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Putting Students First

Americans support a huge and cumbersome system of public schools.

Former Washington D. C. Supervisor of Schools Michelle Rhee announced a new initiative yesterday designed to shift the focus of American education to students.

Now there's an interesting idea.

Ms. Rhee was a lightning rod of controversy during her tenure in D. C., especially since she demanded more of teachers than they were accustomed to giving; and, when they didn't perform, she let them go.

Ms. Rhee has founded an organization called "StudentsFirst," as she wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "a national organization to defend and promote the interests of children in public education and to pursue an aggressive reform agenda to make American schools the best in the world."

Some might be saying, "Gosh, I thought we were already doing that?" Well, no. In fact, American students continue to fall behind students in many other countries across a wide spectrum of skill areas.

Ms. Rhee intends to work with parents, schools, and politicians to accomplish her objectives. She outlines three primary foci for her new work: (1) Treating teachers like professionals - and expecting them to act like them; (2) Empowering parents and families with real educational choices for their children; and (3) Ensuring accountability for every educational dollar and every child.

I wish her well, but I'm skeptical. Ms. Rhee discovered in the nation's capital just how resistant to change schools can be. Entrenched interests and their supporters can make it very difficult to move the focus in American education from teachers and their privileges and perks to children and what they are or aren't learning. Ms. Rhee was ultimately relieved of her post in D. C. when local politicians, beseiged by outraged teachers and their representatives, decided they'd had enough of her reform efforts.

Over the years American education has been removed from the hands of parents and local communities and given over to bureaucrats, teachers' unions, and clever politicians. We have a huge and cumbersome system of public schools, but the outcomes we should expect from the investment of money and time we're making just aren't there, and the situation is getting worse. There are some very excellent and devoted teachers and administrators in America's schools; the system as a whole, however, is increasingly dysfunctional.

I doubt that Ms. Rhee will be able to make her vision become a reality in America's public schools - which are but a version of the D. C. school district writ large. But let us pray for her and encourage her in the effort. The education of our children - once the province of parents, pastors, and very local school boards - is crucial for the future of the nation. And the way things are going, and have been going since the last decades of the previous century, we are still a nation at risk because of the declining state of America's public schools.

Perhaps Ms. Rhee will succeed. I hope she does. But I'll be surprised.

Related texts: Genesis 18.19; Psalm 78.1-8; 2 Timothy 2.2

A conversation starter: "America's schools continue on a trajectory of decline. Do you think anything can be done to restore the greatness of American education?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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