By James L. Morrison
[Editor's note: These two comments, by Morrison and Gobble, Innovate's editor-in-chief and managing editor, were part of a December 8 email discussion on Michelle Rhee, the controversial superintendent of DC public schools.]
After reading Clay Risen’s article about Ms. Rhee, “The Lightning Rod,” in a recent issue of Atlantic, I am a bit ambivalent about what she means for education reform. For me, the three most salient parts of the article are these excerpts:
 “As a teacher in this system, you have to be willing to take personal responsibility for ensuring your children are successful despite obstacles,” she told me. “You can’t say, ‘My students didn’t get any breakfast today,’ or ‘No one put them to bed last night,’ or ‘Their electricity got cut off in the house, so they couldn’t do their homework.’” This sort of moral certitude is exactly what turns off many veteran teachers in Washington. Even if Rhee is right, she seems to be asking for superhuman efforts, consistently, for decades to come. Making missionary zeal a job requirement is a tough way to build morale, not to mention support, among the teachers who have to confront the D.C. ghetto every day.
 Rhee advocates another controversial plank in the reformist agenda: merit pay. Vociferously opposed by the teachers unions—a National Education Association convention audience booed Barack Obama when he told them he supported it—merit pay scales a teacher’s salary based on student achievement. Proponents say this is the only way to make teachers want to improve their performance. Opponents say it will torpedo already low morale and drive a wedge through faculty solidarity, and that basing merit pay on student performance leaves out all sorts of nonquantifiable aspects of learning.
 The divide means that Rhee’s challenge is not just to reform one of the worst school systems in the country and, in effect, prove whether or not inner-city schools can be revived at all. It is to answer a basic question about the nature of urban governance, a question about two visions of big-city management. In one, city politics is a vibrant, messy, democratic exercise, in which both the process and the results have value. In the other, city politics is only a prelude, the way to install a technocratic elite that can carry out reforms in relative isolation from the give-and-take of city life. Rhee’s tenure will answer whether these two positions are mutually exclusive—and, if they are, whether public-school reform is even possible.
I applaud Rhee’s efforts at reform, particularly with the DC schools, but it appears that she may not recognize or address the influence of parents, the community, and peer groups on human behavior and learning. Incorporating a plan to address and use these factors are also necessary to achieve her objectives, which are laudable.
I would agree that “business as usual” is not an option. Change is necessary and inevitable. I applaud Ms. Rhee’s drive to bring change to the DC system, which is among the systems most in need of some kind of reform. I think she has the best of intentions; her dedication to the cause is indisputable, and her tolerance of risk and uncertainty is absolutely necessary to the job she’s trying to do. I think she has the potential to do a lot of good — unless she so profoundly alienates her constituency that she cannot function. As the Atlantic profile points out, “Whether she recognizes it or not, her task is political as well as educational.”
I would disagree with Rhee’s fundamental assumptions: that there’s only one way to get there; or that you can get there by imposing a single set of views and standards on teachers, students, parents, and the community at large; or that there is only one possible measure of success. As a parent, I’m alarmed by the reliance on standardized test scores, which Ms. Rhee seems very invested in. Sure, a test score can tell you if a kid can read, and I think there’s a place for them in education. You have to make sure everyone’s got the basics somehow. But it can’t tell you if the kid can understand what he has read at any level beyond basic comprehension, or connect it to something else he saw or heard or read, or see its relevance to his own life. And, at least the way we’re testing now, when that test score becomes the end-all of the education process, it means there’s no time to explore those connections or build the kind of love for learning that means that kid will read.
Worse, there is not yet a test score that can account for the kid who can read and appreciate, but can’t function under the pressure of a test or has a disability that keeps him from grasping what’s asked for in those circumstances. I have a brother with a serious learning disability. He barely escaped high school, and yet he’s a brilliant satellite electronics engineer, a very smart, imaginative writer, and a prolific reader. His emails and letters are, in his own words (although not his spelling), “grammatical train wrecks” that require a certain kind of translation, but they are imaginative and engaging, full of original imagery, as are his stories and comics. He can’t spell, and he would never, ever have passed the end-of-grade tests my middle-school son must take almost every year, but I would argue that he is as smart as or smarter than many students who ace all the tests, and in ways that matter more profoundly to his adult life than any end-of-grade test score will ever be able to measure.
I think that what’s wrong with public education is that it has become so profoundly separated from the communities in which it is supposed to happen. Standardized tests are part of that, because they force teachers and students to sit in classrooms focusing on a test that has little to do with the world around them, rather than turning outward to explore the world they live in. Imposing a change from above, without considering the community and the context and without involving those most invested in it, both expresses and perpetuates that reality. It is the most damaging kind of business as usual.
And that’s what scares me about Michelle Rhee’s approach.
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