Is Michelle Rhee Good for Students?

Recently appearing with Bill Gates on the Oprah show, Michelle Rhee, former DC Public Schools Chancellor, has been traveling the PR circuit to promote her new program She has waged war against status quo public education and teachers' unions, and declares public education in this country has been "a bureaucracy about adults. We absolutely must look at education through a new prism. We must put students first."
Her words sound good, but after looking into her three year teaching stint as a Teach for America recruit at Harlem Park Elementary in Baltimore, her claim that "students performing far below grade level quickly achieve at the highest levels -- if they're exposed to a quality programs," left us wondering how well she did there. One chronicler of Rhee's term as a "miracle worker" in Baltimore wrote this:

"Rhee's résumé asserts that the students made a dramatic gain: ‘Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.'"

But after investigating her assertion, he concluded this: "There is no real evidence -- none at all -- that Rhee's miracle ever occurred."

Harlem Park closed shortly after Rhee left to attend Harvard's Kennedy School, and the Baltimore school apparently left no records for anyone to be able to verify Rhee's inflated claims.

After Harvard, Rhee continued to work in education by founding her own non-profit called the New Teachers Project. In 2007, she was asked by Washington, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty to take over the DC school system. After three tumultuous years in DC, Rhee had single-handedly closed 43 schools, and fired 266 teachers and 43 principals (including one who presided over her own daughter's elementary school).

On the heels of Fenty's 2010 election defeat, which many in Washington believe was due to Rhee's authoritarian "my way or the highway" style, Rhee delivered a message to her adversaries after the premiere of the well-hyped education reform documentary Waiting for Superman:

The biggest tragedy that could come from [the] election results is if the lesson that people take from this is that we should pull back...We cannot retreat now. If anything, what the reform community needs to take out of yesterday's election is: Now is the time to lean forward, be more aggressive, and be more adamant about what we're doing.

By her own admission Rhee will not limit her new "aggressive" mission to any one school district. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, an outspoken foe of teacher tenure, wooed her for his superintendent to no avail. She currently is working with Florida Governor Scott's transition team to transform that system in alignment with StudentsFirst.  

The former chancellor has been able to attract both Republicans and Democrats; in true progressive fashion she cross-breeds two different animals, the private and public sector, using the terminology of each. 

In an interview with Charlie Rose in 2008, a year after Rhee assumed her DC chancellorship, she stated that test scores were the "most consistent" determinants of how well a child is performing and should be give the "greatest weight."

Parroting the conservative critics of a school system dumbed-down by a warm and fuzzy approach, Rhee told Rose that she would de-emphasize the "softer things" and "hold everyone accountable for the results."

Rhee's goals sound similar to No Child Left Behind. "Under No Child Left Behind, all students are supposed to have a highly qualified teacher. School districts are supposed to let parents know which teachers are not highly qualified in holding schools accountable for test scores."

Rhee's student-centered education challenges the general wisdom that experience, maturity and professional credentials should be held as sacrosanct, especially in such a diverse country as the United States. As Rhee has stated, "education is the great equalizer" enabling even the most poverty-stricken to realize the American dream. She reasons when such disparity exists as it does in DC between those who live in Anacostia and those who live in Georgetown, real and radical reform must take place.

Understanding Rhee's education agenda  requires understanding her own background in education, especially her sole teaching experience, as part of Teach for America.

Michelle Rhee, The Eli Broad Foundation, and Teach for America

Wendy Kopp, a Princeton graduate, started Teach for America in 1989 with the venture philanthropist Eli Broad, whom Andy Stern former head of SEIU, called one of his favorite billionaires.

Kopp's Teach for America, under the auspices of AmeriCorps, recruits top students from top of the line colleges. Any graduate can apply, but out of tens of thousands of applications each year only 14% are accepted. The "change agents" must be spirited, reform-minded and willing to teach at least two years in a disadvantaged school district.

Rhee's affiliation with Kopp and TFA led to her meeting her current husband, Sacramento mayor, Kevin Johnson, who is credited with starting his own charter school Sacramento High. Johnson, accused of misusing AmeriCorps funds, has friends in high places like Michelle Obama who was a founding director of Chicago Public Allies, "an AmeriCorps national service program that provided training to young adults pursuing careers in the public sector."

Most TFA participants are not in it for the long haul; 80% go on to work in other fields. The uncertified inductees are put through a kind of "teacher boot camp" for five weeks before they enter the classroom. One former TFA teacher described the training:

But the training program skimped on actual teaching and classroom-management techniques, instead overwhelming us with sensitivity training. My group spent hours on an activity where everyone stood in a line and then took steps forward or backward based on whether we were the oppressor or the oppressed in the categories of race, income, and religion. The program had a college bull session, rather than professional, atmosphere. And it had a college-style party line: I heard of two or three trainees being threatened with expulsion for expressing in their discussion groups politically incorrect views about inner-city poverty-for example, that families and culture, not economics, may be the root cause of the achievement gap.

In a 2009 Aspen Institute video Broad interviewed Michelle Rhee. She likened herself to a CEO stating that no one in DC was allowed to say no to her except the mayor. Since Fenty removed the formidable school board, Rhee was free to act. Another Broad recruit was not so lucky. Seattle Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson in July 2010 was ousted with a vote of no confidence by the Seattle Public School Board. A couple of the board's objections were as follows:

 ...whereas the Superintendent allowed Seattle Public Schools to give out the names of parents and teachers to a public relations firm for a politically-motivated survey carried out by a commercial enterprise

...whereas the Superintendent's poor judgment resulted in the need to open five schools just six months after closing five schools/programs, which mismanagement will cost the District an estimated $48M rather than saving $3M in closures.

Broad outlined his interest in K-12 education with reporter Willow Bay of HuffPo in 2007 profiling Mayor Fenty and an "Asian American woman of great talent" [Rhee] as the "change agents" that his foundation has been "working with since the beginning." Broad, as a businessman and former accountant looks at education through the lens of a business plan.

And we look at metrics, what are we trying to achieve, how do we measure student achievement....change agents, superintendents that wanted to really change status quo, that were rather progressive. And somehow they ended up getting fired by a traditional school board.

Rhee intends to apply the Broad model on a national level with her new organization by challenging the old guard of union backed, tenured, certified professionals by promoting young graduates trained in the TFA method.

Rhee's Methods

Rhee regularly uses anecdotes to relate to ordinary people. At a first year teachers' conference last year in DC, she recounted a classroom experience during her term at Harlem Park. Unable to tame 35 rowdy second graders she gave them each a piece of masking tape. "We're going to do something special today," she told them. Rhee asked them to put the masking tape over their mouths before they marched off to the cafeteria. The audience laughed, even when Rhee admitted that she hadn't told them "to lick their lips" before placing the tape over their mouths. She joked that she had "35 crying, bleeding children."

As CEO of the DC public schools, Rhee ousted those officials not toeing the company line and replaced them with like-minded recruits. One such hand-picked principal, Dwan Jordan of Sousa Middle school, was praised with a July, 2010 front page Washington Post profile, and credited with raising math and reading scores at the school. In a teacher's rebuttal to the one-sided Washington Post story, he stated that Jordan "was very gifted at analyzing data and implementing longer school days" -- two requirements of Rhee's business model. However, the anonymous teacher related that by 2009, Sousa lost 50 teachers and staff members out of 230; 10 were terminated, 40 quit.

Eli Broad, Bill Gates and other billionaires backing Rhee are promoting a narrative that traditional educational paradigms have failed our kids, so it's time to get rid of them. By drawing attention away from other crucial cultural factors affecting a student's achievement, this new breed of reformers hope to solve a complex problem using a top-down management model sans unions.

Regardless of the complexity in tackling the education problems in this country, Rhee and her StudentsFirst organization -- using language like "children can't wait" coupled with savvy grassroots style websites and funding by billionaires with vested interests--will continue a blitz across America to fundamentally transform our schools. Such a complicated undertaking requires a serious examination of Michelle Rhee's true motivations and associations.

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