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Posted at 4:00 PM ET, 09/16/2010

Why 'Waiting for Superman' premiere was chilling

By Valerie Strauss

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee used the occasion of the D.C. premiere of the “Waiting for Superman” documentary -- which portrays her as the educational Joan of Arc -- to blast D.C. voters yet again for daring to reject her style of school reform.

In front of a star-studded audience -- Washington D.C. stars, that is: legislators, government policy makers, journalists, political movers and shakers, etc. -- Rhee trashed the majority view of the electorate, which tossed out her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty. Disagreeing with the vote is one thing; accusing voters of doing something stupid is something else.

“Let me not mince words, and say that yesterday’s election results were devastating – devastating. Not for me, because I’ll be fine. And not even for Fenty, because he’ll be fine, too. It was devastating for the children of Washington, D.C.”

This was the equivalent of saying that there is no use for anybody to hope that she and presumptive mayor Vincent Gray can come to some compromise to keep her here. The only question is when she’ll leave.

The problem is that she said it to an audience who watched a one-sided film that adores public charter schools and demonizes traditional public schools, (which still and always will educate the vast majority of the country’s kids).

The audience was packed with people who affect millions of kids and teachers and parents by passing laws, advising the president, shaping public opinion. And those people gave her an ovation.

Ignored was the fact that there is no scientific basis for her reforms, and some evidence to suggest that some of her key initiatives, such as tying teacher pay to standardized test scores, is counterproductive.

Forget the fact that the film’s assault on teachers unions is unfair; even Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a true believer in Rhee, has noted that it is silly to blame unions, pointing out that the problems exist in states without teachers unions.

According to Politico’s Mike Allen, these were some of the people spotted on the red carpet:

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), David Axelrod, Roland Martin, Michelle Rhee, Davis Guggenheim and Elisabeth Shue, Jeff Skoll, Jim Berk, Kristin Gore, Melody Barnes, Bill Sessions, Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Alma Powell, Savannah Guthrie, Jake Tapper, Ed Henry, Luke Russert, Chris Matthews, Mark Halperin, Guy Cecil, Rep. Mazie Hirono, Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), Daniella Gibbs Leger, Dag Vega, Heather Higginbottom, Rob Nabors, Christine Varney, Julianna Smoot, Ebs Burnough, Raj Shah, Geoff Garin and Juleanna Glover.

Axelrod is senior adviser to President Obama.

Barnes is the director of the president’s Domestic Policy Council.

Miller is the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, making him the most powerful person in the House when it comes to education.

Dodd is a senior member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor.

Let's hope these people don't decide to let a tendentious movie influence their policy making. Demonizing teachers and traditional public schools, and showing charter schools as a solution to urban public education may make for great theater but it is a bad reflection of reality. Charters by their very design can never be a broad solution to urban education troubles, and besides, the biggest study ever of their effectiveness shows that only 17 percent provide a better education than the nearby public schools.

What we need in education reform are people who understand that there are complexities to fixing schools, that there is no one right way but plenty of wrong ways.

Critics of Rhee's style of reform are often accused of preferring the status quo but in most cases that's just nonsense. What they want are reforms that will take into account the many causes of school and student failure and not pretend that one or two sweeping reforms will turn the corner.

And it is a phony accusation that critics of Rhee in the District only want to protect teachers jobs and have a schools boss that will do everything by consensus. Committed parents and the best teachers know that some teachers ought to go; the question is how.

Anybody who thinks that the divided city or school system can be run entirely by consensus is a fool; good leaders try to bring along their constituencies -- something Rhee never did -- but move ahead even if they can't. Rhee's failure to even try, and then sometimes prevaricate when questioned, was what turned people against her.

It is chilling to consider that last night’s premiere audience thought it was appropriate to applaud Rhee after she accused the city’s voters of bringing disaster on the kids because they didn’t agree with her and Fenty.


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 16, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools  | Tags:  adrian fenty, al franken, arne duncan, charter schools, d.c. schools, david axelrod, fenty and gray, george miller, melody barnes, michelle rhee, movie premiere, obama and refoms, obama reform, president obama and school reform, research and education, research on charter schools, rhee and gray, superman film, superman premiere, teachers and unions, vincent gray, waiting for superman, what will rhee do?, when will rhee leave?, who will replace rhee  
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Next: While we wait for ‘Superman,’ let's focus on teaching


Thank you Valerie. I hope this makes it into the print edition of the Post.

Also, are you thinking about an edited book on the Chancellor's reign? I'd love to write a chapter on what her brand of reform did to our school, from a parent's perspective. I'm sure efavorite, vscribe, the reflective educator, guy brandenburg and the many other bloggers and commentators out there could provide a fabulous book on what ed reform was really like in DC over the last three years.

I'd bet Diane Ravitch could write a heck of an introduction too.

Either way, thanks for covering the debacle that was Rhee. As a parent, I always appreciated you and Bill Turque and your efforts to provide an alternative to the fawning coverage so many of your colleague offered up about Rhee's misguided efforts to improve the schools in DC.

title1soccermom at gmail dot com

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | September 16, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Ah, the beautiful people.

Miss Rhee, with her lies about her Baltimore Miracle, decides her reforms won't help the kids of Stanton Elementary so she gives the school away to be run by a private group.

Miss Rhee, used to sycophantic news media and audiences at the Aspen Institute, is told to buggered off by the voters of DC.

Maybe she should have kept up her charade of attending services at the African-American churches, as suggested by her fiance.

The voters of DC did what our new media should have done from the beginning.

Posted by: edlharris | September 16, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

edlharris, I'm sorry I left you (and others) off the list. I'd want to read a chapter by you too.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | September 16, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

Hopefully, this movie has about as much impact on education policy as Star Wars did on NASA policy.

Posted by: tmp23 | September 16, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

I hope she gets on her broom and flies away, except I bet she'll get a job in Florida DOE, I'm sure Eric Smith loooooves her.

Posted by: murphinfla | September 16, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

I'm just thinking that politicians tend to look out for themselves, and that some of those folks might have just noticed that Fenty got tossed out in a big way. Obama?

Posted by: mamoore1 | September 16, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Yes, that was a wildly inappropriate comment, especially knowing she was going to be meeting with Gray the following day.

Posted by: horacemann | September 16, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Assuming Chancellor Rhee departs and that Mayor Gray names his own chancellor, we will soon see how good Mayor Gray is at managing the schools. The Fenty/Rhee record is in the books. The schools have improved substantially during her tenure. The physical plants have been improved, operations rightsized in some areas, some deadwood eliminated and improved student scores. That will be her legacy.

In theory Mayor Gray should have an easier time moving forward, since some of the hardest work has been done. Let's hope that turns out to be true. We'll see whether he can build on the situation he's inherited or whether the schools regress under his leadership. Arguing these points is foolish. Time will tell us if this was a good election for DC schools.

Posted by: DJ20036 | September 16, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

"The physical plants have been improved, operations rightsized in some areas, some deadwood eliminated and improved student scores. That will be her legacy." - DJ20036

It's not much of a legacy in reform terms. almost anyone can improve physical plants with money and political backup. I don't know about the operations aspect. Eliminating (people) deadwood isn't difficult either when you have a 'slash & burn' philosophy and political backup. Improvement (slight) in student scores is good, but when that is offset by polarizing decision-making as a result of Ms. Rhee's lack of grounded knowledge, training, experience, leadership skills and a true vision, it's pretty dismal.

Additionally, it's important that the person holding the Education Chancellor's position have the ability to exhibit graciousness, empathy and dignity - that person is a role model for the most important leaders in education; the ones in the classroom.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 16, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

This presumes that the electorate rejected Rhee. It didn't. What the electorate rejected was layoffs.

This election wasn't about Rhee it was about jobs.

DC government employs 30,000 people. Fenty has laid off 2,500 and Rhee, in addition to layoffs, has hundreds of other set loose their jobs under their performance terms.

The people most motivated to vote in this light turnout were DC employees.

And regarding Rhee's comments. You can pick and choose what you want to highlight to make your case.

Posted by: smoke111 | September 16, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

WOW - and she's an education person. How insulting to the voters of DC.

Posted by: rlj1 | September 16, 2010 6:25 PM | Report abuse

Your argument aside, it seemed out of character for you to place "journalists" as part of the "star studded" audience.

Alas, commenters on WaPo blogues tend to not think highly of "media" people and the much rarer "journalists." They say awful things about your colleagues at the WaPo.

Generally, polls that cover such topics show that Americans have had steeply declining regard for the "media" and "journalists," mostly for reasons that are easy to understand and share.

Posted by: axolotl | September 16, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

"What we need in education reform are people who understand that there are complexities to fixing schools, that there is no one right way but plenty of wrong ways."


Posted by: ilcn | September 16, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

your biased assertion aside, unions and unfirable incompetent teachers have much to do with the lack of accountability, outrageous cost, and poor performance of both teachers and schools. when incompetents cannot be fired, performance ranking and management are not allowed, and parents are forced to buy an incredibly inferior product from a monopoly of overpaid government hacks, the outcome is preordained.

Posted by: hdc77494 | September 16, 2010 8:10 PM | Report abuse

Valerie, I plan to send this article, with a request to read the comments, to all of the thousands of educators I know. You are correct, mamoore1, Obama and company are next.

Posted by: lacy41 | September 16, 2010 8:32 PM | Report abuse

Yes, as in any profession, there are teachers and administrators that should be removed because they are not providing the expertise and assistance their students deserve. Supervisors need the tools, the will, the support of their school boards, and the support of the teachers union to confront that small group of educators. However, most teachers and administrators are dedicated to their students and want to be the best educators they can be. If they are coached, mentored, and supported they will continue to do more for our children than we could ever ask of them.

The divisions created by the “us” vs. “them” mentality pervading so much of the educational rhetoric and the prescription of the “right” way to teach, espoused by many politicians, are not creating a climate that will help our children. Teaching is incredibly complex and when we try to make it less complex, as many seem to be trying to do with high stakes testing, mass firings, and pay for performance, we do an injustice to our students, teachers, and administrators. Daniel Pink states in his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, that pay for performance only works for simple tasks. He found, after reviewing 40 years of behavioral science research, that as soon as there is even the smallest bit of task complexity, merit pay destroys creativity and becomes a negative factor. “Surprisingly, Pink was not talking about schools, he was talking about business.

Yet, most businessmen and politicians seem confident that competition between co-workers improves the bottom line. Therefore competition amongst teachers and schools would improve teaching and learning.

As a retired teacher and administrator with 40 years of experience, I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Pink when he says, “The secret to high performance is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.” Pay for performance and the firing hundreds of teachers and administrators, based on quantitative tests, fails to recognize that effective schools are effective because of their climate of collegiality and collaboration. Unfortunately Michelle Rhee's words and actions have not created that climate.

Posted by: drjimdoran | September 16, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

when you say:

"What we need in education reform are people who understand that there are complexities to fixing schools, that there is no one right way but plenty of wrong ways."

I think it is incredibly insulting and unintelligent to suggest that Rhee does not understand the complexities to fixing schools.

Posted by: susef | September 16, 2010 9:30 PM | Report abuse

I think it is incredibly insulting and unintelligent to suggest that Rhee does not understand the complexities to fixing schools

She does not, that is the whole point. Where did anybody ever get the idea she did?

Posted by: mamoore1 | September 16, 2010 9:39 PM | Report abuse

Rhee wouldn't understand complexity if it knocked her off her high heels.

As teachers in the system most of us have watched, agog, as she enacted one half-baked idea after another. We are now stuck with many of her "reforms", such as they are. It will take time for the next Superintendent (qualified individual as opposed to unqualified chancellor) to unravel her worst designs.

Bravo, Valerie, for such a great piece.

Posted by: adcteacher1 | September 16, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse

"The schools have improved substantially during her tenure. The physical plants have been improved, operations rightsized in some areas, some deadwood eliminated and improved student scores. That will be her legacy."

As a parent who has kids in 3rd grade DCPS at this point I would not give her credit for much of this. She has cut office staff and replaced them with more expensive consultants running her central office budget higher than predecessors. The improvement of school buildings has happened on her watch, but the funding was secured by school activists here in DC before she got here who were at the Vincent Gray victory party. This money has been squandered spending it disproportionately on the white wealthy areas of the city an at 2 to 3 times the rate per square foot the charters have been paying. Her legacy here will be flagrant overspending that will shortchange many schools now that budgets are tight may never see modernization.

And student scores have improved only if you include the 2006-2007 school year. Yes Fenty came into office then, but Ms. Rhee didn't start until July 2007. If you start looking at the data starting with the 2007-2008 school year test scores are down in DC in most subgroups for the first time in 10 years. Her numbers have been inflated by the increase in relative terms of the affluent and white in her testing samples. Way to bend the curve.

Posted by: qazqaz | September 16, 2010 10:35 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the kind words.

Posted by: edlharris | September 16, 2010 11:44 PM | Report abuse

Re: "problems exist in states without teachers unions."

This makes no sense. All states have teachers unions.

Posted by: c-rho | September 16, 2010 11:44 PM | Report abuse

Michelle Rhee is a disgrace.

Why should we encourage private Hedge Funds into our schools (via Charter Schools) when we are still recovering from Wall street abuses? It is disgusting that the progress and growth of our children may be traded on Wall Street alongside pork bellies and B-1 bombers. Improve our existing public schools because we must not because it will make some hedge fund manager rich.

I agree with your column.

Posted by: Nicnamibia | September 16, 2010 11:46 PM | Report abuse

Sacrificing our values for political or practical expediency is a slippery slope. Chancellor Rhee has said again and again that she will do whatever she feels is in the best interest of children; while this is a worthy goal, she uses it to step on all the people around her. It is irresponsible to give power to people who will use it only to satisfy their own impulses.

Clearly the system in place for DC Public Schools is broken--I don't think it can be fixed by someone who has no respect for systems or process and will subvert systems that are in place merely to expedite short-term goals. Successful administrators--i.e. Jerry Weast--are system builders and they develop and trust a due process that everyone buys into. Teacher buy-in is the most important stepping stone to school reform and that is not likely if teachers believe that they are perceived as expendable nuisances.

Posted by: osha1 | September 17, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

@ c-rho: All states have them, but in many states they are almost nonexistent (2% of teachers unionized vs. 100%). Interestingly, some of the states with lowest union participation fire *fewer* of their teachers for incompetence, while some states with the highest participation rate fire the most. (Not that you can BUILD anything useful by approaching people as though they're expendable...) You-- and most of America-- have been sold a bill of goods about the influence of teachers' unions.

@hdc77494: The rising costs of education have little to do with teacher salaries being out of whack. The average teacher in this country makes between $40K and $50K-- not at all unreasonable (especially considering how hard we work, and the fact that some of us go to work at risk of being shot or stabbed...).

The increase in costs that should really worry us is the shocking increase in the amount we spend on non-teaching consultants and PR people (who often make six figures for doing nothing to support children!) and the insane amounts on testing, preparing for testing, scoring tests, and maintaining data systems.

Posted by: TeacherSabrina | September 17, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

"Rhee's failure to even try, and then sometimes prevaricate when questioned, was what turned people against her."

I think you nailed it here. She didn't even *try* and then she avoided responsibility for her actions when she was challenged.

Posted by: oldmh | September 17, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

when you say:

"What we need in education reform are people who understand that there are complexities to fixing schools, that there is no one right way but plenty of wrong ways."

I think it is incredibly insulting and unintelligent to suggest that Rhee does not understand the complexities to fixing schools.

Posted by: susef

Rhee DOES NOT understand education in any way. In fact, she and her FTA cult cronies believe that ignorance of education is the primary qualification needed to run schools. The wear their ignorance of education research as a badge of honor and disparage anyone who actually takes the time to understand education issues. It is Rhee who is insulting and unintelligent and, apparently, so are you.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 17, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Let me break it down for my friends in Ward 3. When you visit the doctor, or buy a dress at Saks, or hire a domestic worker, or meet with your kids' teachers at Sidwell, you have some basic criteria for deciding whether you are being well served. One of those is respect from the service provider. I doubt you'd continue to see a doctor with a Hopkins medical degree and multiple NIH grants if you felt they didn't respect you, even if they could do a great job of making you well. The same probably goes for how you relate to elected officials. Michelle Rhee showed a great deal of respect to people in think tanks and expensive homes. However, she did not show a lot of respect for the average DC resident. She saw the people who actually raise the children that attend DCPS as an impediment to her plans and refused to engage them. Her town hall meetings consisted of her handing down her decisions and then confronting the attendees for 90 minutes before getting into her limo. She and her enablers defined this as "leadership." The election results were unfortunate, because I felt that at the end of the day she was a strong force for progress. But instead of being puzzled how the majority of the district voted against what you assume to be their best interests, ask yourself how often you tolerate a lack of respect from someone whom you employ and how often you are willing to be shut out of decisions that affect your kids.

Posted by: chgobluesguy | September 17, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for listing the red carpet names. Funny, we don't see those same folks at meetings or forums where more meaningful information on educ is shared . . . I realize it's impractical for lawmakers and media folks to attend or participate in some of these meetings and classrooms (look where Teach For America Week got us - yikes). Maybe red carpet VIPs already know that power and influence have been stripped (by Rhee in DCPS, by others elsewhere) from LSRT, PTA, and grade-level planning meetings. Or DC's ballot box.

People APPLAUDED the "devastating" comment?! And they wonder why we pull our kids out of schools.

Posted by: dcparent | September 17, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Title1SoccerMom, I hope all you in DC can put together a book about Rhee's misadventures.

I would also love to see a book about Arne Duncan's misadventures in CPS (Chicago Public Schools).

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 17, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

Thank goodness Rhee appears to be on the way out. A self-promoter, yes; a reformer, no. Her views and those of supporters of Obama's Race to the Top treat education as a business with children as the widgets. Why is it that the current crop of corporate "reformers" and elitist film-makers either have no children or have their children in private schools? It's easy to be in favor of mindless test prep when your own kids are enjoying enriching educational experiences with art, music, museum trips, and no test prep. Let the disadvantaged have test prep!

Posted by: northerngal | September 17, 2010 8:14 PM | Report abuse

Applauded? Very bizarre.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 18, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

If the problem with DC education really is the split between the haves and the have nots? then why shouldn't Michelle Rhee stay and finish the job under a boss that will require greater engagement with the have nots who are assumed to be black?
As a percieved have not I expect her to stay and finish the job. If she and her inner circle who are the haves are so great and can help the have nots then do so! I am telling Michelle to stay and deliver!

Posted by: walkerv5 | September 18, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

She is Americia s top Idoit on reform

Posted by: Darksecrettt | September 18, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Bravo to your continuing coverage, Valerie. Rhee's post-election comments say it all: Would someone who actually cared "only about the kids" have been so quick to effectively announce her refusal even to even try to keep working, with a new mayor, for those kids' benefit? "My way or the highway" is the proclamation of a diva, not a selflessly dedicated child advocate.

And you know what? As long as the business-culture derived "reform" agenda of the Gates and Walton foundations, the Arne Duncans and Joel Kleins dominate education policy, the more unprofessional, know-nothing
"Supermen" and women like Rhee will be empowered to wreak havoc
on the public schools.

on the public schools

Posted by: JCDV | September 18, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Ms Strauss for your excellent analysis. There is no "one fix" for better schools and I am disappointed that our leadership have decided that Charter Schools are the answer to our problems.

My spouse is a special education teacher and has done so for almost thirty years. I see her bringing her work home with her day after day and night after night. She is highly talented and her students profit from her instructions.

Unfortunately, she will garner any award for the work she is doing to help bring her students into the mainstream of society. No testing will ever detail the excellence in teaching that she has provided to her community.

We don't need a superman or superwoman for our school systems. We need funding, motivated teachers, motivated parents and motivated students. To even suggest that there is "a superman" approach is operating totally in the wrong direction.

Posted by: ronhamp | September 21, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse


Was Rhee unpolitic? Absolutely. Should she have tried to work something out with Gray? Possibly. We don't know what conversations have already taken place between the two of them.

But the reason she has gotten so much national attention is that she has hit on a nerve; had the courage to point out what the average person just sees as obvious: We are failing generations of children; the system we have is broken; and the people in it are fighting tooth and nail (e.g. $1M from AFT in primary) to block any change.

Are unions' constant efforts to block change a significant part of the problem, yes. Is the problem more complicated than union work rules, yes. Our schools of education need to have higher standards rather than taking anyone who walks off the street and our principals need to be trained to be able to give teachers the support they need to succeed, etc.

However, if the underlying intent of those claiming that Rhee didn't understand the complexity of this sitution is to try and find a solution out of the morass that is DCPS that won't hurt anyone's feelings, you're fooling yourselves.

Valerie (and all those cheering your commentary), you can dismiss this movie, but given that it was on the cover of TIME, it will be on NBC on Monday, it has been supported by Oprah, and it will be seen by millions, the core cry for change is only going to grow.

All of us have to deal with the fact that our schools were built for another era and they have to be redesigned (along with union contracts) to reflect a very different reality.

For those Dems looking to oust Obama, I hope you like what the Republicans are doing in LA, FL or NJ on choice and accountability, because that is your alternative. Duncan has stood for what he believes in and has engaged the unions as much or more than any Secretary of Ed in history. Be careful what you wish for.

Valerie you can put your head in the sand and say that those millions of people that are screaming for solutions are just being unfair and hope they go away, or you, and those in the system looking to hold on to what was built for another time, can listen and try to engage in solutions.

Posted by: cliff13 | September 23, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

All I Can Say Is This - take a look at DC school system in Four Years - I guarantee all the progress will be undone, and DC's school system will be even worse than it was before Rhee got here - however by then it will have been too late for the poor kids who will have been shunted thru the system - thank God i don't have to send my kids there - congratulations DC unions...

Posted by: paulserrano | September 24, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

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