Why I Can't Support Michelle Rhee's Efforts

Many seem to think that the criticism of Michelle Rhee has to do with her personal style of presentation of her ideas.  She herself has said she had a "PR" problem in D.C.   I would agree that she can be off-putting.  (I even find a little of myself in her as she and I have a tendency to get to the point in a blunt manner that can be hard on others who prefer a gentler nuanced delivery.)

 In the Frontline special on her, she says even her mother thought her too cold as a child and said that maybe her new job was just right for her because she needed that coldness.  (I sense in Rhee and her background that blunt talk was the order of the day.) Here's my thread on that show.

But, in the end, it is not Rhee, it's her ideas.  And she certainly is the poster child for ed reform and there was no surprise that Time Magazine put her on the cover for that reason.

But let's break this down.  First, what has she truly accomplished that gives her the stature to say that she knows how to change public education for the better?

- she was a teacher for 5 years? ( I can't find a real timeframe for her teaching history).  She tells people she had poor classroom management skills and, naturally there is the infamous story - that she tells several different ways - about taping her students' mouths shut.  She's on tape saying she did it but now claims it was a couple of kids who asked and no one's lips were bleeding.  And she believes she knows the craft of teaching and can tell others what teachers should be doing?  This is an absolute trait of all TFAers - I taught for less than 3 years so I know teaching.  (They do better than I do for sure but they are NOT experts.)

- she was chancellor of D.C. public schools, arguably the worst district in the country.  It was her first (and last) superintendent job.  (Which is interesting because on the Frontline show she goes on and on about loving that job and wanting to stay and yet did she go out to become a superintendent elsewhere?  No.  Even though she likely could have gotten the job almost anywhere and probably commanded a high salary?  No.  Just as she was a teacher once, she was a superintendent once.)

- if you see the Frontline special, you may note, as I did, that she had a mandate to come in and do big things.  As my previous thread stated, I was quite impressed that she came in, went through the entire district (almost literally on foot) and found waste and inefficiencies and got them cleaned up.  That's great. 

But, she did get rid of half the administrative staff and you have to wonder not so much why was it so bloated but who was left?  I suspect that like SPS, it's a lot of data/testing people and not so much services like maintenance.  It is very easy to cut low-level jobs and say they are bloat when it is important to consider what each job/department adds to the value of the education.  We in Seattle are reaping the headaches and woes of ignoring building maintenance.  It all counts.

- she fired hundreds of teachers and many principals.  She was given this unlimited power by the City Council (who came to seemingly regret the leeway they gave her).  But then, she hired hundreds of other teachers only to lay some of them off because she did not realize she didn't have the money to pay them.  Was that good management or someone trying to be large and in charge?  Was that good for kids?

One theme in ed reform is that we must constantly be vigilant and quickly exit any teacher who is (or is perceived) to be low-performing.  I absolutely agree with quick interventions for a teacher like this but I also absolutely disagree with a revolving door of new teachers.  This is one of the premises of TFA that I don't buy and one overall ed reform idea I don't support.

A revolving door of teachers does not support either a school or students.  And, for students who are high-need or are struggling, it makes things even worse.

- she saw some high growth in test scores in D.C.  However, this was marred by charges and suspicions over how they came about in several cases.  She put off an investigation for over a year until the next round of testing.  (This is documented in the Frontline show.)  When she finally did have an investigation, this precise, blunt person did NOT give the company doing the investigation any clear parameters on what to do or look for. 

In the end, no charges were made but the scores then dropped in the ensuing years.

- she created a multi-million dollar foundation with a lot of "usual suspect" money along with a lot of hedge fund money (and those are the same people who invest in charter schools).

- Her foundation's recent "grading" of states?  From Minnesota Progressive Project:

In the Top Five of states with the best education policies? Louisiana, Florida, and Washington D.C. Yep, those are the states to emulate. Among states receiving D’s or F’s? States like Iowa, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin. States that consistently perform high in actual educational outcomes. How could it be any clearer that the modern education reformers care nothing for actual outcomes, and more about controlling labor? 

Massachusetts got a D?  Folks, there is virtually no objective person in education that would EVER give the state of Massachusetts a D for their public education system.  It is widely considered one of the best (and yes, they have the test scores to prove it).

- Also, her foundation "sponsored" petitions that were vaguely worded "support for great teachers" and, if you sign them, you just signed up as a member of StudentsFirst (so she can pump her numbers up).  Clever.

-  she has three policy pillars - better teachers (she has definitely softened her wording about teachers and it shows but she still believes in the quick exit of any teacher who is low-performing), families be given options and using tax dollars well.

All sounds good but you see, if you have districts slowly and systematically starved for money, teachers demoralized and the movement of tax dollars to charters and vouchers, well, then it doesn't sound quite the same. 

And here's something that says a lot about her. 

The moderator for her Townhall event was Blair Taylor, the Chief Community Officer of Starbucks.  That's how he was billed.  (So is Starbucks part of the ed reform team?  I have a call in to find out. )

Meanwhile it also turns out that Mr. Taylor sits on her handpicked board of directors for StudentsFirst.  (Odd that City Club, one of the sponsors didn't mention this in the press release.  I don't know if they even know this information.  I also don't know if this was announced at the event.  Anyone?) 

So I did ask City Club how they picked Mr. Taylor as moderator.  He's not connected to education nor is he the usual type of person (reporter, tv anchor, etc.) that usually gets picked to conduct an interview.

City Club said that Rhee picked him.

Well, that certainly is helpful to handpick your interviewer, getting someone you know personally and who you know will lead the discussion where you want it to go.

I wouldn't be surprised if she gave him the questions as well.

That's just not someone I can trust or believe.


Anonymous said…
Handpicked moderator = Dog and Pony Show. About all Rhee has left, I suppose.

This paragraph says it all:

In the Top Five of states with the best education policies? Louisiana, Florida, and Washington D.C. Yep, those are the states to emulate. Among states receiving D’s or F’s? States like Iowa, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin. States that consistently perform high in actual educational outcomes. How could it be any clearer that the modern education reformers care nothing for actual outcomes, and more about controlling labor?

Bingo! Stamp it! Done! That's the whole reveal in a nutshell.

Watching said…
Call Starbucks and ask if they support ALEC backed legislation. Is this the image they want??
Watching said…
Blair Taylor is a Chief Community Officer for Starbucks. His job is to organize communities around an issue. Clearly, Mr. Taylor organizes around educational issues.

The question is whether or not Mr Schultz (Starbucks) is aware that his Community Officer is organizing around Studentfirsts agenda- which is ALEC backed. Does Mr. Schultz know that his Community Officer is pushing RHEE's agenda. If so, does Starbucks support ALEC backed legislation.

Still trying to find out who is Blair Taylor's boss. Let me know if you have the contact info.
a reader said…
@Watching - Mr. Taylor reports directly to Mr. Schultz, I believe. And yes, I'm certain they are aware that Mr. Taylor is on the StudentsFirst Board - that kind of thing requires "permission" so to speak. Very little happens at that level at Starbucks without the CEO's ok. Starbucks has never been directly linked to ALEC however. I would be inclined to careful of jumping to "guilt by association" assumptions.
Reader, and that's why I asked Starbucks the question. But I'm pretty sure that Mr. Taylor told City Club what to put for his info and that he left out StudentsFirst seems odd and leaving in just his association with Starbucks would make someone question if Starbucks in aligned with this issue.
Anonymous said…
I still wonder by people spend time talking about people? Why not discuss ideas instead. I believe talking about Rhee is a distraction. If she doesn't have rapport with you, then let's move on and talk about the ideas that will better our kids education. Why waste time? My parents use to say, only fools pay fools any attention. Of course, this is Seattle and I am definitely not calling anyone such. ;-)

A friend
Watching said…
I'm not jumping to conclusions regarding any organization being affiliated with ALEC. However, if Starbucks has their Chief Community Officer pushing an ALEC agenda, that is a problem.

It would be quite easy for one to think..Gee, if Starbuck's Chief Community Offficer is pushing charter schools...this must be a good thing.

It is about public perception and pushing an agenda. Starbucks would lend credibility to Blair Taylor.

The same goes for City Club. If one of their members is pushing a type of policy...it reflects upon their organization. Do these folks know that Studentsfirst pushes ALEC initiatives?

So friend...there is a reason to talk about peo9ple when they are pushing agendas that are connected to organizations that would lend credibility.

Studentsfirst legislative agenda and Blair Taylor's affiliations to Studentsfirst and ALEC initiatives need to be disclosed- and they weren't. We had a very nice Seattle crowd give a LOUD round of applause to Rhee. I doubt they would have done this if all the facts had been disclosed.

Little by little...Studentsfirst attempt to manipulate public perception to further their agenda.
Watching said…
I should also mention that Starbuck's Cheif Community Officer has the responsibility of rallying communities around important issues. Whether or not Blair Taylor was representing himself and/ or Starbucks is unknown.
Anonymous said…
Because, A friend, personal attacks unfortunately work, and are thus often needed to respond to personal attacks, like those Rhee broad brushes against teachers and their unions every day. Personal attacks win many elections and elect presidents. Al Gore never claimed to have invented the internet, nor to have discovered Love Canal. But it was repeated by Cokie Roberts, George Will and many others, and it influenced the 2k election.

I wish Ideas and Reason prevailed, but I'm no longer a naive college student. WSDWG
A friend, I am talking about her ideas. Perhaps you missed that.
phila.ken said…
Starbucks support corporate education deform? It is now on my boycott list. Also because of this:

About Michelle Rhee's infamous taping students mouths incident: Would you want your child in her class. It must be heard to be believed! Some 18 years later she still thought it was funny!:

n said…
Laughing a bit to something that really isn't funny: do you have any idea how many Starbucks cards teachers get and give out? Schools, teachers and parents exchanging $5.00 (if it still is) Starbucks' gift certs must compose a pretty healthy percentage of Starbucks' profits.
n said…
I was going to post on a previous thread my take on Rhee: I think she has become a politician chasing money.

However, I agree with some of her tactics. Ezra Klein was talking about China hacking everything US. Everything! They are doing this because they have the expertise.

A column in the UK Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/feb/22/maths-pupils-england-behind-chinese

Star maths pupils in England two years behind in math


International Comparison of Math, Reading, and Science Skills Among 15-Year-Olds


Next Made-in-China Boom: College Graduates

As a teacher, Rhee was demanding. Amy Chua, "Tiger Mother," also demanding.

Suicide rate is apparently high in Asia. There is such a thing as going too far. But there is also such a thing as not going far enough. American kids come to school not only unprepared but often extremely disrespectful. I love my kids. I love teaching. But even my parents who ostensibly and overtly appreciate me tend to have an air of disrespect and superiority. I'm sorry to say it but it is true. Not all of them. But enough to make teaching difficult.

Taping an out-of-control, sarcastic and disrespectful older child's mouth shut sounds totally appropriate to me. If you want that child to understand there are boundaries - something many at-risk children have little experience with - extreme responses may be the answer.

Wow! I sound like a torturer. But I don't consider taping an older child's mouth shut when otherwise he/she is out of control and compromising everyone's ability to learn. Apparently it worked. Apparently Rhee's hard-ass methods worked with kids who come from an environment of hardship and she made them succeed. If that is correct, I have to give her credit.
n said…
Continued from above:

These tactics are not what I expect from most teachers. Extreme circumstances call for extreme responses.

Now having said that, Finland is completely the opposite. But as Finland's minister of education said in his KUOW interview, America has many more problems than just educating kids. We cannot expect Finnish results with our American society in shreds.

Americans are soft. When I was a student, if I got in trouble with a teacher, my parents told me to respect the teacher and do the work. Today, parents are in the principal's office questioning everything. Demanding teachers are called "bullies." Sometimes they are. But sometimes what is in the eye of the beholder isn't reality. The best teachers I ever had were demanding. Sometimes unkind. Often confrontative. I guess those words may mean different things to all of us. But if we don't trust teachers to teach our kids without second guessing and buying in to every complaint a kid has, then education as we know it will cease to exist. Maybe that is the allure of charter schools. They can throw out the complainers. Charters will expect kids to do the work or they are gone. There is some merit in that.

It's not what I want to see. But if it comes to that, we will have ourselves to blame. Rhee herself is the kind of teacher we may need more of and yet her politics are alienating and devisive. Maybe she sees charters as having that kind of effect: taking out the whiners and complainers and disrespectful kids and parents and letting education get back to teaching.

I guess my whole rant has more to do with Rhee's desire to improve the success rate of impoverished and at-risk children. That is something to which we must pay attention. And the ordinary pc rules don't apply.

i wish I could give a definitive thumbs up or thumbs down to Rhee but I can't. Maybe in a perverse way, charters are the only answer. I'll be sorry for all those children who end up failing. But at least they might give a break to those families who really do try to keep their kids on the straight and narrow but fall victim to neighborhood bullies and toxins that seem to come together in their neighborhood school.

Wow! This is more than I intended. Probably full of holes. We must make more demands on our kids educationally. All of them. Even the high achievers can do better. I know. I teach them, too.
n said…
I just read the Krupnick article and comments and confess I didn't know she had taped all their mouths shut but that doesn't change my opinion. I bet they kept their mouths shut from that point on. I wonder if that was a turning point for that class.

Or am I overly impressed? I haven't seen her success rate actually published. I'd like to know exactly how she did. Am I giving too much credit here?
Anonymous said…
n: Tiger Mom is a fad. They don't teach their kids to respect others. They create a whole new class of condescending, sociopathic bullies - like their mothers. That's anti-social and wrong.

There are better, more successful ways to implement tough-love without being a psychopath.

All that Tiger Mom BS is reminiscent of the worst aspects of old school Catholicism, where maniac priests and insane nuns mentally and physically abused children to get them to "behave properly."

Yes, kids who've grown up with bad parenting bring it to school, and make teachers and other student's lives much harder than they should.

But taping mouths shut is no different than beating kids, which begets more beating, which begets more beating. Sorry, but as any psychologist would advise, that cycle must be broken.


"Taping an out-of-control, sarcastic and disrespectful older child's mouth shut sounds totally appropriate to me."

Maybe I didn't make it clear. These were 3rd graders. She was embarrassed because she didn't have the skills to get her kids to the cafeteria in a quiet fashion. She had multiple children tape their mouths shut.

The fault is her's, not the children in her class.

I can tell you if she had tried that on my child, she would have been in trouble. Big trouble.

And why give Rhee the mantle of wanting to help low-income students? I don't know anyone who doesn't. Just because she wants to get there in an extreme fashion does not make her a good advocate.

Her own "success" in the classroom - her test scores - have been called into question, just as the test scores from when she was chancellor. She claimed very high rates of success and then couldn't prove them.

I absolutely believe in respect for teachers and parents should allow teachers the leeway to control their classroom. But bullying and other tactics are not for the classroom. A good teacher doesn't need that. There's a difference between being strict and having high expectations and being a bully.
n said…
Hmmm. Perhaps you're right. I'm not so easily dissuaded. The picture I saw on Frontline indicated older but I apparently did not pay careful attention. She admitted her poor management skills at first. But the program gave her credit for success with the children. Again, that success was implied rather than proven. So, yes, I may be totally off track.

As for taped mouths, my kids love to tape their mouths shut with my now off-limits masking tape. I'm laughing here. Still not a big deal to me. We weren't there. Could it have been as it is with my kids - funny more than severe?

I don't like what Rhee is doing politically. But as a teacher who has a passion for teaching, I see a similar passion in Rhee. Her methods on getting there leave me concerned. Beyond that, I don't have much to add.
Anonymous said…
The thing is, n, that all these "educators" involved in Ed Reform DON'T Teach, or have the passion for teaching you do. They bolt the classroom right-quick once they think they've got it all figured out after a year or two. They may want to help kids, but they do NOT respect teachers or the teaching profession, and they aren't willing to walk the walk for more than a couple years. Teachers are a special breed. Rhee & Co don't get that. WSDWG
seattle citizen said…
WSDWG - Well, of COURSE they bail on teaching (if they ever did it - Arne Duncan didn't) after a couple of years. Not only is it the free-market, upwardly mobile model, but TFA and its many affiliates has trained them well: It's not about TEACHING; it's about moving up as an individual into "leadership" positions. One's commitment is to oneself: One must climb ever higher (plus, there is more money to be made, and way less stress, once one gives up on the kids and gets into the business....)
We've already seen hints of this within the schools themselves - The current CBA includes "levels" of expertise among teachers, where one can earn more money by being a "leader." IF one dumbs down and simplifies teaching to mere test-prep. Ka-ching!
Next step: Merit pay. It's not about the kids, it's about how much you can make. Which is strange, because the predominantly union-busting "reformers" ALWAYS argue that the union makes all teachers self-centered and purely driven by money, where it is the reformers themselves who are initiating a system where individual teachers might climb over each other for higher pay, then, after being good "reform" sheep, "lead" themselves right out the schoolhouse door and into more lucrative jobs as, oh, I don't know, the many people over at NWEA who pull in over $100,000....Or its CEO, who makes half a million.
And that's NOT including the stock options available: If your charter company makes good profits, YOU score! Ka-ching!

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