A Kinder, Gentler Michelle Rhee? Don't Count On It

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 child 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.


seattle citizen said…
Melissa, I watched the Stewart interview, and correct me if I"m wrong but...
You write that "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."

I heard Stewart ask if, broadly, it was the whole community, all of us, and how can one then lay it on the teachers and say, "you fail!". Rhee then said that everybody knows that WITHIN A SCHOOL the teacher is the most important factor.

She totally sidestepped Stewart's point, that we need all the external supports. When he asked it, I thought she might respond with the idea of a "community school," wraparound services, as this is not just "reformy," and thus in her vernacular, but also good policy ahd a good response to his question: Bring the community in.

But instead she didn't answer his question at all.

Your interpretation, that he was asking why not look at the whole school, not just the one teacher, falls into the "failing school" trap: As you've heard from me in the past, schools don't fail. Test scores might, on average, be lower, etc etc, but inside each school are success stories and the "schools fail" narrative is, lately, merely a catch phrase of the reformistas, a way to try to justify wholesale slaughter, I mean, closure, of schools, rather than looking at individual successes and individual failures.

This is why I liked Stewart's question: It looked towards the whole community, rather than asking how a SCHOOL can rally around a kid.

Of course a school CAN rally, but the "failing school" buzz phrase doesn't capture this. A school CAN, and should, know who is struggling.(This is one of the great debates, and a good one to have - how do we know who is struggling, in what way?) But Rhee is not interested in any of that: It's ONLY educators, and apparently in isolation from one another, even in a building, who are "rated" under her metrics: "Reading"? It's the English teacher's fault, nothing to do with the Social Studies teacher whatsover.

I know a teacher who asked how the district would assign credit (or fault) to the rising or sinking MAP scores and MSP scores of a particular child if that student was in both an LA clas and a Reading (remedial) class. The answer was, apparently, that they woulod SHARE the results. Now, this might seem like a good thing: Whole school rallying, etc, and if it were used for working for students it might be helpful. But that is not the Rhee, or Reform, Way: The scores are to be used for evaluation of the educators, as individuals, and in that case sharing the score is absolutely nonsensical and probably ripe for litigation.

Which raps us around the Stewart/Rhee exchange: She doesn't give a hoot about rallying people (inlcuding the community) around students; she is merely Taylorized data processor hired by the Reformers to cleanse schools of messy people who aren't quantifiable, who aren't with the program or in it.

SC, you make it much clearer than I did. I thought he said "school" not community but I checked and you are right.

Anonymous said…
Great, comprehensive review MW. Some of us got acquainted with Ms. Rhee during the '08 closures, seeing her as the tip of the spear for Ed Reform in the U.S. John Merrow did a multi-part series on PBS during that time, featuring Rhee many times throughout. During that same period, pressure was brought to bear on the WA Post from the Ed Reform Lobby to remove Bill Turque, a Rhee critic, from covering DC education at that time, while meanwhile Jay Matthews fell in love with Rhee and Charters, ultimately writing the book Work Hard Be Nice, hailing KIPP schools as the answer to our prayers. While Turque was eventually allowed to return and write again, he was clearly censored and restrained. Valerie Strauss has been much harder on Rhee, but she's also had more to work with as the Rhee love-fest is long since over in DC.

But case in point: In one of Rhee's last interviews with John Merrow, she talks about how her first year as a TFA teacher was terrible and she wasn't very good. And then, she drops a bombshell without even realizing it when she lets this little gem out of the bag: During her second year, she elicited the help of her parents and her whole family to help her prepare lessons, copy magazine articles, etc. in order to make sure she could do her best. Picking up my Jaw, I couldn't believe Rhee's casual, yet utter hypocrisy as she spent every day of her professional life targeting teachers. She was only successful at teaching WHEN SHE HAD THE HELP OF HER ENTIRE FAMILY!

Now let that sink in, people. And give a thought to how often this is the case with any young person, especially all those Ivy League TFA types who are so damn ready to condemn tenure, seniority, and job protections for career teachers WHO DON'T have that kind of help every day, such as wealthy parents lending or giving down payments on houses, new cars, etc.

Rhee's hypocrisy is paramount to who she is as a person: A Liar and A Fraud, making her living being a vulture-like mercenary for the Right Wing forces in the U.S.

So go ahead and preach all you want, Ms. Rhee, as you sprint for all your cash, staying ahead of the scandals and paper trails, selling out to rich hedge fund managers who'll fly you to Aspen and Sun Valley in their private jets. Just don't look to close at the faces of the teacher bodies stacking up in your wake.

Do not buy this evil person's book, and do not for a second trust a word she says. WSDWG
Anonymous said…
Very disappointed to see the Seattle Public Library bringing Michelle Rhee in as a guest speaker. Blech!

suep. said…
I think Rhee's 15 minutes of fame are pretty much up. Enough already with her failed and scandal ridden agenda. There's nothing "radical" about self-aggrandizing profiteers beating up on unions and women (most teachers are female) and cashing in on their own celebrity ad nauseam.

Unfortunately, I found the Frontline report on her outdated and incomplete. There was a whiff of hagiography about it too. A number of facts and elements were missing from the report, such as:

The voice and perspective of parents – none were interviewed for the report, even though she wreaked havoc on their kids' schools and teachers. And only one former student was interviewed.

There were no interviews with informed national ed reform critics and historians like Diane Ravitch, or groups like Parents Across America (a national group which has been critical of Rhee and her destructive, anti-democratic corporate ed reform agenda).

No mention that Rhee's background was with Teach for America, Inc. which undermines the professionalism of teaching and requires no significant training or experience.

No mention that she helped found the New Teaching Project which also arguably undermines professionalism of teaching, and that they have now excised her from their site because of her scandals.

No mention of the fact that she had very little teaching experience, and zero principal experience when she was appointed chancellor of D.C. schools by Mayor Adrian Fenty. Clearly she was unqualified for the job.

Frontline did not explain why Fenty chose her.

Fenty came across as clueless and witless. His popularity did not make sense.

No mention of the fact that one of Fenty’s first moves as mayor of D.C., was to dissolve the democratically elected school board and take mayoral control of the school district. This is directly out of the Broad Foundation public-ed privatizing playbook. Fenty then hired Rhee, and this lack of public oversight arguably allowed for such an imperial chancellorship.

Report only mentioned ‘foundations’ once vaguely. Failed to mention how embedded Rhee is in venture ‘philanthropist’ billionaire foundations (like the Broad Foundation, on whose board she sat) whose agenda she implemented (and likely why she was made chancellor of D.C.).

No mention that the Broad and Walton foundations funded her agenda in D.C. and threatened to withdraw money if she were let go.

Frontline presented her as a maverick, acting entirely on her own, when in fact she is connected to, and bankrolled by all the wealthiest political ed reformers in the nation.

suep. said…

(What Frontline failed to mention re: Rhee)

Rhee is married to another controversial ed reform political figure, the mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson. They are considered an ed reform power couple. Why didn't Frontline include that fact?

No mention of her own two children and where they went to school (D.C. public schools), or the fact that she fired their principal.

(Her kids now live with their father in Tennessee, and she lives with Johnson in California. If she cares so much about putting "students first," one might ask, why is she so removed from the students in her own family?)

After the fall of Fenty and her ouster in D.C., Rhee said she came out “smelling like a rose.” No she didn’t. Fenty's boot at the ballot box was widely seen as caused by her unpopularity. She had become a political liability. This was a significant blow to her reputation and her brand of bullying 'ed reform.' The test (cheating) scandals that soon followed have undermined her entire legacy.

The interview with her biographer was biased. Biographer was allowed to say egregious things uncorrected like ‘it’s impossible to fire a teacher anywhere in America.’

The biographer’s book was published in early 2011, before the test cheating scandals had hit the news, and before Schools First made its agenda manifest.

The report mentioned the apocryphal(?) bee story (she allegedly ate a bee in front of her class), but there was no mention of the infamous mouth-taping story (as a novice TFA, Inc. teacher, she taped her students' mouths to keep them silent in the hallways, and when the tape was pulled off, their lips bled) which Rhee herself has bragged about. The greater significance of this story is that she was clueless as a novice teacher, but developed zero humility from that experience. She spent very little time in the profession, and yet went on to misrepresent herself as a national authority and authoritarian on teaching, and has hypocritically shown no empathy for the challenges of the field.

The report skimmed over the fact that she fired teachers illegally and had to rehire them with back pay – which was costly to D.C.

Students First is over a year old now; the report acted like it was brand new. It is old enough to have a reputation and record -– for lying about its membership, running deception “petitions” and supporting a right-wing teacher bashing ALEC agenda.

Frontline failed to state that her Students First organization did not just spring out of her head or begin as an organic grassroots effort, but was instantly bankrolled by all the same corporate privatizing interests who supported her agenda in D.C. – Gates, Bloomberg?

No mention of how much she has financially profited from her teacher-bashing, privatizing rampage.

There was no mention of Rhee's support and affiliation with extreme right-wing Republican politicians and their anti-labor policies.

And finally, no mention of the national backlash against Rhee and her brand of ed reform in the blogosphere and elsewhere.
Sue, you're right. I noticed all that but realized that they didn't have time to cover all that. I think she came off badly even as they didn't.

I found it interesting that they did leave out TFA and the taping students' mouths shut and yet put in the bee story.

Maybe someone should do a real documentary on her and the ed reform movement. THAT, not Waiting for Superman, would win an Oscar.
Anonymous said…
By the time the real story comes out, she'll probably be an ex-pat, living in France, with millions stashed in the Caymans from her 50k per speech speaking fees. Who would pay that? No idea, but that's what she's been charging, plus first class airfare, hotel and limo accommodations. Nothing but the best.

Could it be that she's actually in it for the money and fame? WSDWG
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