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Final Questions

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This week Jack concludes his conversation with Michelle, after ten weeks of dialogue.

Schneider: In our final week I thought we'd ask each other any lingering short questions that hadn't made it into our previous conversations—a way of wrapping up our dialogue.

So, to kick that off: Who do you think the next Secretary of Education should be?

Rhee: I think my husband, Kevin Johnson, should be the next Secretary of Education. First, he appeals to both Democrats and Republicans. Second, he feels passionately about this issue, has on-the-ground experience in schools, and has in-depth content knowledge. Third, he has deep ties in the African-American community, a group that needs to be more effectively engaged in this debate. And lastly he gets along well with both me and Randi Weingarten. Who else can say that?

Who would you choose?

Schneider: I'd go in a very different direction and tap Pam Grossman, who just became dean of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. She's an expert on teaching and learning, a former classroom teacher, and an equity advocate. That mix—of respect for evidence and knowledge of practice—is essential; and it might do quite a bit to resolve tensions around federal policy in education.

Rhee: If you could choose one person in the reform community to join your "team," who would it be?

Schneider: I'd pull Checker Finn back over to the left. Very few reformers, in my mind, have matched his effectiveness—in disseminating a clear message, in shaping the views of policymakers, or in articulating a coherent vision. I tend to disagree with him on most issues; but I think he's an incredibly savvy operator.

You?

Rhee: Rob Weil from the AFT. I had the opportunity to work with him on the DC contract. He's even-keeled, reasonable and wants to get things done.

Schneider: What education policy issues have you changed your mind about in the past several years?

Rhee: Open enrollment. I used to think district wide open enrollment made sense as it would ensure access for all kids and good diversity/integration. However, after hearing insights from neighborhood advocates I think they have good points about neighborhood schools. I'm still not sure what the answer is. Maybe some kind of mix? But my views have shifted. 

What about you?

Schneider: Tracking. It feels like I do a 180 on the issue every two years.

I can recite the arguments for both sides, but neither is completely compelling to me because the problem is so complicated. If you de-track in the right way, I think it can be very positive. But that's a cheater's answer—just like saying that if you track kids in the wrong way it can be a serious injustice. Of course that's true.

Rhee: If you could only change on thing about the education system what would it be?

Schneider: If I had one wave of a magic wand, I'd create truly diverse schools.

Almost all of the goals that matter in education policy are more easily achieved when each school has a rich mix of kids. Equity gaps in funding, levels of social capital, teacher quality, and a host of other issues practically dissolve between schools in such a scenario. As do the prejudices and despairs that are buttressed by segregated schools.

Desegregating the schools has been one of our longest battles, and a lot of strategies that at first appeared promising have proven insufficient for the long-haul. And that has led to quite a bit of hopelessness around the issue. But I think there's reason to hope. And I think there's reason to work.

What's your one big change?

Rhee: It's too predictable for me to say "a highly effective teacher in every classroom." So I'll go with funding.

Schools and teachers need the right resources to be successful. Funding doesn't solve all problems. But I think we need to do the hard work as a nation of determining how much it really costs to provide kids with a great education and then ensure those dollars are there. Of course, with the resources should come accountability.

Schneider: What are your pedagogical influences?

Rhee: Grant Wiggins and "Backward Design" always made a whole lot of sense to me and helped drive some of our work at DCPS. My earliest pedagogical influence was Lisa Delpit.

You?

Schneider: When I think about what great teaching looks like in the classroom, Mike Rose's words tend to run through my head. There are passages in Lives on the Boundary, for instance, that beautifully capture what it means to educate--vignettes of open, personal, caring, and hopeful interactions between teacher and student that represent all we should hope for in our schools.

My favorite passage of Mike's is from his book Why School? "Over time," he writes, "you feel something: it's the experience of democracy itself. The free play of inquiry. The affirmation of human ability. The young person guided to the magnifying lens, the map, the notepad, the book." Those four sentences call up an army of emotions in me...and make me feel pretty inadequate as an author.

Rhee: Is there an innovation or program that's not yet proven that you're bullish on?

Schneider: Surveying teachers and students about the strengths and weaknesses of their schools seems very promising to me. If done the right way, I think that kind of data can be both more powerful and more comprehensive than anything we currently have.

How about yourself?

Rhee: You took my answer! I was also going to say student surveys. It's something my student cabinet in DC lobbied hard for and the early evidence looks good on it.

Schneider: Last question, which I have to ask for all the historians out there: how does history inform your theory of change about school reform?

Rhee: The bottom line is that we don't have all the answers that we need in school reform. What I think is important in moving forward is ensuring that if we're going to make mistakes, let's not make the same ones over and over again. So I try to ensure that's the way I operate.

How about you?

Schneider: The past is full of reformers over-selling proposals, ignoring evidence, and charging ahead with bullish confidence. Studying the past has led me to be skeptical, to favor caution, and to see progress where others see stagnation.

But most importantly, it has helped me see that everything in education is complicated. There are no easy answers. There are no shortcuts. There is no quick fix.

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