Two Ambivalent Views of Michelle Rhee’s Efforts

By James L. Morrison
Guest Author
MaryAnne Gobble
Guest Author

[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:

[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.


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 gobble01bor 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.

4 Responses

  1. While this article was being prepared for publication, a question arose about the appropriateness of educational reform — when not specifically related to technology — as a topic in an Innovate medium such as I-Blog.

    I took the position that, yes, it definitely is, and my reasoning is that the learning environment and technology are interrelated. They inhabit the same physical and conceptual space that we label as “school.” What happens to one impacts the other, e.g., changes in pedagogy will directly or indirectly affect the role of technology. Thus, talk about the approach that Michelle Rhee is using to improve DC’s public school system is relevant to Innovate.

    Morrison and Gobble don’t specifically mention technology in this article, but it is “there” just the same, a fixture in our collective mental image of school. Whether we like it or not, computers and the web are an integral part of the whole.

    The philosophy that guides pedagogy will also determine how technology will be used. With Rhee’s single-minded goal, improving math and reading standardized test scores, the outlook for technology seems bleak. With this emphasis, my concern is that technology will be used primarily as a drilling platform for repetitive memorization and formulaic problem-solving tasks. (See Harry Keller’s article on this subject.)

    All the gains that we’re making in adding Web 2.0 technologies into the learning and teaching mix are threatened when the social dimensions of education are discarded as “touchy-feely” and irrelevant to the drive for higher test scores.

    Is ed reform, by itself, a legitimate topic for Innovate? I think so, and I hope I’ve made a good case for my position.

    Jim Shimabukuro

  2. […] improvement for the children in his care.    While some critics see this as weakness, preferring the more forceful style of a school leader like Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein, others see the instinct to reach out to the unions and parents as a necessary […]

  3. I just read a Washington Post editorial “Myths Left Behind” at that relates to this discussion. The editor wrote:”Graham Road was one of four schools recently singled out by the Education Trust for success in teaching low-income and minority students. The awards, now in their sixth year, are aptly named “Dispelling the Myth.” The schools, as Education Trust President Kati Haycock said, shatter “the misguided and dangerous belief that achievement gaps are inevitable.” No matter how difficult or intractable the problems in a child’s life, dedicated and effective educators can make a difference.” The editorial is worth a good read.


  4. I have submitted a long essay on Michelle Rhee. I am a teacher of long standing and happen to have worked in the District of Columbia in three different ways and from three perspectives. Once as a teacher in the DC public schools. I had just come back from Germany and I wanted to help in the inner city schools. What a mistake.

    The second time, I worked from afar. I was teaching in the Arlington County Schools, but living in DC and wanted to help establish after school communities and programs from NASA , NOAA, and National Geographic.

    THe third time should have been the charm. I was the only teacher on the National Information Infrastructure Advisory Committee, and later was the inital technology director of the 21st Century Learning Project. Sadly, nothing worked. I tried to share my story.

    THere is something missing in the discussions. In DC many of the mom and pop stores were Korean, and maybe some of the distrust that came from that has become a legacy problem for Ms. Rhee.
    Look for my submission.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: