September 26, 2011

Notes on a Reformer – StudentsFirst Event with Michelle Rhee in Philadelphia 9/22/11

The StudentsFirst event took place at a former comprehensive public high school in North Philly which was considered the most violent and lowest academic performing school in the Philadelphia Public School District.  As of this fall, it has become a neighborhood charter school in which is accepts students from the entire high school catchment area – in other words, there is no “cherry picking” or “creaming.”  This school takes all comers.  The principal’s goal is to eliminate the 9-11 from the previous year – 9% of students proficient in math, and 11% students’ proficient in English on the PSSA state test. 

Philadelphia is considered an “educational hub,” however there are only 55% of high school students graduating in the District and the per pupil spending is approximately $17,000/year. 
In terms of budget constraints, the program known as last in, first out (LIFO) is mandated by the PA State Board of Education.   StudentsFirst was asked by its membership to come to Philadelphia to address this issue.  The goals of the organization (which are found on their website are vast.  However, Rhee noted that this is a membership organization and this issue is what the Philadelphia membership wanted to emphasize at this form at this time.

Rhee articulated that there are three types of LIFO states – Green States (which are 11 states where LIFO is based on quality of teacher performance), Red States (which are 12 states where LIFO is based solely on seniority) and middle states (which I’ll call Yellow) in which LIFO is based on collective bargaining by individual Districts or State Board of Educations.   The importance of having the debate/discussion on LIFO now is that it is a timely issue and one which is explicitly tied to the current budget crisis facing most school districts around the country.

Rhee highlighted three points about how LIFO directly impacts schools:
1)      LIFO means schools are firing some of their “best” teachers which compromises the effectiveness of the whole faculty.  Research has shown that when teachers are rated independently on their effectiveness versus being let go strictly on the basis of seniority, there is only a 13% overlap in the number of teachers. 
2)      LIFO effectively means schools and districts are firing “more” teachers because less senior teachers earn smaller salaries than their more veteran peers.   If LIFO was based on quality, districts would save an estimated 30% of jobs in the respective districts.
3)      LIFO affects the lowest performing schools the greatest because more often than not, the least senior teachers are assigned to the lowest performing schools of schools of “last resort” or who are underperforming.  This means that the most “needy” students are having their schools turned over at a higher rate than more successful schools.  [What I have defined as “institutional amnesia” takes place because there is very little stability in the school.]
Per the Philadelphia Inquirer ( and Rhee’s initial opinion piece, you can read some of the responses to Rhee’s talk.  Further, on the main wall of the StudentsFirst FB page, there is a testimonial from one of the teachers who spoke in opposition to LIFO through the lens of their own experiences working in the Philadelphia Public School District. 

In sum, the main takeaways from the talk were; the reasoning behind discussing LIFO (timely because of the budget crisis and it was what the membership asked for), the three highlights on LIFO’s impact in schools, the distinctions between Red, Green and middle states, and finally, in regards to the whole tone and tenor of the current public discourse surrounding education reform which pits “us versus them,” the biggest thing Rhee mentioned was that education reform and teacher efficacy wasn’t an abstract concept to her – she placed her own child in a classroom with a former TNTP alum.

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