By Jim Shimabukuro
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” . 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.
This 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  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” .
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” .
In 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” .
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 email@example.com
(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.)
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