Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Beyond Erase to the Top: The Myth of Michelle Rhee Continues

Much to my surprise, USA Today produced a solid piece of investigative journalism reporting on the likely chance (not surprising) of widespread standardized test score fixing in DC Public Schools under the leadership of Michelle Rhee. I'm not going to expand on that piece because everyone and their mom are. Rather, me and my mom are going to address another myth of Rhee's reign that continues to be repeated: that she came in and fixed a "corrupt" and "dysfunctional" bureaucracy.

In this piece, based on this testimony by civil rights lawyer, school finance expert and longtime DCPS activist Mary Levy, Bill Turque reports that under Rhee, central office expenditures and staff increased. I have created this post with Levy's written response to the assertions made in Turque's article by DCPS Special Assistant to the Chancellor Peter Weber.

Around the time that Turque's piece came out, Richard Whitmire wrote a piece for the Huffington Post where he repeats the notion that Rhee came in and cleaned out a bloated central office full of black incompetents:

"For starters, race played a big role in explaining how the school's central office Rhee inherited was both bloated and poorly run. That dates back to former Mayor Marion Barry, who over the years padded the city payrolls with ever-more appointees, partly as a civil rights gesture for those who in the days of white-run Washington were frozen out of city jobs but also for political reasons. 'It was the political machine's way of hiring folks and securing votes,' one veteran school administrator told me. 
Not only was the central office crowded, but many appeared to have little guidance on how to do their jobs. When Rhee arrived and began trying to fire the worst of the central office staff, her initial legal advice was: here at DCPS, we don't fire people for incompetence."
For my hearty refutation of Whitmire's assertions and assumptions, see this previous post.(Also see UPDATE I below for what else Whitmire got wrong here.)

Soon after that, I read this thoughtful piece by Shani Hilton in DC's City Paper, "Confessions of a Black Gentrifier." Immediately after reading it, I had the thought that Hilton should have included more perspectives from those already living in the DC neighborhoods being gentrified. However, upon second thought, I realized that the piece was more of an essay, and I thought she did a great job exploring her and her peers' perspectives without speaking for those she didn't interview. I found it refreshing to read something about urban gentrification that didn't, on the one hand, pass judgment on the occurrence of gentrification itself or cast it as a purposeful policy, but, on the other hand, didn't take on the attitude that the gentrifiers were coming in and saving or civilizing the natives. This is in stark opposition to perspectives like Whitmire's (and it seems of Rhee herself) on the "reform" of the DC Public Schools.

Next, I read a post on Ta-Nehesi Coates's blog about the decline of the black population in DC in the context of DC Council member and infamous former mayor Marion Barry's comments on the topic. I participated in the comment thread after the post, not to disagree with Coates's thoughts and questions on the matter, but to question some of the other commenters' assumptions that life and governance in DC had "vastly improved" under Fenty's stewardship. I object to the narrative that posits that governance in DC was totally dysfunctional and corrupt under Barry and his predecessors, but competent and vastly improved under Fenty and Rhee.

I don't say that Barry wasn't corrupt, or that as a system DCPS wasn't at all dysfunctional (oh, let me count the ways--I attended and taught in DCPS). Some things in the city and schools are better, some are worse, some are unchanged. But as I argue in the comment thread, Marion Barry is not the big bad black political bogey man and the DCPS central office workers were not his big bad bogey people followers that many of their critics believe them to be. Acknowledging Barry's numerous shortcomings and misdeeds, he's not any more, or more straightforwardly, corrupt than most other corrupt urban machine politicians. However provincial and incompetent at least some of the DCPS central office staff were, they are not markedly different from any other employees of a poorly designed and run school district central office. How Barry and the DCPS central office workers seem to loom in the psyche of their critics is far more ominous and sinister than what they were in actuality.

In her usual comprehensive and thoughtful manner, education journalist Dana Goldstein offers her take on the Rhee testing scandal in DC. But even Goldstein, whose work I respect and admire, got this aspect of the story wrong. She says:
"Rhee deserves credit for . . . . . streamlining the system’s once-corrupt and dysfunctional bureaucracy."
Arrgghh! I expect Whitmire and the editorial staff of the snookered Washington Post to repeat this, but someone of Goldstein's professional caliber is the last person who should be.

Did Barry and some of his predecessors practice cronyism? Absolutely. Were there more people working in the central office than there should have been? Absolutely. Were some of them incompetent? Absolutely. Were there tremendous amounts of money and resources that didn't make it into classroom? Absolutely. However, replace "Fenty and Rhee" for "Barry and some of his predecessors," and I'll answer "absolutely" all over again. In fact, under Rhee, the central office got bigger and more expensive, with fewer resources going directly to classrooms and students. I don't doubt that it became more functional in some ways. But comprehensively more competent or less corrupt? In light of the vast sum of money the Rhee administration spent on outside consultants (see here and here), the number of non-experienced central office personnel hired, and the implications of the recent testing scandal (Rhee didn't investigate, but promoted the principal of Noyes whom many had suspected was cheating!), I don't think so.

The only real difference is that Rhee filled the central office (and the DCPS teaching corps) with less experienced, younger, whiter, more privileged, and fewer local people. The assumption that those characteristics automatically connote more competence and less corruption implies that the older, blacker, less privileged locals were inherently corrupt and dysfunctional. That is deeply, deeply troubling to me and should be to anyone who cares about the confluence of race, privilege, bias, and social justice.

UPDATE 1: After pointing out various copy-editing errors (thanks, Mom!), Mary Levy added to my critique of Whitmire:
"Barry didn’t have that much opportunity to pad the school payroll, because that was the territory of the school board members and an occasional superintendent."

UPDATE 2: I want to state clearly that I assume that Dana Goldstein's oversight is due to a lack of research and not because of any explicit or intentional cultural bias. For one, she was writing a column, not investigative journalism. The Washington Post has neglected to write about Rhee's tenure with any skepticism or rigor, and they are responsible for their irresponsible journalism. Covering this was and is their job; with the exception of Valerie Strauss and Bill Turque's work, they've failed miserably to do so.

Secondly, part of what I am getting at in this post and in the post in response to Whitmire is that it's not possible to look honestly at the recent education reform efforts, especially those in DC, and the analyses of those efforts, without considering the assumptions being made about race, class, gender, and privilege. Nor do I presume, given the work of Tim Wise and Shankar Vedantam, that I (or anyone else who is a creature of American culture) am immune to such bias.

The necessary struggle is to recognize those biases and to put them to rest using facts and reason.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.