You may well have heard or seen Michelle Rhee on tv in the last week. She has a new book, Radical, that's she pushing. I have read a few excerpts and they don't fail to startle.
As I had previously mentioned, the PBS series, Frontline, had Ms. Rhee as a focus of one show. It was quite the show as this was during the time period when she was DC Chancellor of schools. The reporter did a brilliant job of just letting her talk and allowing her actions and her words to speak for themselves.
Highlights from the Frontline show:
- According to the show, Rhee had worked in "ed reform" for a decade (which would likely include her TFA teaching time). She became Chancellor in the fall of 2007. It was the first time she was hired to be a superintendent. (This becomes an interesting point later on.)
- As I was first watching the show, I was impressed. Quiet, direct and early on, she seemed to want to review DC's district from top to bottom. (Something akin to how Dr. Goodloe-Johnson was in the early months of her tenure.) For example, Rhee went to the district warehouse and found room after room of school supplies like pencils, paper, books, etc. Just sitting there while teachers were going out-of-pocket to buy supplies.
- But she also made clear that she was not going to run the district "by consensus or committee - it's not a democracy." So that's an interesting statement especially here in Seattle. We are big on process and finding (or trying to) consensus. My belief is that while Ms. Rhee might have been going for radical change in an effort to affect sweeping change that, in the end, the "my way or the highway" style of leadership never works.
- She went to the City Council, right away, to increase her hiring and firing power. They gave it to her.
- She fired a principal outright on camera. She was professional about it but gave him no chance to explain anything. When asked if she had any empathy for him, she could not summon any. While I know that part of being a leader IS making the hard decisions and following-thru, it was a bit jarring to see her do it so coolly. It was also odd that she said yes to the filming (I don't believe the principal - whose face was blurred - realized that's what the discussion was going to be and was stunned when it happened.)
- She continues to claim that her students, when she was a TFA teacher, went from scores of 13% to 90%. She said she never really saw the numbers herself but that her principal told her that and "I believed it." Now that is pretty amazing and that statement also comes into play later on in the piece.
- It comes up later because then, as Chancellor, some of her schools ALSO had unbelievable changes in student scores. In a single year. And, several of those classes were found to have an off-the-chart rate of erasures. Rhee was asked to investigate and put it off several times to the point where they got to the next testing period and she was told, "okay, just make sure you have better testing oversight this time." She claimed she "didn't have enough info" to do an investigation.
- In her second year, she brought out teacher/administrator bonuses for higher test scores. Once again, a high erasure rate. And, one principal caught a group of teachers, at night, in a locked room with filled out test booklets and lots of erasers. She was told that the kids had drawn pictures on the booklets and they were fixing that.
Rhee DID do an investigation but interestingly, for such a methodical person, did not make clear what she wanted to the company doing it to actually do. The company said they had many methods to figure out what happened during the testing period but we not given any real direction. Rhee claims that she just thought they would try everything.
"We did not lay out the parameters and believed they were going to do it in as comprehensive a manner as possible."
The company never even looked at any of the tests and, of course, they were unable to find that test scores had been manipulated. The staff at the school caught with the erasing teachers would not agree to be interviewed and the principal was not interviewed either.
- In her third year, she hired 900 new teachers but forgot to check if she had the money and then promptly laid off 200 of them.
- Her relationship with the City Council deteroriated after all this hiring and firing and the final straw came when she would not bring back summer school, in direct violation of an order from the Council. They asked her why there was even a legislative body if she was going to do as she pleased. She stood by, mute.
- Then in the summer of 2010, the president of the City Council was running against the mayor who hired her. He won and she was out. (Not fired - it was termed a mutual decision.)
- Five months later, those schools with the soaring test scores saw most of them plummet back down to their previous levels.
- She said, with a straight face, that she loved her job and misses it. And yet, did she, as a national ed reform superintendent, go out there and find another superintendent job? Nope, she launched her multi-million dollar group, Students First.
This week she was on The Daily Show and listening to her talk, you'd almost think she was a different person. Almost.
She started off with her spiel about going to D.C. to bring "common sense" to a dysfunctional system.
Jon Stewart, whose who mother was a teacher, asked about her toughness for teachers. She said she had "regard for what teachers can do." It was an interesting turn of phrase because she didn't say she had high regard for teachers but for their efforts. Maybe I make too much of this but it didn't exactly honor the profession.
Stewart made the point that maybe the issue was the entire school and not just teachers. She told him the teacher was the single most important thing that influences academic outcomes for a child at school. But I think she missed his point because no teacher is an island. They are part of an integrated system that is a school. Stewart went on to say that "schools are an art as much as they are a reality."
He asked her what she would do if she were ed king and she said give every kid a high-quality teacher in a high-quality school. Stewart, at one point, pressed her on the issue of poverty and a child's life outside the classroom but she seems to have a disconnect on this point. Good teaching should be able to trump all and that the social issues should be solved some other way.
They had a bit of a tussle over charters as she said they were just one part of the whole system but Stewart pointed out that charters tend to get the better achieving/more motivated students, leaving regular public schools to help the more challenging students. She said nothing to this.
One amazing quote from her was about "heroic teachers" and that "there is no shortage of effective, innovative educators today." She said it wasn't about bad teachers but terrible bureaucracy. That was not her party line when she was chancellor.
I am debating about reading her book (I'd use the library because I would never pay for it) as she outlines her "a ha" moment about how she now likes vouchers.
“My job is not to preserve and defend a system that has been doing wrong by children and families. My job is to make sure that every in this city attends an excellent school. I don’t care if it’s a charter school, a private school, or a traditional district school. As long as it’s serving kids well, I’m happy. And you should be, too.”
Here’s the question we Democrats need to ask ourselves: Are we beholden to the public school system at any cost, or are we beholden to the public school child at any cost? My loyalty and my duty will always be to the children.
We have federal Pell grants that low-income students use all the time to attend private colleges. Pell grants aren’t limited to use at public universities. We have food stamps that low-income families redeem at nongovernment grocery stores. And let’s not forget about Medicare and Medicaid."
That last statement is quite funny because none of that is the same thing as vouchers. Rhee should just call herself a Republican and get it over.
I don't like vouchers not because I don't like private schools. I don't like vouchers because they give up on the public school system. That was her charge - to improve the public school system, not give up on it. And no her job was NOT to make sure every child in D.C. attends an excellent school. People choose private schools for ALL sorts of reasons and the tax-paying public does not have to subsidize that. If she could prove that the vouchers ONLY went to those who had no decent public school choices, maybe.
But her job was taking care of the students in D.C. public schools and she mostly failed. People should remember that. Her career is not built on success but on a lot of unanswered questions.