I think this New York Magazine profile of Rightwardly drifting education reformer Michelle Rhee is meant to be admiring, although the reporter, Andrew Rice, seems to have adopted a Missourian’s form of admiration.
“Show me why I think well of you again.”
Though all modern presidents like to think of themselves as leading the national education debate, they rarely are; most important decisions are made at the state, mayoral, or school-board level. But if this decentralized uprising can be said to have a leader, it is the youthful, tough-talking, and telegenic Michelle Rhee. Four years ago, Rhee was chosen to run Washington, D.C.’s troubled school district by a young Democratic mayor, Adrian Fenty. She resigned just as abruptly this past fall, after Fenty was thrown out of office. But while Rhee’s head-cracking, heresy-spouting attempt to revamp the school system was a major contributor to Fenty’s electoral defeat, she left in a blaze of martyrdom, reveling in the extravagant admiration of national opinion-makers, as well as her commanding role in the polemical pro-charter-school documentary Waiting for “Superman.”
Over the past few months, rather than taking another municipal gig, Rhee has been campaigning through flash-point states, like a sort of wonky Che Guevara, lending celebrity, credibility, and covering fire to political leaders who endorse her vision of school reform.
It may be admiring but it’s not all that flattering.
Rice has her stating again and again in various ways that she’s out to save the children, but he never quotes her saying anything that shows she ever thinks about children as individuals. No stories. No examples. No offhand remarks that show she was ever in a classroom, although she started out her career as a teacher and apparently, after a rough rookie year, a good one.
Children come across as her cause but not her concern.
Nothing Rice reports her saying shows she’s aware that there are such people called parents either.
And there are no quotes that show that she is either a deep or original thinker on education, on teaching, on politics, even though she has in effect become a politician, or on reform.
She has one idea that has become more of an article of faith with her than anything else. Our schools are full of bad teachers who must be run out of the profession now.
Who those bad teachers are, what makes them bad, how do we identify them? Rhee doesn’t seem to feel any need to answer those questions for us. She’s answered them for herself and that’s enough for us to know. She knows who they are and she knows what needs to be done and she’s prepared to do whatever it takes to see that it gets done.
Rhee seems to want to set herself up as principal---a very strict principal---for the entire country’s schools.
She says she doesn’t care what kind of schools those schools are, public or private, charter schools or traditional neighborhood schools. Doesn’t matter. Just as long as they all answer to her, if not directly, then by living up to standards she’s set.
Nothing seems to turn a certain type of leftist into a Right Winger more effectively than the discovery that the people don’t want to be led by him. Or her. Rhee is ostensibly a Democrat and a liberal but she has a pronounced authoritarian streak and I suspect her of being one of those “reformers” who start out on the Left but wind up on the Right as they learn to resent and hate and want to reform the people they’re supposedly championing.
Rhee is mad at teacher unions and appears to be working her way towards hating them. And one thing about Right Wingers, they make the best haters.
Rice presses the point that Rhee has allies among liberals and conservatives.
But her “liberal” allies all seem to be of the corporate elitist type whose attitude towards democratic government is, “Why don’t you all stand aside and let the smart people handle it?”
And her most prominent conservative allies at the moment are the Right Wing bully boys who occupy the governor’s mansions in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and New Jersey. Rhee has issues with liberals and Democrats, but lately she doesn’t seem to have met a Republican she doesn’t like.
I’m just going by what I read in Rice’s article. I don’t know Rhee and hadn’t paid much attention to her before this. And maybe I’m overly impressed by this scene:
Whisking from Fox News to Bloomberg before heading to the Today show, Rhee picks up a copy of the Journal and scans it for a column under her own byline arguing that fiscal crises around the country could usher in “the best of times” for education reformers. By lunchtime, she’s in the back of a Town Car on her way to the Capitol Building in Trenton, to be Christie’s guest of honor at his State of the State address. “No one in America has been more clear that we must change our public-education system from one that caters to the feelings of adults to one that prepares our children for the 21st century,” the governor says as he introduces her to the crammed chamber. “Michelle … I want you to count New Jersey among those who, like you, are finally putting students first.” When he finishes, Christie strides over and wraps Rhee in a bearish hug, and they recede to a closed-door meeting in the governor’s chambers. Then Rhee is speeding back to Cipriani’s on 42nd Street, where Davis Guggenheim, the director of Waiting for “Superman,” is to receive the award for Best Documentary at the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures’ annual gala.
It’s troubling enough that Rhee sees the recession and the pain it’s causing as an opportunity to inflict more pain in the name of her cause. But…
First, Republicans hate teacher unions for the same reasons they hate all unions. Unions give workers the strength to stand up to bosses and they help get out the vote for Democrats.
Breaking the teacher unions isn’t about improving the quality of education and it’s not about bringing deficits under control. Republicans care about education as much as they care about deficits.
This is all about putting Republicans in control of all levels of government so they can do what Republicans believe government is meant to do, help their rich friends and donors make more money.
And for all their talk about merit pay, Republicans clearly think all teachers are overpaid, the good ones as well as the bad ones. But then they think all American workers, except hedge fund managers and corporate executives, are overpaid. The money Rhee will need to attract and reward the best and the brightest into teaching and to support them on the job won’t be there if Republicans are running things everywhere.
All the current budget cutting that Rhee sees as an opportunity is resulting in the one sure way to turn good teachers into mediocre ones---overcrowding classrooms.
The Republicans of course have a solution to that problem. The same solution they offer to any problem that arises from their policies of helping the rich get richer.
The market will sort it out.
We’re talking about opening and, naturally, subsidizing, lots of private schools.
Leaving aside for now those Republicans who hate public schools and are all for vouchers and more private schools so that their children don’t have to mix with THEM or learn things that might have the kids questioning Right Wing Christian beliefs and defying the authority of the preachers, generally what Republicans don’t like about public schools is that they cost a lot of money and yet nobody gets rich off of them.
Republicans see all of life as business. That is, they think the purpose of life is to make money. In their eyes, education reform is an opportunity to privatize.
That means turning education into a business.
They don’t really care if a school turns out well-educated future citizens. Well-educated future citizens are just the product. The point is to turn a profit while turning out the product.
Now, how many businesses not only fail to turn a profit in their first year or two in operation but out and out fail?
Rhee talks about how the first couple of years of schooling are critical to a child’s intellectual development. You get only one chance at first grade.
But what about all those kids who are in first grade when their schools run as businesses are failing?
They go back to underfunded, overcrowded public schools?
Rhee doesn’t show that she’s thought things through that far.
Again, she doesn’t show that she’s thinking about anything except getting rid of bad teachers.
So, second, there are plenty of bad teachers. There are plenty of good teachers too. But what there are a lot more of is teachers in between.
They have their good days and their bad days, good years and bad years.
It’s very easy for a determined principal to make one of those teachers look like a bad teacher.
For that matter, it’s not all that hard for a determined principal to make a good teacher look like a bad teacher.
The unions’ job is to protect those teachers.
Rhee seems to think---echoing the current crop of Republican demagogues’ rhetoric---that unions are all about protecting bad teachers.
Conversely, she seems to think---again echoing current Republican demagoguery---that the unions ought to see it as their job to be concerned with the children and the quality of their education.
But that’s the job of teachers not their unions. The unions look out for the teachers so the teachers can look out for their students.
And it’s not unions that get in the way of teachers doing their jobs.
It’s administrators, bureaucrats, politicians, and, sadly, all too often, parents.
Sometimes it’s other teachers, which is a whole ‘nother ballgame.
Rhee is furious with the unions but for the time being she is not a union buster. At least, she doesn’t see herself as one.
But her Right Wing allies are union busters. And what happens if they succeed?
Besides over-crowded classrooms and lower pay, teachers will get fewer and stingier benefits, same as all other non-unionized American workers.
Just a reminder, benefits are not party gifts. They are compensation. We give teachers good benefits because we can’t pay them the high salaries they deserve. Without those benefits, it will be harder to attract and keep teachers, any teachers, not just the most talented ones.
Rhee believes that being a good teacher is a talent not a skill. You’re born with the gift. Which I think is true. But if teachers are like artists and athletes in being born with a gift, they are also like them in that they get better as they gain experience and head into their primes.
Athletes tend to reach their primes in their late twenties and early thirties. Artists reach theirs later, in their forties and fifties, although for some their primes stretch well into what for the rest of us is old age. I can’t say for sure when teachers reach theirs. But I would think it’s probably in their thirties and forties and even early fifties, when they’ve piled up the experience but still have the energy and emotional endurance.
Which means they enter their primes right about the time they are starting their families and continue in their primes through the years when they are buying houses, raising kids and sending them off to college, and, in a good many cases, taking on the care of aging parents.
Their primes, then, coincide with the years when they need more and more money and desperately count on job security and keep themselves going by focusing on consolation that at the end of the day they’re going to have a well-earned comfortable retirement.
And now we’re talking about cutting their pay and reserving the right to take away their jobs at whim?
You bet we are! And this kind of talk is coming from both Rhee’s supposedly liberal allies as well as her Right Wing bully boy ones.
I’m telling you. If I was a good teacher in my prime right now, I’d be looking into early retirement or a career change. And if I was a bright and ambitious young education major I’d be applying to law schools.
Ok. None of the above is meant to downplay the idea that our schools and our approach to education need to be reformed.
And as it happens I agree with Rhee on some things, particularly in it not mattering---in theory, at least---if a school is public or private, a charter school or a traditional neighborhood school. I’m a liberal. That means I’m not in favor of what ought to be. I’m in favor of what works. We started our kids off in private school and someday I’ll write about how that didn’t work out and how a charter school saved our lives. We happen now to live in a district with good public schools but we lucked into it. There are other districts nearby where the schools are nightmares and I don’t know what we’d have done if we’d found ourselves living in one of them.
But those schools aren’t nightmares because they are full of bad teachers the union won’t let the administrations fire.
They are nightmares for a slew of reasons, not the least of which is that they don’t have enough money.
You want to be a teacher, a good one? What’s the surest way to guarantee that you will be?
Get yourself hired in an upper middle class suburban school district.
That’s where you’re going to have to deal with the fewest outside problems that get in the way of your doing your job to the best of your ability.
The irony is that Rhee’s best allies in reforming our schools aren’t “liberal” hedge fund managers or conservative politicians on the make.
They are teachers.
To her credit, Rhee does seem to have considered this and she sees her movement’s organization, StudentsFirst, as offering teachers a kind of alternative union.
Of course it’s one run by her rules.
As I said, nothing in Rice’s article shows that Rhee has thought deeply about what makes a good teacher good. She uses the same metric to judge good teachers as she uses to judge bad teachers: How well their students do on standardized tests.
Ask good teachers these days what outside problems get in the way of their doing their jobs to the best of their abilities and one of the things most of them will probably tell you is “Having to teach to the test.”
In other words, Rhee’s preferred method of measuring a teacher’s performance tends to nobble that teacher.
The other problem with relying on standardized tests is that there is a strong temptation to cheat.
A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of [D.C. public school Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus’] classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.
USA TODAY was looking at years when Michelle Rhee was running D.C.’s schools and using test scores to make decisions about which teachers to reward and which to fire.
Read the whole article here.
Photo courtesy of AP by way of USA Today.
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