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.