Saturday, October 30, 2010

What's the Matter with Rhee-form

Michelle Rhee's last day as Chancellor of DC Public Schools will be Monday, November 1st. The common wisdom is that the soon-to-be former DC mayor, Adrian Fenty, was defeated this past September because Rhee had become a political liability. Her policies were on target, and progress was made, but she didn't play well with others, and wasn't nice. In their own way, Fenty and Rhee admit as much here.

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.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Seniors at Dartmouth and Cornell Learn the Artlessness of the Shakedown

From reading a post on the same topic in Valerie Strauss's The Answer Sheet today, I happened upon this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I almost had to read it twice to believe it was for real.

"2 Ivy League Drives Shame Students Who Don't Give" begins with,
"With lists supplied by college administrators, student volunteers at Dartmouth College and Cornell University circulated the names of students who had not donated to senior-gift drives. The programs relied on students to single out their peers to meet high participation goals."
So, the colleges supply the names of the seniors who haven't given to a group of senior volunteers, who then contact them with persistence. And then, as if that's not bad enough, the volunteers give the names out to other students: friends, team mates, sorority sisters. And finally, they publish the names of those students.

I figured that Dartmouth and Cornell would be embarrassed by such practices. Not at all.
"Corey Earle, the Cornell official who oversees the senior-gift drive, knew that some of its peer-pressure tactics had backfired but said the university planned to keep the structure of the program in place. Sylvia Racca, the administrator responsible for Dartmouth's senior-gift drive, said via e-mail that it was necessary for student volunteers to know which of their peers had not yet donated. She did not mention making any changes in the solicitation process. She said that all volunteers were trained to respect the confidentiality of their peers and that Dartmouth officials 'deeply regret that one person was subjected to inappropriate behavior, and we do not support in any way that behavior.'"
If they deeply regret such behavior then why is a version of it their the first place?

I mean, there's nothing wrong with colleges having senior gifts and asking students to contribute, but this is, at best, a distasteful practice, isn't it?

The article did end on a hopeful note, however.
"Editors' Note: The reporter, Rachel Louise Ensign, is a member of Cornell's Class of 2010. She was asked to donate and chose not to."
 From one Rachel to another: good for you.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Follow-Up to "On the False Manifesto": What about RE:FORM SCHOOL?

Earlier today in my rush to "publish post " before picking my daughter up from preschool, I forgot to talk about an organization called RE:FORM SCHOOL. A few friends had told me about them and at first glance, it looks like a great organization doing great work, and perhaps it is. What's wrong with a bunch of artists coming together to make sure that "ALL AMERICAN have EQUAL ACCESS to a HIGH QUALITY EDUCATION, with no exceptions"? Sounds pretty good to me.

I grew skeptical, though, when I saw that the rhetoric used on the organization's website matched the rhetoric being used by the new education reformers and the group N.Y.U. education historian Diane Ravitch terms the "Billionaire Boys Club." Furthermore, once I read some of the fine print, I saw that the organization is actually associated with Microsoft which means it is actually associated with Bill Gates. This glowing article confirmed the connection.

Now, why shouldn't wealthy people like Bill Gates have so much influence over public education policy? That's a valid question. The NYC-based Executive Director of Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson, makes the case at to why not here as does Topeka K-12 Examiner David Reeber. As Anne Geiger emphasizes in this post about preserving the public in public education, I am also not against corporations and wealthy individuals making charitable donations or funding programs that work towards the betterment of society, but I am against those donations coming with strings attached in the form of control over our American democratic institutions. They may have opinions, some legitimate interests in improving public education, and a boatload (trying to curse less here!) of money, but people like Bill Gates have not been democratically elected, nor do they have any real expertise in the field of education

Returning to the point I made in my last post about the new school reformers' co-opting and re-appropriating of language, if you look at the RE:FORM SCHOOL website, there are references to "grassroots" activism, "community platforms," and "teacher involvement." Those are all good things, but I'm not sure in many cases that that's what the new school reformers are actually after. I'm concerned that this is a case where an organization that seems grassroots, creative, and community-based is simply being marketed as such, serving as a front for a more market-based, less creative, more standardized-testing based, and less educator-generated approach. I could be wrong, though. In her piece in The Nation, "Grading Waiting for Superman," journalist Dana Goldstein notes that:
"The film doesn't acknowledge that Bill Gates, who began his philanthropic career deeply skeptical of teachers unions, has lately embraced them as essential players in the fight for school improvement. His foundation finances a program in Boston called Turnaround Teacher Teams, which works with the district and its teachers union to move cohorts of experienced, highly rated instructors into high-needs schools, while giving them extra training and support. In July Gates spoke at the American Federation of Teachers convention in Seattle, saying, 'If reforms aren't shaped by teachers' knowledge and experience, they're not going to succeed.' A few protesters booed, but he received several standing ovations. Members of the Gates Foundation staff later met with AFT executives, and the two teams discussed ways to collaborate, despite lingering differences on issues like teacher pensions."
Perhaps Gates's mission via RE:FORM SCHOOL and elsewhere is kinder and more informed than I am imagining. The everyone-is-out-to-get-us space I seem to find myself in lately is not a comfortable one for me, nor is it usually a rational place to be. But if Gates and the new school reformers are out to privatize and control the American public education system, I want to make damn sure I'm doing everything I can to speak up and stop it. And for now, I just don't trust these people.

On the False Manifesto

When I first read the new school reform "manifesto," which was initiated by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, circulated by Michael Casserly, executive director of the nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit organization that is a coalition of sixty-five of the nation’s largest urban public school systems, and then signed by fifteen school district heads, I felt angry. What misinformed jerks! Then I felt confused. What is it, exactly, that they're demanding that they don't already have? Finally, I felt amused. Do these people know what a manifesto is? Isn't a manifesto usually written by the politically power-less and not the politically powerful? My facebook status read:
"Rachel Levy loves it when a bunch of anti-labor, anti-democratic autocrats get together to publish a manifesto in favor of expanding their own power and the power of high-stakes standardized testing in the pages of a publication owned by a standardized testing company. Their high school English teachers must have failed to teach them about irony."
Then when doing research for my blog post about Waiting for Superman, I came across this interview of W4S director Davis Guggenheim. He also comically uses the language of the oppressed and politically powerless to describe his work and the work of those he is purporting to document:
"And the things I felt myself drawn to were these pragmatists. I think you really can call it a revolution, these reformers. These are people who say, 'This is broken, this is ridiculous, I’m going to change the world in front of me.' So over here, Geoffrey Canada, over here, Michelle Rhee, over here, the KIPP guys. Hundreds of them, and they’re pragmatists, they’re not politically driven, they’re not ideologically driven, they’re pragmatists, and that’s what I think makes them win."
Not only does he misuse the word  "revolution," but he claims the so-called revolutionaries are not ideologically or politically motivated. I'd say that's about 95% what they're motivated by. Here's more co-opted language from Guggenheim:
"And they really don’t—underneath that is this sort of thinking that all kids can’t learn. The new revolutionaries, these new insurgents, are saying 'No, every kid can learn.'"
The "revolutionaries"? The "insurgents"? Again I thought that much like the new reformers, this guy must not understand what these words mean. I mean, here he is with one hand taking money from powerful conservative corporate entities to make a film about people, in some ways oppressors themselves, carrying out the same conservative corporations' agenda and talking as if with the other hand he is joining in some revolutionary insurgency. This reminds me of some of the more clueless kids I went to Wesleyan with who claimed to be "oppressed" when, for example, the administration asked them not to deface the campus with sidewalk chalk. I didn't see the harm in drumming up awareness of various valid causes with sidewalk chalk, but I had to roll my eyes when they threw around the o-word. News flash: If you are privileged enough to go to a place like Wesleyan, chances are you're not oppressed.

The other way of thinking about this is that perhaps these very powerful, ideological, and political actors know exactly what they're doing: they are deliberately co-opting the language of the oppressed and using the condition of the impoverished and oppressed of our society, and claiming to act in their best interest to advocate for market-based school reform, which will mostly serve those already with political power and prosperity. A comparison can be drawn here with the concept of greenwashing, (I wrote about this in a prose poem published in Defenestration) where you have companies marketing their products as "green" when they are anything but and where you have individuals using their capitalist-friendly versions of environmentalism to hide behind their contributions to the current states of income inequality and the impoverished.

With that, I'm going move on from my quasi-conspiracy theories to mention some thoughtful responses to the "manifesto" (I still can't say that without giggling). Since she hosts so many of the other voices I'll list here, first I'll mention the response by Washington Post education journalist Valerie Strauss. The next is by Superintendent Jonathan P. Raymond of the Sacramento City Unified School District, who declined to sign the document. Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams also decided against signing it; Valerie Strauss shared his thoughts on the matter. Kevin G. Welner, a professor of education policy and program evaluation at the Univerisity of Colorado-Boulder says that the manifesto should be a resignation letter. Anne Geiger who is a parent, artist, writer, education activist, and former school board member wrote this comprehensive dissection of the document on her blog, Public Policy Blogger. Anthony Cody, a former long-time Oakland, California, teacher and current member of the Teacher Leader Network, listed the errors that filled the manifesto in his blog in Teacher Magazine. Finally, it seems that the principal manifesto authors pulled a bait and switch with at least some of their signatories. Philadelphia Schools Superintendent (and my superintendent at DCPS ) Arlene Ackerman came out saying that while she had given permission to add her name to the document, she had not seen the final version and did not agree with it.

I hope the powers-that-be and the citizens-that-be soon see the false manifesto and "slay-the-dragon" documentary for what they are. I hope they start listening to the people in the trenches who are actually fighting to improve the lives of the impoverished and oppressed, as opposed to those on the outside who are using the condition of the impoverished and oppressed to fight for their own fame and fortune.

UPDATE I: Ooops! I forgot to include this excellent, excellent piece in response to the manifesto from Richard Rothstein at the Economic Institute. It's called "How to Fix Our Schools."

UPDATE II: I've posted a follow-up post to this post about the organization RE:FORM SCHOOL.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Education Films Series I: What I Read About About Waiting for Superman

When I heard a year or so ago that Davis Guggenheim was going to make a documentary about charter schools and about the new breed of school reformers, I didn't think much about it. I've never thought much of the work of those particular school reformers, but, then again, I respected Davis's previous work, An Inconvenient Truth, and I figured that Waiting for Superman would be okay. It wasn't until the documentary's release right around the time of the Democratic mayoral primary in D.C., which I had been following very closely, that I started to pay more attention.

Michelle Rhee, the soon-to-be former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools was cast as the heroine in the movie. It turns out that Adrian Fenty, who had hired Rhee to "fix the schools," was defeated by D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray. At the private screening of the movie that Rhee attended at the Newseum she said the election results were "devastating" to the schoolchildren of D.C. Meanwhile many of the families of those very schoolchildren were the ones who voted against Fenty and Rhee. While there are some Rhee supporters among D.C.P.S. families (especially those who are white and privileged), most are white private school people like Guggenheim, or suburbanites who don't live or send their kids to school in D.C. They were glad to have someone like Rhee take care of the problems of urban education with what seemed like simple and straightforward (to them) solutions. Their guilt over their own privilege could be assuaged and they wouldn't have to confront the complexity of the problem and the stark class divisions in the city. New York University education historian Diane Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, offered this sharp analysis of the election results and their coverage.

I have no desire to see Waiting for Superman--from what I can tell it lacks depth and is too slanted. That being said, I have learned a great deal by reading about it. For example. . .

David Denby of The New Yorker wrote more of a pure film review, but he also discusses the content of the film. He recommends the following alternatives to Waiting for Superman: Guggenheim's first documentaries about teachers, The First Year and Teach; Stand and Deliver, staring Edward James Olmos; and, Frederick Wiseman's documentary, High School II, which is set at the former Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem. I would also recommend watching Our Town, a documentary about a Compton, L.A., high school production of Our Town, and Season 3 of the HBO series The Wire. All are much more honest and complex looks at the challenges of life and education in the inner city.

Journalist Dana Goldstein's "Grading Waiting for Superman," published in The Nation is a very good critique of the film. In this meticulously researched bit of investigative journalism, "Supersized Dollars Drive Waiting for Superman Agenda," journalist Barbara Miner uncovers the conservative corporate funding behind Waiting for Superman and its agenda.

Otherwise, one of the most comprehensive responses is this blog post (on the Huffington Post--boo!) by New York City-based education activist Leonie Haimson. The best response from an education professor was this one by Rick Ayers. The best teacher responses I read were by Sabrina Stevens Shupe and Alexandra Miletta. Finally, Diane Ravitch has written a great deal about the film and this review in The New York Review of Books is perhaps the most concise.

The most damning thing I read about the film was actually this interview of Davis Guggenheim in the A.V. Club. Perhaps he's been in Hollywood for too long, perhaps he's a John Mayer-type who's talented but who publicly says stupid things, or perhaps he is simply unqualified to have an informed discussion, let alone make a quality documentary, about the state of the American public education system because, frankly, he sounds like an ass here. Like a deluded, self-congratulatory, superficial, moronic ass, straight out of the HBO series Entourage.

"When I was asked to do this movie—well, looming, hovering over the classroom is the sense that there’s a system, this giant—[Newsweek columnist] Jonathan Alter calls it the Blob—which just hovers over everything and crushes good people and devours money. I thought, if I made a film that attacked that—the other movie was sort of simple and pure and vérité. This is a slaying-the-dragon-type movie." 

Apparently, he thinks he's made a "revolutionary" film about the education reformer "insurgents" who are fixing the "broken" public schools that he never attended growing up in D.C. and that he drives past on his way to the kiddies' private school, you know, the public schools that have produced a "huge swath of ignorant people." Viva La Ivy League Educated-Corporate Funded-Opportunistic Celebrity Revolucion, Davis! He says he's "a Democrat" and that he "really believes in unions." Some of his best friends are in unions! They might even be in the Scientology union. I wouldn't be surprised if a few years from now we see a follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, chronicling BP's epic struggle to protect the ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico. I mean, he's got to pay for that private school tuition somehow.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

My New Education Blog!

I just started a new education blog, just this morning, in fact. How many blogs can one person have? you might ask. Oh, just you wait. I'll have ten by next year!!!

For now, I have a bit of catching up to do, so besides transferring my previous blog posts about education from that blog to this blog, I will be blogging here fast and furious for the next couple of weeks.

I plan to update this blog much more frequently than I do my multi-purpose and food blogs, but the posts will be briefer than they generally are on the other ones. The purpose of this blog is share my ideas and the ideas of others about education, and while I do that on the other blogs, their purpose is more to develop my writing and to provide a place to self-publish pieces that aren't right for larger publications.

Rachel Levy, what makes you qualified to blog about education? you might ask.

Well, I have worked with children since I was a child: babysitting and being a camp counselor. I attended public schools in DC from prekindergarten tthrough twelfth grade.

After graduating from college, I taught for a year at a private Quaker school in Brooklyn, New York. Then, I got a master's degree in education with certification in Social Studies (grades 7-12) and ESL, which is a PK-12 certification. Then, I taught in D.C. Public Schools for two years, and then in Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia for five years. After that, I worked as an educator with a private non-profit social service agency at various Head Start programs in the Charlottesville, Virginia, area. Most recently, I taught adult-aged immigrants in Oakland, California. Now I work as  a writer, and one of my pet topics is, you guessed it, education.

Somewhere in all of that I became a parent to three children who collectively have spent two school years at a Jewish preschool, two at a secular Reggio Emilia-based preschool, one at a secular daycare-type center, 0.6 years (hopefully two total) year at a Montessori-based cooperative preschool, two school years in Oakland (California) Public Schools, two plus (lots more, we hope) years in Hanover County Schools in Virginia.

Education is my blood and the blood of the family I married into. My mother has long worked as a lawyer/education activist in DC, as a civil rights lawyer as well as with several community-based organizations. My mother-in-law is a nursery school teacher and runs her own community-based education activist group, in DC also. My father-in-law is a high school English teacher in DCPS (he was recently fired under the Rhee administration, but rehired part-time on an hourly basis to calm the uproar his termination caused in the Wilson HS community). Finally, my husband is a college psychology professor, with a specialization in cognitive psychology and an interest in how people learn.

All of this is not to say that I know everything about education because I certainly don't. I have some knowledge, some experience, and some opinions, but I try to stay open to learning more and to new ways of doing things. That being said, I advocate first and foremost for the practices and approaches that will make for the highest quality and most socially just education system possible.

Hopefully this blog can aid me in this journey. And if you wish to learn more about education, I hope it can aid in yours.