Is Michelle Rhee Bad for the Education Reform Movement?

Closing the “achievement gap” and raising student tests scores are the holy grails of the education reform movement.  Washington, D.C. became a showcase for reform under the leadership of former Chancellor Michelle Rhee.  That’s why the report questioning the rise in standardized test scores in D.C. schools in USA Today is worrying enough.  Ms. Rhee’s reaction, claiming the “enemies” are behind the report, is even more troubling.

Virtually unknown until she was hired by former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, she made a name for herself in a few short years.  She challenged conventional wisdom, took on entrenched interests, and, along with people like Geoffrey Canada, sparked a much broader conversation about education in America.  She was featured in Waiting for Superman and seemed to be saying all of the right things.  The best part: students were improving across the District.

The problem is, unlike Mr. Canada, Ms. Rhee is combative and confrontational.  She didn’t just fight with the union, she ran roughshod over them.  Taking a my way or the high way approach, she fired principals and closed 23 schools.  Her job was made easier because Mayor Fenty had abolished the school board and replaced it with a state board of education that had little power.  Ms. Rhee was free to implement her vision of high expectations, accountability to data, and teacher “quality”.

More than half of D.C.s teachers turned over during her tenure.  Some were fired, some resigned.  Though the union fought, she was able to get agreement on a number of concessions on “merit” pay.  Her win came cost Adrian Fenty the election.  She dramatically resigned a few weeks later.

The take-away from all of the sound and fury and spent political capital was that test scores had risen.  Ms. Rhee’s system of data-based accountability, bonuses for successful teachers and principals worked, and removal of “bad” teachers.  Or do it?  USA Today showed that a number of schools, schools that Ms. Rhee had focused on with bonuses and the like, saw an abnormally high rate of “wrong to right erasures” on standardized tests.  It may be a series statistical anomalies, but the inconsistencies deserve to be studied further.  We need to know if this “model” system is what it’s supporters say it is.  Does it produce better teachers?  Do scores really go up?  Does it give more flexibility for districts to ensure a quality education?  That’s the only way we can move forward and create a better, more accountable education system.

Ms. Rhee won’t answer any questions and she calls her critics “enemies”.  She is “going to start a revolution” and you better get on board with her, because she and her group of reformers know what’s right.  If you don’t agree you’re working against students or you’re just wrong.  She said recently, “The idea that when people saw the results they would want more of it was absolutely wrong.”  This rhetoric has set up a false choice: the unions (and their Luddite teachers) or reform (with their enlightened teachers).  The unions have responded by playing the part.  Now we have two warring camps, both talking about the kids, but somehow ignoring them in the rush to score cheap points.

Ms. Rhee is polarizing and this is becoming a distraction to reform.  She tells the New Yorker,  “Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter to me whether a school is a private school or a charter school or a traditional public school. I’m agnostic as to the delivery mechanism…”  Statements like that only undermine the debate and put people on edge.  Charter schools are not the cure-all.  There are wonderful charter systems like KIPP and Achievement First, but there not all as successful.  Charter and private schools can work with public schools provide options and places to experiment.  They can help to strengthen our education systems, but you only have to look as far as New Orleans to see the folly of putting complete faith in a Charter system to replace public schools.

Ms. Rhee’s personality overwhelms the debate and she is not always right.  She travels with Republicans like Rick Scott, John Kasich, and Chris Christie, who all have very one-dimensional (i.e. – make it easier to fire teachers and bust the unions) reform plans.  She’s wrong that collaboration is overrated.  Unions may be part of the problem, but so are we all.  Unions and teachers have also shown a willingness to change.  Demonizing them as the only problem (something a lot of us have been guilty of at times) will only make them dig their in their heels and stall reform.

Finally, the focus on individual teachers and the unions that “protect” them only highlights part of the problem.  Unfortunately it’s become the whole debate.  We risk losing a needed focus on budgets and cuts to spending.  State and local budgets are being slashed and it will have a devastating impact on our ability to educate our children – as usual from poor cities and districts.

Michelle Rhee has done a lot of good.  She is a tireless defender of our children.  She fervently believes that each child can learn and receive a stellar education.  She is determined to change the paradigm and to improve the way the we educate our children.  She’s going to raise a lot of money to do it.  Unfortunately, she undermines the cause by reusing to countenance compromise and collaboration and not answering valid questions and concerns about the gains that students showed when was Chancellor and the setbacks many of them have suffered in the last year.

Pic Via | REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang


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