Michelle Rhee – What’s Really at Stake?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

She’s on the cover of Time (week of December 8), in a classroom, unsmiling, dressed in black, holding a broom, with the cover title, “How to Fix America’s Schools,” set to look as though it’s the lesson for the day written on the blackboard. Framing her head is the huge “TIME” trademark. She is Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of Education, District of Columbia Public Schools. And the question for the “class” is, Does she have the answer to America’s failing public school systems? Is it, finally, time to make the kinds of sweeping changes that she represents?

Her goal’s clear, “To make Washington the highest-performing urban school district in the nation” [1]. The yardstick is a simple one: reading and math scores on standardized achievement tests. And her formula’s just as simple: reward teachers who can help her reach her goal and get rid of the ones who can’t.

time_mag_cover_dec8This unflinching focus, she says, places the student’s best interest at the forefront of schools. Higher scores will eventually translate to college degrees and better jobs, which are the tickets out of poverty, discrimination, and all the other social ills.

The underlying assumption is that all students can significantly improve their scores IF they have teachers [1] who are willing to set that as the primary goal and do everything it takes to reach it. In this picture, there is absolutely no room for failure. Little or no gain in scores is a sign of failure, and failure means a quick exit from the teaching profession. When student success is weighed against teacher security, there is no issue. Tenure is a dead horse. For teachers, the decision is a simple one, too: Deliver higher scores or get out.

“She is angry at a system of education that puts ‘the interests of adults’ over the ‘interests of children,’ i.e., a system that values job protection for teachers over their effectiveness in the classroom. Rhee is trying to change that system” [2].

What about the gray area, the affective dimensions that defy objective measurement? Rhee says, “The thing that kills me about education is that it’s so touchy-feely. . . . People say, ‘Well, you know, test scores don’t take into account creativity and the love of learning.’ . . . I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t give a crap.’ Don’t get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job” [1].

michelle_rhee01In pursuit of her goal, Rhee has the complete backing of D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who appointed her chancellor in June 2007. “In her first 17 months on the job, Rhee closed 23 schools with low enrollment and overhauled 27 schools with poor academic achievement. She also fired more than 250 teachers and about one-third of the principals at the system’s 128 schools” [3].

Rhee scares the daylights out of me because she may very well be the wish that we’re warned to watch out for, the one that we might actually get. Now that we have someone with the power to really change the system, I suddenly have cold feet. Yes, she seems to make sense. Student achievement should take precedence over the needs of teachers. But are there other issues waiting below the surface that might just jump out and bite us if we follow Rhee?

For example, despite the radical nature of her approach, the bundle that we think of as “school” remains pretty much the same. The burden of accountability has shifted to the teacher, but the roles, resources, goals, and environment remain constant. Even pedagogy seems to be the same–more homework, more demanding tasks, more discipline, more testing. In other words, the same, but more of it.

One could argue that Rhee’s changes don’t go far enough and need to include innovations in information technology. There’s the possibility that these innovations could enhance learning by dramatically altering schools as we know them without some of the harsher consequences that seem to be a part of Rhee’s strategy.

Another issue is the effectiveness of strategies that Rhee lumps into the category of “touchy-feely.” Are these affective, student-centered, holistic, indirect methods proven ineffective? Or are they, perhaps, just as if not more effective than Rhee’s hard-nosed direct approach? Are we ready to toss these out as useless?

Yet another issue is the similarity of Rhee’s model to test-oriented systems in Asia. Is Rhee simply transporting a traditional model from China, India, Japan, and South Korea to the U.S.? If yes, then are there consequences that we need to be aware of?

Finally, are we beginning to draw a line between schools in general and poor urban schools in particular? A line that requires a radically different approach for the latter? Are we bending to the notion that schools not only can be but should be different for resource-poor inner-city schools? If this is the case, then could we be developing a system that channels or tracks children into careers at an early age, forever excluding college for many in favor of technical training? This could result in a form of economic and racial discrimination with far-reaching consequences.

In conclusion, my initial reaction is that Rhee’s ideas sound good, but I’m not quite ready to dump what we have now for an approach that we haven’t fully discussed or studied. At this juncture, an open discussion about the implications of Rhee’s tactics may be in order. I’m sure there are many other issues at stake. Thus, please share your thoughts with us. Either post them as comments to this article or email them to me at jamess@hawaii.edu

(Note: For a quick background, see Amanda Ripley’s “Rhee Tackles Classroom Challenge” [26 Nov. 2008] at Time.com and Thomas, Conant, and Wingert’s “An Unlikely Gambler” [23 Aug. 2008, from the magazine issue dated 1 Sep. 2008] at Newsweek.com. Finally, go to YouTube and do a search on “michelle rhee” for lists of videos.)

4 Responses

  1. To suggest Michelle Rhee is an innovator is absurd. She is the right-wing’s darling for good reason: She believes in “market-based solutions.” Paying teachers for short term gains (it worked for Citigroup and AIG, its gotta work for schools), fraudulent accountability based on standardized tests analyzed as if they represented an industrialized process (encouraging teachers to cheat, just as bond raters and mortgage appraisers cheated), and the sad colonialism of her training ground – Teach for America.

    Nowhere does Rhee embrace fundamental, student-centered change. Nowhere does she support new models of actual teacher training (TFA does not believe in teacher training, that’s different), and nowhere does she expect actual accountability – that is, schools create imaginative thinkers and learners who are good at learning for life.

    In short she is the perfect person to preserve the status quo, and to ensure that education remains nothing but a system of social reproduction.

  2. There are many things about this article that disturb me. However, I will focus on just one issue which to me is always fundamental when someone is espousing a particular approach to education, as Rhee is doing. Why does it have to be only one way? How about a really novel approach to education which incorporates a little bit of everything so that all students can learn and so that students can learn at different levels, the cognitive, affective, social, etc.

    Rhee villifies the “touchy-feely” kind of education which she equates with creativity which she equates with not being able to read. I don’t get the connection. Studies have shown that lowering the affective filter raises students’ ability to learn (http://www.albany.edu/lap/link11.htm). I don’t know how well Albert Einstein read, but he is recognized as a pretty smart guy and he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” My guess would be that he would scoff at anyone who said: There is only one right way to learn and imagination has nothing to do with it.

    Personally, if it has to only be one way, I’d prefer students who know how to care about other human beings than ones who can do well on standardized tests.

  3. I am a bit ambivalent. I read another recent article on Rhee by Clay Risen in Atlantic titled “The Lightning Rod” (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200811/michelle-rhee) For me, the three most salient parts of the article are these:

    1. “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.

    2. “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.”

    3. “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.

  4. My own ambivalence lies in that fact that I believe very much that the positive change she seeks can occur, but it has to be done, as the Wicked Witch of the West said, delicately. Traditional merit pay, or a simple form of test-based merit pay, has been shown consistently to be counterproductive, but there are some newer merit-based concepts that look promising. Teachers can indeed have a powerful positive impact on student achievement, but it is through the application of the right methodologies, not working harder with the methodologies that have failed in the past. The traditional excuses for poor achievement do indeed give the system a built in reason to accept failure, but they must be identified and dealt with effectively, not ignored. The creativity v. reading ability conflict is a false dichotomy–not only can we achieve both, embracing craetivity and thinking skills in instruction enhances learning key skills, if done properly. (Is she saying we must have one at the expense of the other? Not as I read it.)

    In other words, it is not the main ideas that are problematic, it all comes down to how those goals are approached.

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