Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Is Michelle Rhee Truly Putting Students First?

Last week, Michelle Rhee took the next logical step of a bona fide revolutionary: she announced her new position as a lobbyist on "Oprah" and in Newsweek magazine.  Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post, Trip Gabriel of The New York Times, and Alan Gottlieb of Education News Colorado summarize well Rhee's intentions, but in brief, Students First, a non-profit political organization of parents, students, and teachers, will advocate for:

  • taking on special interests, such as teachers' unions,
  • "smart" spending on instructional programs,
  • encouraging parental involvement,
  • "excellent" schools for every child,
  • getting talented teachers in every classroom,
  • dismantling teacher tenure and seniority-based incentives,
  • merit pay for teachers,
  • vouchers,
  • using standardized tests to evaluate teachers, and
  • firing the bottom five to ten percent of teachers.
These ideas are not novel ones and as I outline below, aren't likely to be successful in helping school children.

I should have known from her appearance on the "Colbert Report" the week before that Rhee was warming up for this blitz. I had rather hoped that she would fade into the woodwork of conservative think tanks and empty motivational speech giving, but no such luck. Rhee has always talked about how she wants what's best for children and how our current public education system is designed for what's best for the adults, but I don't see how her policies, which I detailed here and on The Washington Post website here, are best for school children. Also, don't fairly common instances of union ineptitude plus low pay and poor working conditions for many public school educators refute the claim that the system is currently working well for the adults?

One thing I neglected to add in my critique of her tenure at DCPS were the exceedingly high rates of teacher turnover and attrition, often caused by low morale, mass firings, and budget problems. For example, the RIF of October 2009 caused terrible disruptions and chaos. There were classrooms without teachers, students without necessary classes, and schools without counselors. Consolidating freshmen and seniors in the same English class, cancelling foreign language courses, and having elementary school students start over in October with a new or no teacher can hardly be good for those students or serve as an example of "smart" spending. Rhee was not known for her fiscal competence, to say the least.

Rhee claims that this is the first organization to advocate for children, but that's just not true, and saying as much is an insult to child advocates and parents everywhere. What about the work of organizations like Voices for America's Children and the Children's Defense Fund? And what of parents and parent groups? Does she think public school parents like me join the PTA to advocate for ourselves? Because we like to attend tedious meetings and peddle wrapping paper? Was Michelle Rhee active in the PTA at Harlem Park Elementary where she taught in Baltimore or at Oyster Elementary where her own children attend in DC?

Rhee says that she should have communicated and expressed herself better in DC, but as NYU education historian Diane Ravitch explains," it is hard to think of any figure in the world of American education who had as much media attention as she has had over the past three years. Certainly, she did not lack for opportunities to communicate." In fact, a famous Rhee-ism is that "collaboration and consensus are way over-rated." Her problem was not that she didn't communicate, but rather, that she does not collaborate. How can she engage parents in the process of education reform if she doesn't believe in collaborating with them?

When she talks about "excellent" schools for each child, what she is getting at is choice, which means charters and vouchers. I am still forming my opinions on charters, but for now I'll concede that while I prefer magnets, charters can be valuable, but only when they are community-based, feature rich and challenging curricula, are kept on a short leash, and don't supplant neighborhood-based options. More on this topic later, but for now these pieces in the New York Review of Books, Miller-McCune, and The Wall Street Journal show why charters are not the panacea Rhee thinks they are. As for vouchers, public money should not be funding religious and private schools. Period. Furthermore, the expansion of charters and vouchers will not be successful as a long-term strategy for reforming public education, especially if they move a public system in the direction of privatization. Why doesn't Rhee, instead, raise money to directly fund financial aid and scholarships for needy kids who want to attend private and religious schools? 

Michelle Rhee is a firm believer that talent and not practice makes the teacher. She stated that newly hired teachers are probably superior to veterans, because they'd be more innovative and creative. First of all, she's already stated that she doesn't value creativity; she once said, "Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job." Second of all, studies have shown that teachers from TFA, and this could probably extend to NTP teachers as well, are not more effective and that they're costly, particularly because they leave the profession so quickly. Finally, firing the bottom five to ten percent of teachers would be risky. How would the bottom five to ten percent be determined? By test scores? I don't agree with that. Would doing this actually lead to higher quality teaching and education? After reading this, I'm dubious we can fire our way to educational greatness.

As for Rhee's emphasis on standardized tests and improved evaluations of teachers, while teachers do need a fair and rigorous evaluation system, standardized test scores shouldn't be part of the equation, and should only be used to glean information about students. Merit pay based on test scores isn't fair and it doesn't work. The use of value-added measures doesn't matter--those are equally problematic.  Her own evaluation system, IMPACT, is flawed and statistically faulty. Finally, while seniority-based lay-offs are problematic, the alternatives she advocates for don't seem to be any less so.

Isn't it ironic that in order to take on these "heavily funded special interests," Rhee is creating one herself? (And I'm sorry but, "textbook companies"? I don't disagree with this on some level, but what of other bigger and better funded actors in the education marketplace? Or do they not count as special interests when they're headed by Rhee's mentor or align with her interests?) Michelle Rhee and her initiatives have the backing of some of the wealthiest people in the country.  I find it troubling that she feels the need to spin her initiatives via a PR firm, the same one that she used as DC schools chancellor. She is her own heavily-funded special interest! The last thing our children, our public schools, and our besieged democracy needs is yet another corporate-backed lobbying organization headed by a politically inept it girl with a stated disdain for democratic principles and processes. And where would the money raised by Students First go? To politicians and political campaigns, not to schools and not to children. As I have written about here, more big money in our political system is a problem, not a solution.

To her credit, I do think that Michelle Rhee believes that she is doing what's best for children, that she has good intentions. The problem is that she is not actually doing what's best for children. More and more, Michelle Rhee, seems to be suffering from a blinding and pathological narcissism, the kind that develops from excessive media attention and intensive rationalizing. As I study and observe Rhee, I am reminded of other ideologically-driven political leaders who in the face of a crisis do great wrong in the name of right. Especially instructive in understanding Michelle Rhee's cult of personality is Jeffrey Toobin's recent profile in The New Yorker of Rachel Yould, an extraordinarily bright and talented young woman who in her quest for fame and socially useful significance manages to con even the smartest and most altruistic of actors, not to mention herself, securing funding and resources for herself that would be better and more justly spent on the causes of those more sincerely and urgently in need of them. 

If Michelle Rhee truly wants to put students first then she should put aside her bankrupt ideology, her failing policies, and her monstrous ego and let the real needs of America's public school children come first. She would be my hero if she would change course and, quite simply, raise money that would go directly to helping poor children. As a former public school student and teacher and one of the public school parents she is trying to engage, I'm asking her to truly put our children, and the future of the communities they so desperately need, first.


  1. Does anyone genuinely believe that Michelle Rhee cares about children or their education? After watching her operate in D.C. for three years, I consider her to be a self-promoting careeriest whose primary interest is her own advancement,which she achieves through pushing the agenda of her puppet masters.

  2. She might be a "careerist" but I do think that there has to be changes. The teachers union has to be reformed, as over 95% of teachers are given a satisfactory rating. Right now, there is too much status quo, and she is shaking things up. She does need to improve her relationship with schools and parents.

  3. N.E. - is it so hard to believe that 95% of teachers are doing their jobs? Because the teachers I know are working their butts off for relatively low salaries and still can't address the needs of their students. Since when is it a high school teacher's fault that 10% of her students are failing when she is supposed to give loving attention to 150 or more students, with 25-30 in a class, many of them immigrants or from high poverty neighborhoods with parents who work 2 jobs each and who have little time to keep tabs on them? Teachers can indeed be wondrous people, but we must not expect them to be miracle workers. Welcome to the world of underfunded Title 1 schools, which never have enough funding to keep class sizes down and resources in place.


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