While I agree that she was abrasive, I disagree that the reforms were good policy in the first place. The criticism that she was too hard-charging, which stifled her own well-intentioned reforms, such as is made here misses the point. Her ideas about education reform were misinformed and ineffective. She was incompetent and ignorant of the history of the city and community she was supposed to serve. In short, she was charging hard in the wrong direction, or as NYU education historian Diane Ravitch has said, "It’s difficult to win a war when you’re firing on your own troops.”
Just prior to the election and now that she has resigned, various reviews of her tenure have been written. This well-written and comprehensive report by Leigh Dingerson in Rethinking Schools on Rhee's tenure proves my point that it wasn't just her tone that was wrong. "The Proving Grounds: School 'Rheeform' in Washington, D.C." carefully chronicles the history of DCPS, Rhee's belligerent approach to teachers, administrators, and parents, her connection to right-wing conservatives, the lack of attention given to curriculum and instruction, and the problems with her teacher-evaluation tool, IMPACT. Not all of Rhee's critics are liberal defenders of teachers unions; in this article in The American Spectator, Roger Kaplan makes several great points about problems with Rhee's reign. Finally, Bill Turque, the fantastic education beat reporter for the Metro section of the Washington Post, published this succinct summary detailing the Rhee administration's accomplishments and failures.
I remember well some events of her first few days--they were a disturbing harbinger of what was to come. Without any notice or thought to a smooth transition, Fenty fired the then current DCPS Superintendent Clifford Janey late at night and subsequently locked him out of his office and e-mail account. Fenty announced his succesor's appointment and everyone said, "Michelle who?" Shortly after coming to town, Rhee took a tour of the city and pronounced at a press conference something along the lines of, "I drove through Anacostia and it was a very emotional experience for me." (Anacostia is a historic neighborhood in DC that is majority African-American.) What's that supposed to mean? And what do her emotions have to do with this? I remember thinking it was an oddly narcissistic thing to say.
Rhee met perfunctorily with the professionals and community leaders who had a long history of working to improve DC's schools and promptly decided she didn't have anything to learn from them. It was apparent then and it became even more apparent by the end of her tenure that Rhee knew little about the community she was supposed to serve. Rhee not only didn't understand DC's African-American community, but she didn't have any sense of the particular history of DC--of its history of political disenfranchisement, taxation without representation, and paternal federal control. DCPS was a source of empowerment, autonomy, and even pride, for that community. People's parents and extended families were educated and employed by DCPS. From Dingerson,
"The vast public sector employment created by the federal government helped establish a significant black middle class that supported its public schools. Many African American parents and grandparents remember their schools as neighborhood institutions and gateways to success."While usurping more power from an already disempowered population of a powerless city, Rhee paid no respect to members of the community whose elders had helped to build the school system she was charged with leading.
There is no denying that DCPS was a dysfunctional system when Rhee got there. Transformation, change, and improvement were needed on many fronts. I have yet to be convinced of the ultimate effectiveness of such a style, but perhaps the task could only be done by a ruthless, hard-charging, autonomous leader. Even so, if Rhee or whomever was appointed to the position had to have such an approach, such a leader should know something about education, instruction, curriculum, management, fiscal matters, and community relations. To be fair, again, that's not what Fenty hired her for. Rhee was hired to be Fenty's henchwoman-autocrat on education and that's what she was. The democratically elected DC Council had voted to give Fenty full power over the DC schools and then he turned around and gave Rhee the most powerful education position the city has ever had. As Kaplan says,
". . . reformers have tended to think they understand the problems and challenges of educating undisciplined if lovable savages (children and teenagers) better than the people whose job it is to do it, and furthermore that they have a system for teaching math and reading that will work better than any other.. . . the simple truth of the matter is that if she is in charge, by virtue of commonly acknowledged rules, and she does not want someone, she should do exactly what she did. She was the boss."A common refrain echoed by Fenty and his supporters is I know there were mistakes, but look at how Rhee has gotten people excited about urban public education. In the search for a silver lining, I thought something similar about the propagandistic Waiting for Superman and the bogus manifesto that was signed by Rhee and fifteen other school district chiefs: At least people are talking about public education and this is an opportunity to showcase the bankruptcy of the new education reformers' ideas. Then I realized that was kind of like saying that, on the positive side, John Yoo and his torture memos got people taking about the immorality and ineffectiveness of torturing detainees to get information. Michelle Rhee did get a lot of people to pay attention to public education, but who are these people? Mostly unelected billionaires and conservative ideologues without any education expertise who are looking to privatize the public school system. Finally, I'll concede that Rhee got people interested in the profession of teaching who may not have been otherwise, but, again, who are they? Inexperienced, recently graduated from highly selective-college amateurs who probably don't want to become professional teachers and who know very little about inner-city communities. Ultimately, Rhee attracted the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of people with the wrong kind of solutions.
Rhee has been credited with improvements to the physical conditions of school facilities, but since June 2007 all capital planning, construction, renovation, and major repairs of DCPS school buildings have been the responsibility of the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization (OPEFM), which is an agency that is completely separate from DCPS. Facilities maintenance was moved from DCPS to OPEFM in 2008. One of the reasons OPEFM has been able to make so many improvements to public school facilities is that Mayor Fenty and the Council have increased the schools' capital budget to amounts unheard of prior to the mayoral takeover.
Rhee and Fenty and their supporters have also claimed that under her leadership test scores went up. Even some of her critics have credited her with this. First of all, standardized tests should only be used as one of many teaching tools, so test scores should certainly not be the only standard by which we measure student achievement or teacher effectiveness. Standardized tests tell you a lot about the students who are taking the test, but very little about who is teaching the students taking the test. Furthermore, an emphasis on standardized tests is problematic because standardized test-based content makes for lousy curricula. Or as Kaplan puts it,
". . . the substantive issue is whether it serves a useful educational purpose to turn schools into fill-the-bubble-test cram boxes instead of teaching content-rich courses."Even if, in the interest of compromise, it is conceded that, okay, we can consider test scores as one factor of many in the evaluation of a school and a teacher, Rhee's reforms have thus far not proven themselves to be effective. Kaplan says,
"No one who has looked seriously at the way achievements in math and reading are assessed under the No Child Left Behind rules believes you can judge a district on the basis of scarcely a couple of years. The D.C. schools implemented reforms aimed at improving scores, anyway, in 2006, so at most Miss Rhee should claim credit for staying with them, notwithstanding her stated plan to break with business as usual."Furthermore, according to Dingerson (and she has the data and analysis to back this up thanks to seven-year DCPS math teacher and 2010 finalist for DC Teacher of the Year, Chris Bergfalk):
"There have been dramatic drops in standardized assessment scores, and, on closer analysis, the highly touted increases in D.C. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores are a reflection of the changing demographics of the schools, not the result of any real improvement in the quality of education provided to D.C.’s poorest and neediest students."Finally, in this timeline of events that was developed from a series Washington Post articles and a July 2009 DCPS press release, former DCPS math teacher Guy Brandenburg shows that there were questions raised about possible cheating on the DC Comprehensive Assessment System (DCCAS) tests, but that despite being asked to investigate by Deborah A. Gist, the State Superintendent of Education for the District of Columbia (OSSE), the Rhee administration failed to do so.
I will discuss this trend in education reform in a later post, but for now I will point out that Rhee spent her time emphasizing the people teaching over the practice of teaching. There was no focus on the quality of the teaching or what teachers were teaching. As Dingerson rightly notes,
"It is worth noting that, as a so-called 'education reformer,' Rhee has not focused on content or pedagogy. There have been no initiatives to improve teacher induction or strengthen instructional practice. The focus has remained on management and staffing, and the tone has been judgmental rather than supportive."Kaplan hits the nail on the head,
"The core of the matter is not this or that lapse of judgment or a clumsy manner with people. She is said to be abrasive, texts even while in the midst of formal meetings. Well, you can put that down to an American get-to-the-point spirit. However, Miss Rhee never bothered to explain just what all this reform and professional development and search for 'excellent' teachers is supposed to mean. She did not explain it to the parents. Or to anybody. And the reason she did not is that . . . she does not know or does not care. Should our kids be studying Latin and classical music? Should sports be compulsory; should ROTC? Should Shakespeare be on the finals and should a ninth grader be able to recite the Second Inaugural? Should every kid learn a trade as well as a foreign language? The distinct impression D.C. voters got was that Miss Rhee does not think about these things. Like her beloved, who is now mayor of Sacramento, and, frankly, like so much of the political-administrative leadership of our country today, these are unimportant questions because they do not matter to them. In the world they inhabit they do, of course matter. Michelle Rhee is surely concerned that her children . . . learn calculus and foreign languages and violin. . ."Rhee herself shows her questionable knowledge of teaching practices in this stunningly inappropriate account told during a Welcome to Teachers address ( I highly recommend listening to this) of taping shut the mouths of her inner-city Baltimore students such that they bled. Rhee was having a classroom management crisis in her classroom and chose to respond in an unprofessional and crude way. Similarly, in responding to the perceived crisis in DCPS, she has chosen narrow and crude solutions. Her view, it seems, is that inner-city children and their teachers do not require a humane approach, let alone content-rich or arts-infused education. While I agree that all students, and not just middle class white ones like my own, should be able to acquire basic reading and math skills, that can be in conjunction with practical, content-rich, and creative curricula. In fact, it must be; teaching content, for example, is teaching reading.
Besides being unconcerned with the quality or the content of the teaching, Rhee also failed at the how of the teaching. Although IMPACT has been touted by some as "ground-breaking," it's a terribly flawed instrument. Valerie Strauss, a long-time education journalist at The Washington Post, discusses the flaws of IMPACT in this recent column.
"IMPACT is actually a collection of 20 different evaluation systems for teachers in different capacities and other school personnel. In its first iteration, teachers were to be evaluated five times a year by principals and master teachers who went into the classroom unannounced for 30 minutes and scored the teacher on 22 different teaching elements. They were, for example, supposed to show that they could tailor instruction to at least three 'learning styles,' demonstrate that they were instilling student belief in success through "affirmation chants, poems and cheers," and a lot more. It was so nutty to think that any teacher would show all 22 elements in 30 minutes that officials modified it. Now the number is a still unrealistic 10 or so. Some teachers, fearing that their professional careers were being based on an unfair system, got someone in the front office to alert them to when the principal or master teacher was to show up, according to interviews with a number of teachers who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Then they would send difficult kids out of the classroom, and, in some cases, pull out a specially prepared lesson plan tailored to meet IMPACT requirements. Meanwhile, some teachers never got five evaluations, apparently because a number of master teachers hired to do the jobs quit, according to sources in the school system."Furthermore, just as many of the educators that were fired during her tenure and RIFed in 2009 were strong teachers, many who were deemed "ineffective" were actually solid, experienced teachers, while others who were deemed "effective" were some of the weakest teachers in their schools.
Michelle Rhee's tenure has been awash in allegations of dishonesty, corruption, and fraud. Some of these allegations may sound like conspiracy theory-type paranoia, and may later prove to be thus, but many of these instances have been well-documented by others or are even a matter of connecting the dots in public records. Brandenburg lists them in this post, "Why Michelle Rhee Had to Go." Even if some of these instances, for example the budget problems, weren't intentionally dishonest or corrupt, they demonstrate at best grave incompetence.
While certain people, such as President Obama, who also has no background or experience with public schools, have seen "great progress" in DCPS in recent years, many of the people whose children are educated in the system, and who have worked in the system for decades (not just teachers but community activists) not only haven't seen improvement but see real harm being done to their institution and to their communities. It's not just a question of "liking" or "disliking" Rhee or of her being "nice" or "not nice." Rather, was she qualified to do the job she did? Did she have sound and informed ideas about curriculum, fiscal and personnel management, education, and the craft of teaching? Did her policies and reforms actually work? Were they effective? Did they actually improve the quality of public education in the District of Columbia? Did she adequately serve the communities and families she'd been hired to serve? The answer to all of those questions is "no."
Vincent Gray, the victor in the democratic primary, asked Adrian Fenty to appoint Kaya Henderson, Rhee's right hand woman, as Interim Chancellor. Henderson is similarly inexperienced (a few years of teaching in TFA before going into administration) and holds carbon-copy ideas about education to her former boss. Rhee supporters have been pleased with the appointment, saying that she'll continue the reforms, but that she's nicer, more collaborative, and is more likely to seek consensus.
Teacher Sabrina Stevens of Denver, Colorado, describes her experience with changes being proposed in Denver Public Schools and explains the significant difference between consensus and buy-in. Is Henderson actually going to collaborate, or is she going to be as nice as she can to get buy-in? Collaboration and consensus would mean that Henderson would actually have to compromise on some of the pieces of new school reform movement's platform, and that platform is inherently narrow, ideological, and inflexible. How can someone be collaborative while subscribing to an ideology that is inherently antithetical to the ideals of consensus and compromise? Is Ms. Henderson prepared to give up her ideology or will she continue along the same misinformed and bankrupt path as Rhee, but just be kinder about it? I, for one, am dubious that she'll be more collaborative or that her education reforms will be any less ineffective in transforming DC's public schools.
Rhee is the national face of the new education reformers; evaluation of her leadership is important not just for DC but for the democratic institution of American public education. With their unchecked power and vast amounts of money, the corporate patrons of the new education reformers won't stop at our cities. They are headed to our suburbs, towns, and rural areas. Just recently, Secretary of Education, Race to the Top architect, and general for the new education reform movement Arne Duncan, who is a "big fan" of Rhee's and who does not restrain himself from meddling in the education affairs of local governments, spoke in my state at the uber-conservative Virginia Governor McDonnell's Summit on Education. McDonnell has said that he and Duncan speak often about their shared vision of education. In the District of Columbia and in all fifty states, parents, educators, students, and local leaders must firmly say no to this uninformed, top-down, autocratic, ineffective, and anti-intellectual version of education reform that seeks to undermine and privatize one of our most cherished democratic institutions.
UPDATE: An edited-for-The-Washington-Post-website version of this post appeared in The Answer Sheet on November 2, 2010. Read it here.