there’s a better way to improve the quality of teaching in the nation’s schools than to bully principals and instructors.

There’s a better way to improve the quality of teaching in the nation’s schools than to bully principals and instructors.

Default Lines column, May 2011 issue of eSchool News—The last few weeks haven’t been kind to some of the biggest icons of what education historian Diane Ravitch calls the “corporate education reform movement.”

First, it was revealed that some of the test-score gains reported during the tenure of former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee might have been the result of cheating. Then, former publishing executive Cathie Black resigned her post as chancellor of the New York City Public Schools after three highly divisive months on the job.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg surprised many people when he chose Black—who had never worked as an educator, had never attended public schools, and hadn’t even sent her own children to them—to head the nation’s largest public school system late last year. At the time, Bloomberg said Black was the perfect choice for the job, the Associated Press reported, because she was “a superstar manager.”

Critics questioned her lack of experience as an educator, however, and she did nothing to change their minds. Meeting with parents who were worried about overcrowded schools, she joked that birth control was the solution; according to the AP, two polls had her approval rating at 17 percent before she resigned April 7.

Rhee’s methods face new scrutiny after USA Today reported March 28 that a computer analysis of erasures on students’ standardized tests showed more than half the district’s schools had an inordinate number of answers changed from wrong to right. At the Crosby S. Noyes School, which has been touted as a model of reform for its dramatic test-score gains, erasures reportedly were a dozen times more common than at other schools.

As Ravitch noted in a March 29 column for The Daily Beast, “What will this revelation mean for Rhee’s campaign to promote her test-driven reforms? Her theory seemed to be that if she pushed incentives and sanctions hard enough, the scores would rise. Her theory was right; the scores did rise, but they didn’t represent genuine learning. She incentivized desperate behavior by principals and teachers trying to save their jobs and meet their targets and comply with their boss’s demands.”

Rhee is widely celebrated among supporters of the corporate approach to school reform for her no-nonsense approach with educators—but an anecdote from a new biography about her, called The Bee Eater, seems to reveal the true nature of her character.

According to Ravitch, who reviewed the biography for The Washington Post, “The most chilling episode in Richard Whitmire’s biography of Michelle Rhee occurs near the end, when Rhee says to a PBS camera crew, ‘I’m going to fire somebody in a little while. Do you want to see that?’ Of course they did, and they taped the chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools firing a principal. The victim’s face was not shown, but the episode revealed a woman who relishes humiliating those who have the misfortune to work for her.”

It’s not surprising that the school leadership tenures of both Rhee and Black should come to an abrupt end, given that both exhibited a profound lack of empathy for their employees.

As author and motivational speaker Simon T. Bailey explains, to be a successful leader during times of significant change, you have to make sure your employees are working in an environment where they feel supported enough to be creative—and that means getting them comfortable with adapting to change.

One way to do this, Bailey told attendees of a recent ed-tech conference, is to be generous with your praise; another is to listen instead of hear.

“I know you’re busy, but take five minutes a day to really connect with someone on your staff,” he recommended. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

One group that has listened to the needs of educators is MetLife, which sponsors an annual “Survey of the American Teacher.” In the latest of these polls, educators said they believe the ability to differentiate instruction for their students is essential for students’ success—and they said more access to technology and collaboration with their peers will help them do this.

In fact, creating opportunities to collaborate with—and learn from—other educators was cited as one of five keys to improving teacher and school leader effectiveness in another recent report.

That report looked at the lessons the U.S. can learn from Finland, Ontario, and Singapore, whose achievement has consistently ranked near the top in international assessments and who attribute their success to their efforts in recruiting, preparing, and retaining highly effective teachers and school leaders.

“All three jurisdictions provide considerable time for teachers to work collaboratively and learn together during the regular school schedule—as much as five times what U.S. teachers receive,” according to the report.

Investing in continuous learning wasn’t the only strategy described in the report; another was making teaching an attractive profession. While the top U.S. graduates often pursue careers in medicine, law, or business, teaching is a draw for academically talented youth in Finland, Ontario, and Singapore, researchers noted.

Salaries are one reason for this phenomenon. In his “Learning Leadership” column this month, AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech writes: “A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that salaries for teachers in the United States with 15 years of experience are, on average, 60 percent or below the salaries of 25- to 64-year-olds with similar higher education.”

Yet salaries aren’t the only problem; there’s also the issue of respect—a challenge that corporate school reformers contribute to with their take-no-prisoners attitude.

In our Security Checkpoint feature this month, we report on the latest efforts by federal officials to curb bullying, both in school and online. But bullies aren’t found only on the playground. The stories in this issue suggest there’s a better way to improve the quality of teaching in the nation’s schools than to bully principals and instructors.