Michelle Rhee’s next move: Organizing?

Lightning rod former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has announced her next career move: organizing students, parents and teachers into a movement to demand excellence in the nation’s public schools.

I know a lot of people consider Rhee a heroine who has dared to stand up to powerful entrenched interests (teachers). I’m not one of them. I think her take-no-prisoners style is more harmful than effective — she has furthered the myth of the “strong leader” who will “fix” our schools once and for all, implying that improving education is a matter of one tough gal leader simply having the will to do so. We all — teachers unions, politicians, parents, teachers, students, businesses — want excellence, but Rhee’s metaphorical broom fails to acknowledge that real change in American education will come when we are ready to abandon serial fads and quick fixes and instead commit to investments in health care, preschool and affordable housing so that children begin school on the best possible footing, commit to adequately funding every school and finally, commit to school accountability systems that reward critical thinking and a deep, rich curriculum rather than one that rewards only the attainment of basic skills.

Ms. Rhee has written a long article in the current issue of Newsweek about her experiences in Washington and her plans for the future. There are a few mea culpas: she admits that she utterly failed to “connect the dots” between her sometimes painful reform efforts and measurable improvements in schools, a failure that cost her the support of parents who she thinks should have supported her agenda. She also admits to failing to reach out to effective teachers “to let them know I considered them the most important part of the equation.”  But she pooh-poohs the concept of consensus, using the hot-button issue of school closures as a (true) example of where consensus fails. I agree that there is no good way to close a school — it is painful however you do it. But there are lots of other issues where consensus is essential — teacher evaluation, for example, or curriculum and assessment decisions.  Indeed, in the very same issue of Newsweek, there is a very interesting account of a district — Hillsborough County, Florida — that is accomplishing as much or more than Ms. Rhee did in Washington in the area of teacher evaluation and effectiveness, without the drama and the collateral damage.

I’m actually familiar with the Hillsborough County story because I heard a joint presentation from their Superintendent and their teachers union president at an American Federation of Teachers conference I attended back in October.  Several years ago, Florida’s legislature passed a state law that required districts to put in place teacher evaluation systems that took student achievement into account, but allowed individual districts some freedom in determining how these systems would ultimately look. As Newsweek reports:

While battles with the American Federation of Teachers earned D.C.’s former chancellor Michelle Rhee as many headlines as her bold overhaul of the schools, Hillsborough (the nation’s eighth-largest district) has made similarly dramatic gains with a lot less drama. In recent years, teamwork between the union and management has resulted in a longer, eight-hour school day; higher pay for the most effective teachers; and a comprehensive coaching program for struggling teachers. They have also worked together to refine a rigorous teacher-evaluation system that considers student-achievement gains along with the observations of principals and outside peer reviewers—a system not unlike the one Rhee established in D.C. last year.

I do like the idea of organizing parents and students to serve as an additional voice — one that has largely been missing — in the educational reform debate.  I serve as an advisor to one growing local effort here in California — Educate Our State — and supported the efforts of a new parent-led political action committee this past election cycle.  I’m just dubious that Ms. Rhee’s real agenda is to create a grass roots movement. However well-intentioned her efforts, I think the outcome will likely be a movement that is more about Michelle Rhee and her tough-gal rhetoric than an honest, thoughtful discussion of the policy changes that will be needed to improve the education of America’s public school students — particularly those who are low-income, disabled, or a member of an ethnic minority group. There will be a book deal (if there isn’t one already) and eventually some big platform or appointment.  Many of us in education here in California are wondering if Ms. Rhee might be coming our way in some form or another — she is, after all, engaged to the Mayor of Sacramento.  Let the speculation begin.


5 responses to “Michelle Rhee’s next move: Organizing?

  1. Shawn (SF Teacher)

    I’m not sure why the commentary has been reduced to calling people sleezes. This is part of the problem from both conservatives and liberals.

    One issue that is consistently ignored in blogs and new articles on education is the role of race and culture. There is a lot of focus on merit pay, poverty and economics, ineffective teachers, lack of discipline in the home…….. ,but none of these address the fact that the public education system has been pushing children of color out since its inception. I believe Michelle Ree is misguided in her attempts and pushing “ineffective” teachers out will not change the “achievement gap.” In my six years of teaching in an “underperforming” school I have seen teachers get pushed out and replaced with more of the same. Until SFUSD puts more effort into hiring teachers of color who have a cultural competence with the student population and train white teachers to be culturally responsive in their practices and analyze their white privilege and deeply entrenched racist beliefs and stereotypes, there will be no change. Until white “overprivileged” teachers, parents, board members, supervisors and politicians recognize the privilege that we have operating in a white supremacist system and start working to change it, then we will continue to fail our families and children of color. Race needs to be central to all our discussions of the “achievement gap” education– otherwise we are just beating a dead horse.

  2. Not to speak for Mark, but I am guessing it’s the latter. Mark is married to an SFUSD teacher.

  3. Mark, are you horrified that a good person like Michelle Rhee would be engaged to a sleaze like Kevin Johnson, or that a good person like Kevin Johnson would be engaged to a sleaze like Michelle Rhee?

  4. As long as you include “well-connected corporate titans” in your definition of “grassroots”, Ms. Rhee’s new group is legitimate!

    More seriously, I think Ms. Rhee’s ideas about pedagogy bear repeating (and repeating, and repeating). In that Newsweek article and elsewhere, she championed a back-to-basics-but-with-Scantron approach – triple reading drill, no arts. This is antithetical to everything we know about how people learn, not to mention dry and lacking in knowledge (…you can only teach reading through phonics drill? Content integration isn’t possible?). This may make for high test scores and good workers, but I’d argue it makes for lousy citizens. I think I’m in the mainstream on this one, too!

    I also believe it is relevant and important to question Ms. Rhee’s cultural competence; the Answer Sheet entry on the topic (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/rhee-ackerman-and-cultural-com.html) raises some important points but misses the bigger issue by assuming that any discussion of cultural competence is a hidden slur against Ms. Rhee.

  5. I had NO idea she was engaged to Kevin Johnson…noooooooo.

    Great words, thoughts, and commentary Rachel.