who earned national renown as a tough-nosed reformer, struck a defiant tone Tuesday at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Conference in the wake of an election that pushed out her boss and sponsor, Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Fenty’s resounding loss last month was in large part a repudiation of his crusade to shake up the school system by giving Rhee a free hand to make sweeping changes. That she did, closing schools and firing hundreds of teachers. Advocates of aggressive reform cheered rising test scores and graduation rates, but others bristled at Rhee’s style, complaining she was autocratic and insensitive.

Rhee said “the biggest tragedy” would be if education reformers were cowed by Fenty’s loss. “If anything, what people need to take out of this is that we need to be even more aggressive,” to change the political dynamic, she said.

And the biggest myth about school reform? “That somehow you can see transformational change… and somehow do it in a way that everyone is going to be happy,” Rhee said. “We have to get rid of that notion and understand that if we are serious as a country about changing the education dynamic, there are going to be some groups of people who are going to be unhappy. And we have to be okay with that. We have to be okay with putting aside the feelings of adults because that is the right thing to do for kids,” she added, drawing applause from a morning crowd that included Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the teachers union aligned against Rhee.

Rhee was characteristically blunt about the need to demand accountability from ineffective teachers. “Right now we love teachers a little bit much, meaning every teacher gets tenure,” she said. “As long as you have a pulse and you pass a criminal check, you get tenure, which means you have a job for life.”

Teachers falling short need to be retrained or moved out of the system, she said. “That doesn’t mean we’re blaming teachers, that doesn’t mean we’re anti-teacher. That just means we’re managing our human capital correctly, just like all of you do out in industry,” she said, drawing more applause.

Rhee cited a study that found removing 6% to 10% of the worst teachers and replacing them with average ones would move American schools from 25th place out of 30 internationally to the top slot. “If we told you that as CEO, you would make that decision in a heartbeat,” she said. “But we don’t want to make that decision now having to do with teachers because we don’t want to piss anybody off.”