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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 02/16/2011

4 concerns about Michelle Rhee

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Larry Ferlazzo, who teaches English at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California, and prior to that, a community organizer for 19 years. He is the author of Building Parent Engagement In Schools and writes two blogs, including one on Engaging Parents In School. He is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

By Larry Ferlazzo

A local magazine here in Sacramento is doing a big story on former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who, apart from Gov. Jerry Brown, might be Sacramento’s most famous newest resident. The writer asked if I would be willing to answer a few questions... Here's a summary of how I responded when he asked what I thought of the policies that Rhee and her allies in the “school reform” movement are promoting.
I responded by saying that I had four main concerns:

1) During her 3 1/2 year tenure as chancellor, Rhee seemed primarily interested in doing “to” teachers and families instead of doing “with” them. This lack of willingness to work in partnership and to listen, symbolized by her TIME Magazine cover holding a broom in a classroom, showed a lack of understanding of the basic tenets of power — sharing it with others doesn’t mean you have less; in fact, it means that the pie gets bigger for everybody with the new possibilities that are created.

2) I was very concerned with her focus on using test scores as the most important tool to evaluate teacher and student success. I referenced the discovery last week that the test scores her own students supposedly achieved when she was a teacher were far lower than she had claimed (see The Best Posts About Michelle Rhee’s Exaggerated Test Scores).

That doesn’t mean she wasn’t an excellent teacher — she might very have been. It does, however, point out that standardized test scores are easy to misinterpret and are probably not the best evaluation tool for teachers — or for students. At our school, we talk about being data-informed, not being data-driven. Test results are just one of many pieces of information that should be used when we reflect on our work.

3) I didn’t appreciate Ms. Rhee and her allies regularly portraying themselves as the “true” champions of children, while the rest of us were just “defenders of the status quo.” I believe that she and many of her allies truly do want to do what they think is best for children — I just don’t agree with their overall analysis of what needs to be done. That does not mean that I do not have the best interests of my students in my heart and mind everyday. I am wary of anyone, anywhere, in whatever policy or personal arena, feeling like they have a monopoly on the truth.

4) Plenty of research has shown that two-thirds of the factors that influence student achievement occur out of school. I don’t appreciate Ms. Rhee and her allies telling us that when we state that fact, we are just making “excuses.” That doesn’t mean that my colleagues and I don’t do everything within our power to push the boundary of that “one-third” area we can influence, including working with parents to try to combat some of those other factors. But saying that poverty doesn’t have a huge impact on our students doesn’t make it so.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | February 16, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Larry Ferlazzo, Michelle Rhee  | Tags:  d.c. schools, d.c. test scores, larry ferlazzo, michelle rhee, rhee test scores, student achievement  
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Comments

The falsehood referenced in point #2 is the basis of Miss Rhee's actions in point #4.

Posted by: edlharris | February 16, 2011 5:53 AM | Report abuse

Excellent points in this article!

If the government truly wants to help the schools, I would suggest a PR campaign to educate parents about how to help their children from the time they are born. I think this would be far more effective than Teach for America. Parents want the best for their kids--but some do not know how much the early years affect their child's education.

Sesame Street went a long way when it first came out, but I suspect that the young parents living in poverty are much more likely to watch MTV. When Sesame Street was new, there were few choices on TV. How about running ads on the programs the poor are watching (and the Spanish language stations) about the importance of talking with and reading with your child?

Also, ads reaching out to the teens to get an education and try to make going to school every day important. Organize the rap stars and athletes to reach out.

Motivation comes in many ways. TV might be more effective than social workers.

Posted by: mmkm | February 16, 2011 6:49 AM | Report abuse

Excellent post, as usual. I recently blogged about the many misconceptions surrounding the "open classroom" movement of the 1970s. Equally armed with impressive studies, proponents of "schools without walls" convinced DCPS to spend a great deal of money constructing these brave, new learning spaces. Last year's news that Dunbar Senior High School will now receive a more traditional, walled environment stands as a testament to the problems any cure-all in education always ferments.

I invite your readers to visit my blog at teachermandc.com to read more.

Posted by: dcproud1 | February 16, 2011 7:03 AM | Report abuse

What is the new chancellor of Washington DC schools doing? Who knows? It is all Rhee, Rhee, Rhee.

Posted by: ericpollock | February 16, 2011 8:15 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sure a "PR campaign," as that term is normally understood, is what s needed...but mmkm is on to something in stating the need for parents to be better educated about parenting.

There was an article the other day in the New York Times about Ronald Ferguson's research on the achievement gap, and he didn't lay the blame on schools.

See: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/14/education/14winerip.html?ref=education

One of the better articles on the influence of socioeconomics on school achievement is Richard Rothstein's "Class and the Classroom."

Rothstein points out that "by age 3, the children of professionals had vocabularies that were nearly 50 percent greater than those of working-class children and twice as large as those of welfare children."

See: http://www.ednews.org/articles/class-and-the-classroom-even-the-best-schools-cant-close-the-race-achievement-gap-.html

The reforms pushed by Michelle Rhee and other business-model advocates assume that teachers and schools can and should be held accountable for fixing the problems identified and described by Ferguson and Rothstein. They promote this line of illogic in the face of increased child poverty, greater student diversity, and education budget cuts.

(In Texas, for example, the proposal is to cut almost $5 billion form education over the next two years. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/education/15texas.html?ref=education)

The fact that Rhee and her charlatan cronies think educational inequities can be ameliorated by more testing, and more charter schools, and merit pay tied to test scores –– none of which have any serious research foundation –– shows just how badly they misunderstand the problem(s).

That's part of what needs to be made clear to the public.

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 16, 2011 8:33 AM | Report abuse

The world according to Ms. Rhee.

According to Ms. Rhee the reason there is large numbers of children that do not learn in public schools is not because these children have difficulties, but because teachers are incompetent.

Supposedly there is not the normal few incompetents in teaching that is found in any profession, but instead massive numbers that need to be weeded out.

And the results of standardized tests will allow for the weeding out of these massive numbers of incompetents teachers.

Since there has always been the problem of large number of children that do not learn since the start of public education in this country began, then it follows from the logic of Ms. Rhee that there must always have been massive numbers of teachers that were incompetent.

Time to recognize that when the political leaders speak about TFA, standardized testing,and accountability, they are not talking about dealing with the large numbers of children that have difficulties in learning, but rather weeding out the massive numbers of incompetent teachers that supposedly have always existed in this country.

Time to recognize that the idea of Ms. Rhee of massive numbers of incompetent teachers is as false as the claim on her resume that she has been forced to admits was false.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 16, 2011 8:46 AM | Report abuse

Teachers try to be fair but it is time to recognize that the starting premise of those who support TFA, standardized testing, and accountability is that there is massive numbers of incompetent teachers in the public school.

Time to recognize when political leaders supposedly praise some teachers and then talk about accountability for teachers, they simply are expressing there policy to weed out the supposedly massive numbers of incompetent teachers that exist in public schools.

There is no sense in a teacher attempting to be fair when the actuality is that the proponents of TFA, standardization, and accountability would consider that fair teacher to probably be one of the massive number of incompetent teachers that have to be weeded out.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 16, 2011 8:57 AM | Report abuse

In response to the comments about a "PR" campaign.

Whether it is the right term or not, and I have been arguing this point for years, we do not do a very good job "selling" the importance of the opportunites that are available to those who are educated.

It is hard to to instill in the children of children of children who were abandoned or disenfranchised by the public schools and society, for whatever reason, that their kids have a chance...things can be better.

And..also..if I may use a recent classroom experience. My 5th grade art students were assigned a project using the letters of their name to create a logo/design like Google does with its logo.

I showed a clip from CBS' Sunday Morning. After watching the clip, because all the Google employees featured were young, my students said, they must go to a rich school. I said, "no...that's where they work."

They next wanted to know if they got paid for "drawing" all day. I said yes...but, it was a little more involved than just drawing. We all agreed that it would be pretty cool to have such a great job.

The point...when your father's in jail, you live with your grandmother, your mother is a housekeeper at a hotel or drives a bus, your father is absent, and the neighborhood "hero" is either a dealer or thief or both, or you live in a camp ground in the summer and a ocean front hotel in the winter...to know that there is a better world is difficult concept for many of these young people to grasp.

We want these kids to succeed...but far too many of them don't know what they can succeed in or at.

We can talk about Rhee's shortcomings...we can discusss inadequate funding...but for some reason the message that the world's opportunities are unlimited has not filtered down to those who most desperately need it.

Posted by: ilcn | February 16, 2011 9:38 AM | Report abuse

This Strauss world is always so interesting. It has such a beautiful "Alice in Wonderland" quality to it.

Meanwhile in the real world:

"Republicans in several states have proposed legislation in recent weeks that would bar teachers’ unions from all policy discussions, except when the time comes to negotiate compensation. In Tennessee and Wisconsin, Republicans have proposed stripping teachers’ unions of collective bargaining rights altogether.

Education historians said the unions were facing the harshest political climate since states began extending legal bargaining rights to schoolteachers decades ago."

"The conference comes at a time when thousands of districts are facing their most severe budget cuts in a generation, and union contracts calling for layoffs based on seniority could force many districts to dismiss their most energetic young teachers.

But changing these policies could also prompt some districts to remove more experienced, higher paid teachers to balance their budgets."

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/16/education/16education.html?hpw

Posted by: frankb1 | February 16, 2011 9:43 AM | Report abuse

This Strauss world is always so interesting. It has such a beautiful "Alice in Wonderland" quality to it.

Meanwhile in the real world:

"Republicans in several states have proposed legislation in recent weeks that would bar teachers’ unions from all policy discussions, except when the time comes to negotiate compensation. In Tennessee and Wisconsin, Republicans have proposed stripping teachers’ unions of collective bargaining rights altogether.

Education historians said the unions were facing the harshest political climate since states began extending legal bargaining rights to schoolteachers decades ago."

"The conference comes at a time when thousands of districts are facing their most severe budget cuts in a generation, and union contracts calling for layoffs based on seniority could force many districts to dismiss their most energetic young teachers.

But changing these policies could also prompt some districts to remove more experienced, higher paid teachers to balance their budgets."

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/16/education/16education.html?hpw

Posted by: frankb1 | February 16, 2011 9:43 AM | Report abuse

A copy of my post from Mr. Mathew's latest piece:

Is anybody else tired of hearing about Michelle Rhee? I mean, I know it gets these education reporters a lot of "hits," but I suspect that it is actually harmful for DC kids who are stick in DC schools that are still selling them short. It's the journalistic equivalent of, "hey, look over here!"

I'd love to see Mr. Mathews and Ms. Strauss actually go to a few DCPS schools. Interview some parents, kids, teachers, check out the curriculum and assigned work. I know many parents of 9th graders at Wilson, for example, who are very disappointed at the low quality of teaching and curriculum. There are virtually no writing assignments. Let's focus on what's important for DC kids, and at this point, I don't think that's Michelle Rhee.

Posted by: trace1 | February 16, 2011 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Michelle Rhee is obviously a very polarizing figure. People seem to be for or aginst her with very few on the fence. I cannot understand the continued insistence to even discuss her. She's old news in DC. Move on already.

You could be using this space to actually discuss relevant eduction reform issues.

Posted by: paulhoss | February 16, 2011 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Thank Ms. Strauss and Mr. Ferlazzo. This was great.

Posted by: educationlover54 | February 16, 2011 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Intelligent, succinct and clearly written
article!

RE points by mmkm and ilcn:

- agree with some kind of media campaign to reach parents who are overwhelmed, poor, uneducated, etc. as to how to help their children in school. Would also add a lot more parent support groups around homework and discipline issues.....would probably necessitate hiring more social workers/counselors, but think it would be worth it.

- apropos to ilcn's point about young children having no idea what may be available to them, I had a similar experience: I took a group of intercity high school students to the large botanical gardens in Pennsylvania so we could look at the 'environment as art'. While walking around, one of the students looked at me, very puzzled, and said "The air smells so different here." I don't think he had ever been outside the city.

I guess the above two points raised means we have to be very conscious of what kind of reality students are experiencing in their everyday lives.


Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 16, 2011 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Copy of my post from Mathews:

Yes, Trace1, I'm very tired of hearing about Rhee. I wish she'd just go away, but she isn't.

Now she's screwing up education all across the country. I care about those kids, too, not just the kids in DC.

Posted by: efavorite | February 16, 2011 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Michelle Rhee is obviously a very polarizing figure. People seem to be for or aginst her with very few on the fence. I cannot understand the continued insistence to even discuss her. She's old news in DC. Move on already.

You could be using this space to actually discuss relevant eduction reform issues.

Posted by: paulhoss
...........................
Total failure to realize that education reform is totally based upon the idea of Ms. Rhee that large numbers of incompetent teachers are the reason for large number of students that fail.

Why is the spending billions on standardized tests and analysis of the results of these test a large part of the reform movement?

The answer is simple. These billions will enable weeding out of the supposedly large numbers of incompetent teachers who are responsible for the large number of students that fail.

The supporters of spending this money will give you all complex explanations.

But the reality is that a small percentage of incompetents are in every field and profession but you do not spend billions of dollars to weed these outs.

So you ask the proponents what is the reason to spend this massive amount of money to simply weed out a few incompetents.

Of course the proponents will not answer even though we know that they believe that this money will weed out the large numbers of incompetent teachers that they believe are the reason for large numbers of failing student.

So the tests will allow large numbers of teachers to be fired and replaced by new teachers that will be fired until it is seen that the idea is false since firing supposedly large numbers of incompetent students is not lessening the number of students that fail.

Meanwhile anyone with a bit of intelligence and common sense will tell you that even the child soccer coach that wins the state award for best coach will tell you that the idea that he could turn any child into a proficient player is absurd.

Time to look at the fact that Ms. Rhee fired almost one quarter of the teachers in D.C. and replaced them with supposedly competent teachers yet there was no dramatic increase on the national 2009 reading test in comparison to 2007.

If Ms. Rhee idea that large numbers of teachers were responsible for large numbers of failing students was correct there should have been a dramatic increase from 2007 while the reality is the that the previous Chancellor had a higher increas in scores in reading from 2005 to 2007.

Reading scores for Ms. Rhee from 2007 to 2009 increased a total of 6 points.

Reading scores for the previous chancellor from 2005 to 2007 increased a total of 9 points.

The reality is that the increase in reading scores dropped with Ms. Rhee even though Ms. Rhee fired large numbers of teachers that she claimed were incompetent and responsible for the large number of students that fail.

Time to recognize that the "reform" movement will fail since it is based on a falsehood.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 16, 2011 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Investigate this!
Rhee-form, edu-profiteers & sleazy, corrupt, HYPOCRISY

What was helicopter-in
Michelle Rhee’s ‘DAMAGE CONTROL’
for (boyfriend) Kevin Johnson?
note:
Michelle Rhee was on the
Sacramento school's board of directors
(and was "operations manager"/consultant)
for Kevin Johnson's privatized High School charter
--- during the time when
there were financial illegalities
& misappropriations of
($850,000) federal grants
and also a pattern
of outlandish sexual misconduct
perpetrated by school director
Kevin Johnson involving students (minor teens)
& subordinate (Americorps) school staff ---
as documented by
U.S. Govt. Inspector General
Gerald Walpin.

(crucial, must read) ==>
http://washingtonexaminer.com/news/congressional-report-rhee-did-039damage-control039-after-sex-charges-against-fiance-kevin-johns

also, more detailed
info. =>
http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2009/11/20/what-was-michelle-rhees-damage-control-for-kevin-johnson/

=========================

Posted by: honestaction | February 16, 2011 3:23 PM | Report abuse

...So because underprivileged students (who often have undereducated parents who are unable or unwilling to help with homework, are less likely to place a premium on education and do not have the resources to help their children succeed even when their heart is in the right place) routinely do not perform as well on standardized tests as privileged students with educated parents (who are more likely to make education--and homework, and studying, and quality reading/TV, and intelligent conversation--a priority, and who have the resources to help their children succeed if and when they struggle), this surely means that the underprivileged student's teachers must suck (which is undoubtedly directly related to the existence of a teacher's union to protect that teacher's due process)while the privileged student's teacher must be excellent.

2+2=5...????

Michelle Rhee and those who would "reform" in her manner oversimplify an equation, and while the author of this post says that he thinks she probably does have children's best interest in mind, I think it's giving her too much credit. Those who would "reform" that way are disingenuous at best. They know very well that it is simply not possible that all the teachers in "good schools" are great and all the teachers in "bad schools" are incompetent. There are great teachers, mediocre teachers and, yes, a few incompetents, in both settings. (I went to a "good" public school all my life and had great teachers, mediocre teachers and incompetent teachers. I work in a "semi-bad" public school now where there are great teachers, mediocre teachers and incompetent teachers.)

It is more politically expedient to blame teachers (and their unions) for the problems of social inequality and segregation than it is to address the real problems and look for real solutions. Real solutions would require investing in health care, real living wages for skilled and unskilled American workers, affordable housing, and, of course, public education, including raising teachers' salaries and professional standing to a point where teaching could be a competitive career goal. Then they would have to admit that corporate America was ripping off workers and taxpayers, that we have allowed our society and our schools to remain segregated or, in some cases, resegregate; that if you pay someone a pittance, threaten to take it away at any moment and treat them like an imbecile at all times (read: job description of a teacher) you aren't going to end up with an extremely qualified pool to choose from. That we have as many good teachers as we do is pretty amazing, given what we have to deal with.

Finally, if you want to improve education, look to countries with better systems. Their teachers enjoy more benefits, are fully unionized, and do not work on commission--test scores for a paycheck. Don't compare us to others unless you're willing to do something with that comparison.

Posted by: jenniesmith628 | February 16, 2011 5:43 PM | Report abuse

It is more politically expedient to blame teachers (and their unions) for the problems of social inequality and segregation than it is to address the real problems and look for real solutions.
Posted by: jenniesmith628
......................
I wish all teachers would see this and force their unions to start a campaign to fight back instead of accepting the "reform" movement idea of large numbers of incompetent teachers.

The President now claims to want participation from teacher unions when his national policy is that fault is with large number of incompetent teachers.

The teacher unions need to understand that you have to openly oppose such a political leader and not compromise with them.

Every compromise with such s political leader is acceptance that the problem is caused by large numbers of incompetent teachers.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 16, 2011 6:11 PM | Report abuse

Rhee is just one cog in a public school take-over. Title one children of this nation are being DENIED A PROPER EDUCATION. It is the Civil Rights issue of our time and the supposed "REFORMERS" are at the helm of enforcing policies which keep these school children preparing for and taking a barrage of tests. Where is the focus on learning? Meanwhile NCLB and RTTT policy forces teachers to spend day after day teaching to the test or suffer the consequence of school closings when their students fail these tests. Curriculum is severely narrowed. The business world is strategizing how to oust public education (transforming iit into privatized charters). Somewhere along the way it became okay to "market blitz " unproven, unsubstantiated ideas and "truths" to the public (about education). IF YOU SAY SOMETHING ENOUGH PEOPLE BELIEVE IT. Some of RHee's claims are finally being "fact-checked! I remember a time when Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts wanted campaign finance reform.. yes there was a time when the nation saw the dangers of mass media blitzes which became more about a war over which party had the most money and could CONTROL THE MEDIA. One group could "win" their personal agenda (no matter what that agenda was) so long as they had THE FUNDS to media blitz the public. Currently, NYC public school educators are under such an attack not too far off from what Senator Kerry once preached against. Bloomberg, Black and Klein are all linked to massive media empires and they have endless amounts of funding to promote education that is all about DATA not HUMANS. Rhee, is a foot solider whose actions support the over-arching goal - privatizing education to create a new profit frontier for business. Does anyone really believe that excellent teaching can enable every single student in this country to succeed by 2014? I would like to see some of these "reformers" teach children who suffer from the life-long effects of poverty. I highly doubt the line of argument that they preach (with Rhee at the forefront ) can hold up.

Posted by: teachermd | February 16, 2011 9:08 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: teachermd
...............
All that teachermd may be true but the reality for teachers, is that with national policy based upon the idea that the large numbers of students that fail is because of large numbers of incompetent teachers, many teachers will find themselves in mid career without a job and without a career.

The teachers in middle class public schools will find themselves without tenure in states that vote to remove tenure.

Teachers have already lost since with the off the street teachers now declared as highly qualified, the time and money spent to obtain teaching credentials is now meaningless.

Use the same techniques of the Obama campaign to get the support of middle class parents to show the President that using teachers as scapegoats will be very politically expensive.

Tell the teacher unions to contribute money and support for this effort.

There are more middle class parents satisfied with their teachers than the malcontent teacher bashers. Let them know how national policies since NCLB have effected the teaching of their children.

The reality is that teachers if they act together are stronger than the President and the charlatans since the ideas of the charlatans do not stand up. Any American parent can quickly see that the standardized testing emphasis will not benefit their children.

Right now teachers can do something. This is better than being found later out of both a job and a career.

Yes there is a great deal of altruism in teachers but it does not pay the bills.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 16, 2011 9:57 PM | Report abuse

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