11 April 2011

Michelle Rhee

In the world of debate that rages around education and its many failings in America, one of the most polarizing figures in the debate is a hard-charging educational reformer from Baltimore named Michelle Rhee.

Michelle Rhee has risen like a rocket through the world of east coast urban schools. She worked as a Teach For America teacher in Baltimore, she founded The New Teacher Project (TNTP) and her rise culminated as she became the chancellor for one of the worst school systems in America: the DC Public schools.

Ms. Rhee has been on the cover of many national publications. She has been heralded as a reformer for the future. She mostly made her name by being a bully. She's proud of it. She stood up to the "mighty" teachers' unions. She fired people. Then she moved on, having made her point, leaving the job in the hands of someone who could maintain the success she had "created".

This has been the story on Rhee for most of her meteoric career. But now, to the delight of her critics, and to critics of her style of school reform, there's new news. She cheated.

Wait, what? She cheated?

Oh yes, dear reader. She cheated. (well, she didn't, but teachers in her buildings, those she touted as her greatest successes did. She oversaw that. If we're really going to move to a business model, she owes the stockholders her resignation. What? She already resigned? Then she can at least pay the fine people of Washington D.C. her salary back. What? In DC her salary is paid by the federal government? Then she can pay all of us back. I'm waiting on my check, Michelle.) Following the revelations from CTB (the testing company), Ms. Rhee lashed out at her critics, claiming that they were continuing to claim that "the Earth is flat", but managed to avoid directly addressing the claims that the tests showed too many erasures to not be considered sketchy (as the kids would say) I don't know why we're surprised that it has come to this. 

When you lash out, firing teachers, threatening more, they will get you the results that you demand. It's just like Soviet Russia. If you can't meet your production quotas, you lie. The main difference is that the Soviets were lying about how many tanks they made (which seemed like a big deal, but was actually not); teachers are lying about teaching young people, and that's a slightly bigger deal. If she had embraced a policy of helping teachers improve based on shortcomings discovered using the tests, perhaps she could have overseen actual improvement, instead of the mere illusion she produced. The curtain has been pulled back, and she has been revealed as a charlatan.
Just like the chancellor of New York City Public Schools, resigned less than a year after she was appointed (for among other things, telling a community meeting concerned with over-crowded schools that they should engage in more birth control), Ms. Rhee has many ideas, none of which are proven by actual research. These ideas are, to quote their purveyors, "common sense". 

Why do we listen to these people? Why does Michelle Rhee have a voice at all in the debate about education reform? She has no degrees in education, instead having studied government and public policy. She did a commendable thing, and spent three years in a Baltimore classroom as a Teach For America recruit. Then she entered the world of education reform. That's right, this woman, who spends a lot of her time attacking public education has as much teaching experience as a teacher who in most states would still be a probationary teacher. 

Why does she get to have a national voice? I don't know. Perhaps it's because she's persistent. Perhaps it's because she made a career of it. Perhaps it's because she put that public policy masters to good use making political contacts. 

There's much I don't know, but I do know this; the longer we listen to experts who aren't actually experts, the worse off we'll all be. Education professionals recognize that change is necessary. However, we also know that anything that happens to quickly is probably too good to be true. We know that any effective reform at the lower levels will take years to pay dividends at the higher levels. (whoa, talk about a topic for another day!)

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Let's leave the teaching to the experts, we might just know what we're doing.

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