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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 01/15/2011

Education 'Inception' and Michelle Rhee's wrong idea

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Sam Chaltain, a D.C.-based educator and strategist. He was the national director of the Forum for Education & Democracy, an education advocacy organization, and the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, which helps educators create democratic learning communities. This post appeared on Huffington Post. Chaltain is the author or co-author of five books."

By Sam Chaltain
I just watched Christopher Nolan’s remarkable new movie "Inception," a futuristic film about a group of people who, through a variety of means, plant a thought so deeply in the mind of one man that it grows naturally and becomes seen as his own. In the opening scene of the movie, protagonist Peter Cobb rhetorically asks the audience: “What’s the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? No. An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea’s taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, or ignore it – but it stays there.”

Cobb’s movie-based challenge is not unlike the reality-based one being faced by today’s advocates for public education reform – how to seed an idea so simple and powerful that it can mobilize public opinion, inspire policymakers, and improve the overall learning conditions for children.

And yet after reading Michelle Rhee’s two newest efforts to launch her own form of “inception” – an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and her organization’s inaugural policy agenda – I see further evidence of both her well-intentioned vision for massive educational reform, and her fundamental misunderstanding about the power of ideas.

Repeatedly, Ms. Rhee has shown she believes that the best way to mobilize people is through conflict, oppositional language and negative emotion. In the Journal, she speaks encouragingly about the fact that “public support is building for a frontal attack on the educational status quo.”

And in the introductory paragraph of her policy agenda, she seems encouraged by the fact that her actions will “trigger controversy.” This sort of language extends the tenor of her brief tenure as D.C. Schools chancellor, when Rhee made enough inflammatory statements to become the single most polarizing education figure in country. Love me or hate me, she seemed to be telling us – but pick one you must.

In some respects, Ms. Rhee’s approach to idea-generation, much like her approach to management, is deeply rooted in 20th-century paradigms of mobilization and leadership.

Our culture has nurtured numerous shared archetypes of strong, authoritarian leaders – people who can make the tough decisions, go it alone, and refuse to give an inch. To compromise or collaborate is to be soft and exceedingly conciliatory, not to mention a weak-kneed guarantee that nothing will get done. Get with the program or get out. You’re either with us or against us. Don’t tread on me.

Of course, like all archetypes, these characterizations contain partial truths. To be all about compromise and not at all about principle is a poor model for leadership, and we do need leaders who have the fortitude to make tough decisions, hold people accountable, and speak simply and clearly.

Similarly, we all should share Ms. Rhee’s sense of outrage. And in the end, several of her policies make good sense. But in terms of the overall effort at inception – at seeding the foundational idea – one thing seems equally clear: a national movement that is based primarily on negative emotion will not deliver us the long-term changes we need in public education.

Christopher Nolan certainly feels this way – it’s the core message of his movie. “How do you translate a strategy into an emotion?” Cobb wonders. A colleague suggests that an idea fueled by negative emotion will work best – something that would grow and fester in the mind of an individual, building both anger and discontent until it could be turned into action. But Cobb disagrees. “Positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We yearn for people to be reconciled, for catharsis. We need positive emotional logic.”

I agree, and I wish Michelle Rhee would, too. She has a national platform, a vital issue in need of being addressed, millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of followers. Now she just needs the right idea.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 15, 2011; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Educational leadership, Guest Bloggers, Michelle Rhee, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  Christopher Nolan, Inception, inception, michelle reform and school reform, michelle rhee, michelle rhee and agenda, movie Inception, peter cobb, rhee, school reform, students first  
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Comments

Well, Sam, why don't you give her a call? Seriously? Maybe you could seed an idea. But she's had enough of no-change ideas, or ideas-that-will-take-a-decade-to-be-used, or ideas-that-put-teachers-first. If you can break out of that, maybe you will get her attention.

Posted by: axolotl | January 15, 2011 4:32 PM | Report abuse


I'm just speculating, but I do see a sort of philosophical difference in the way "business" and "education" seem to operate, and be motivated.

There is a something important about teaching that is inherently non competitive. It is self sacrifice and the idea that I will help you, not to make a profit for myself, but because I want YOU to do well at this that I love or at this that will help you in your future.

That is not to deny that there is healthy competition among teachers.
I think at the high school level, teaching may take on a more competitive nature. Teachers compete with each other to be the best in their departments. But, in contrast to higher education, where competition is based on research or paper writing, K-12 teachers are competing at being the best at helping others to learn.

Not everyone is motivated by the same things. Some of the qualities that make great teachers, such as compassion, intelligence, fairness, perspective and a willingness to be flexible and to learn about each new student group and how they learn best, may not always be improved upon by the motivators imported from business, like competition, conflict or monetary prizes.

Challenging students to work hard could be seen as conflict, I guess, but I see it more as a cooperative thing.

I agree with some of the reform ideas, or, I at least think they won't do much harm if everyone decides they want to go that way. (Standards, for example) What I find disheartening is the attacks made on the teaching profession. To me, all these attacks on low performing schools, are like blaming the fire department for the number of fires set.

My question to " the reformers" :What are you going to do to help these children in these schools to learn? Why would firing their teachers be your first "solution"?

Surely we can do better than that.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | January 15, 2011 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Its fools like this that show Michele Rhee, the no-nonsense advocate of children's education (and the destruction of the Teacher's Unions), is the only way forward. Just read this one sentence: "In some respects, Ms. Rhee’s approach to idea-generation, much like her approach to management, is deeply rooted in 20th-century paradigms of mobilization and leadership." This is someone who shouldn't be anywhere near a decision making process for education. Complete b.s.

Posted by: shred11 | January 15, 2011 6:14 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the previous poster (ubblybubbly) to a point. I think most teachers mean well and I do agree with the qualities stated that make a good teacher.

However, the problem with the "standards" is that we are frequently comparing apples and oranges. Teachers who have not taught in the very poor schools cannot even imagine the environment. It is tough. It can also be very rewarding. But, when students don't come to school every day and worry about where the next meal is coming from-or if Dad is going to beat Mom that night, you are probably not going to get a year's worth of advancement on your test scores.

Also, not all teachers are willing to cooperate and share with others--although, I believe that is the best way to develop good teachers--I learned the most that way. I taught elementary school and occasionally there is that teacher who just wants to go it alone. Sometimes, these are good teachers and sometimes not. And, lets all agree, there is a lot of "diva" in a lot of teachers. (That does not make them bad teachers, but it does make them want attention and credit for a job well done!)

I think part of the problem is the resistance to get rid of the really bad teachers. This has gone on for years. The schools must eliminate the really poor teachers. Some people are just not suited to be teachers. That said, had I not worked with wonderful teachers who helped guide me, I might have been the kind of teacher Rhee would have fired in my first year. Teachers should not be fired without some type of probationary period that includes assistance of some type--except for those who are seriously negligent. Unfortunately, even negligent teachers have been kept on the payroll. (I am talking about those teachers who show up late every day, are on the phone, or sit at their desk filing their nails for fifteen minutes while they wait for the bell to ring. These are the teachers that need to be fired.)

Posted by: mmkm | January 15, 2011 6:18 PM | Report abuse

@mmkn
Thanks for reading my comment. I agree with you about teaching/teachers and cooperation or lack of. My post was my own thinking on the business model (meetings, data, etc.) being pushed on schools. It is not all bad, in fact, with the right leadership it can work wonderfully.

I agree with you that the teachers you describe are the ones who should be fired. In my experience, the teachers who do these things and thus are incompetent, are the same teachers who become principal favorites in a poorly run school.

I do think they should be fired. Unfortunately, I see that they are often rewarded with supervisory positions, "easy" students, better daily schedules. They spend time gossiping and making life difficult for new teachers of their choice.

If I were getting the message that the reformers were trying to do away with the type of teacher you described, or the ones I am describing, I would be thrilled. I have seen 2 new principals and they both went after veteran teachers who happened to have been excellent teachers. What I saw was more an attack on perceived resistance to reform rather than actual resistance to reform. I was left with the idea that the administrators didn't understand what it meant to be a good teacher. Meanwhile, the "coming late everyday people" became favorites. Was this just this suburban district where I taught? Just the schools I had the bad luck to be at? I don't know, but it is certainly not reform unless reform is rewarding people who are trying to get by doing as little as possible while using the current jargon of the district.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | January 15, 2011 7:50 PM | Report abuse

P.S.
By Standards, I meant national standards like in math.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | January 15, 2011 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Good job, Mr. Chaltain - very astute - but there is one thing you don't seem to get. It's not that Rhee "...believes that the best way to mobilize people is through conflict, oppositional language and negative emotion." It's that it's all she knows. It's all she can do. She got away with it here in DC only because she had total support from the Mayor. That worked until the people spoke, in an election.

She gets away with it now because the media lets it happen -- actually facilitates it.

That will end - hopefully soon, before she does too much more damage, and then she'll go on being her exact same self - trying to find more victims.

Posted by: efavorite | January 15, 2011 9:04 PM | Report abuse

The real problem is that Rhee (and her co-new reformers like Duncan and Gates) are factually wrong and speaking to public assumptions and ignoring social realities and the lessons of history. . .MOST of Rhee's comments can be exposed as false, misguided, and inept:

http://dailycensored.com/2010/12/02/the-education-celebrity-tour-legend-of-the-fall-pt-ii/

http://dailycensored.com/2010/12/17/fire-teachers-reappoint-rhee-legend-of-the-fall-pt-iii/

Posted by: plthomas3 | January 16, 2011 8:24 AM | Report abuse

I agree with ubblybubbly and mmkm, in fact I think you and I may work together! Regardless, there was a lot of "dead wood" in DCPS for years. Much of it is gone now. Did some good teachers get fired in the Rhee era? Perhaps..... But now folks, please let go of your hatred of all things Rhee. She is gone, let's move forward.

I don't believe the business model can transfer directly into school leadership. We need principals and chancellors who have had success in the classroom over a sustained period of time. As previously posted, teachers are not largely motivated by money or competition. They are generally cooperative, compassionate people who love children and want to make a difference in their lives.

Posted by: pat1117 | January 16, 2011 9:15 AM | Report abuse

plthomas3 says, "please let go of your hatred of all things Rhee. She is gone, let's move forward."

Do you also think it would have been a good idea to stop discussing Hitler after he killed himself in a bunker? How about we erase the crusades from the history books and "move on" without confronting and analyzing their effect on history?

Besides, Rhee is only gone from DCPS -- she's still wreaking havoc across the country. Should we not care now that she's out of DC?

You might be a very reasonable person with an unreasonable idea, but whenever I hear someone refer to people concerned about Rhee's effect on education as Rhee haters, I find it difficult to take their others ideas seriously. I suspect that they are people who want to forget, rewrite or distort history. That is never a good thing.

Posted by: efavorite | January 16, 2011 10:13 AM | Report abuse

oops - sorry - it was pat111 who asked us to let go of our "hatred of all things Rhee."

Apologies to pthomas

Posted by: efavorite | January 16, 2011 10:22 AM | Report abuse

I have no desire to forget, rewrite, or distort history. You may think I am an idealist but I do not find hatred productive or good for the soul. I do believe in the need for thoughtfully planned reform.

Posted by: pat1117 | January 16, 2011 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I don't think all people who refer negatively to rhee or her polices are showing hatred. I think they are trying to learn from the lessons of history.

I think those who try to cut off such conversations by name-calling are not idealists; they are censors.

Posted by: efavorite | January 16, 2011 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I also think that Rhee is mistaken and that she is still effecting the national discussion on education. I don't hate her, but, I do feel I should be allowed to disagree without being called a name. I never worked in DCPS, by the way

Posted by: ubblybubbly | January 16, 2011 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Americans need to step up and demand that politicians restore "checks and balances" to our democracy.There is a problem we must acknowledge in this world... most of us are not Mother Theresa. She had a lot of power but didn't get this power through amassing great amounts of personal wealth. Her heart was just in the right place and she managed to steer a straight course. There are many mega rich who may have started in the right place but are led astray by the euphoria of "wealth". Wealth at some point doesn't produce this euphoria.. so it is on to power! Mega rich imposing their will on society are becoming dangers to democracy. This is apparent with what is occuring with public education right now. There are also way too many people in positions to effect change who are willing to "join their mega wealthy power-hungry disciples" because of this "drug" we call "power"... I would like to believe in the human race and to see these "leaders" as individuals who began with noble intentions but have been led astray by sheer power. Mega money buys too much in this current climate. Our government has had some rocky times and continues to have them but I am an eternal optimist and believe that at some point collective sanity will kick in and we will allow balance to be restored - the balance that the Founding Fathers intended.

Efavorite and plthomas make valid points. After reading their commentaries I started to reflect on this...there is an archetype that repeats itself over and over in cartoons and films (a group of power-hungry types wanting to impose their will to rule the world)... And yes this archetype isn't pulled "from the air" it comes from understanding events in history . And another point... it is not a valid argument to claim dissent is hatred, that dissent is the enemy, that dissent is opposition to truth and the likes! This seems to be a comment heard over and over by reformers seeking a business model of education... that anyone who opposes their views "opposes reform".. ughh!

Posted by: teachermd | January 16, 2011 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Rhee's management style is very similar the person in this article in the Wall Street Journal. This is a must read...
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111504576059713528698754.html?KEYWORDS=chinese+tiger+mother

Posted by: lacy41 | January 16, 2011 2:30 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if anyone is auditing the contributions she is getting. I wonder how much she is taking for herself.

Posted by: educationlover54 | January 16, 2011 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Like Education lover54, I wonder about the contributions Rhee is soliciting. Hopefully, the people who are contributing to her "nonprofit" are asking some questions, such as "How much are you taking for yourself?"

I just read a description that, in my opinion, fits Ms. Rhee perfectly. It was taken from the report on the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster:

"Hubris refers to an exaggerated pride or self-confidence that turns into arrogance. It results from excessive admiration of oneself, a series of previous successes, uncritical acceptance of accolades and a belief that one is exempt from the rules. In the end, hubris is eventually rewarded with disaster and comeuppance."

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 16, 2011 3:20 PM | Report abuse

efav. -- just love your not too subtle attempt to put Rhee and Hitler in the same bin.

You make so many valuable analytical comments on these blogues, but when will good values overcome your desire to trash Rhee?

Will it happen when the mayor appoints Henderson as the permanent supt.?

Posted by: axolotl | January 16, 2011 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Rhee is the Camille Paglia or Dinesh D'Souza of her era -- all ideologues bankrolled by the far right. Consider her non-career for a moment: two years in an elementary school classroom straight out of college working through Teach for America; next, off to a think tank for a bit; then -- lo and behold! -- hired as the D.C. schools superintendent?!?! (That leap should have given any outside observer pause.) She serves only three years in that position amidst controversy and divisiveness. At the end of her tenure,she has very little to show for her "reforms," many of which will not survive the decade, but she did manage to sink the political aspirations of Adrian Fenty, her erstwhile ally. On the whole, she has accomplished very little and said even less that merits much attention. Somehow, she made the cover of Time Magazine and has been given a forum in every major media outlet in the country. Obviously, aggressive rhetoric and personality-driven showmanship has kept her in the spotlight as it has Sarah Palin and similar lesser lights. Something doesn't add up. But like Paglia and D'Souza, she too will eventually fade away.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | January 17, 2011 5:53 PM | Report abuse

Rhee is the Camille Paglia or Dinesh D'Souza of her era -- all ideologues bankrolled by the far right. Consider her non-career for a moment: two years in an elementary school classroom straight out of college working through Teach for America; next, off to a think tank for a bit; then -- lo and behold! -- hired as the D.C. schools superintendent?!?! (That leap should have given any outside observer pause.) She serves only three years in that position amidst controversy and divisiveness. At the end of her tenure,she has very little to show for her "reforms," many of which will not survive the decade, but she did manage to sink the political aspirations of Adrian Fenty, her erstwhile ally. On the whole, she has accomplished very little and said even less that merits much attention. Somehow, she made the cover of Time Magazine and has been given a forum in every major media outlet in the country. Obviously, aggressive rhetoric and personality-driven showmanship have kept her in the spotlight as it has Sarah Palin and similar lesser lights. Something doesn't add up. But like Paglia and D'Souza, she too will eventually fade away.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | January 17, 2011 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Rhee is the Camille Paglia or Dinesh D'Souza of her era -- all ideologues bankrolled by the far right. Consider her non-career for a moment: two years in an elementary school classroom straight out of college working through Teach for America; next, off to a think tank for a bit; then -- lo and behold! -- hired as the D.C. schools superintendent?!?! (That leap should have given any outside observer pause.) She serves only three years in that position amidst controversy and divisiveness. At the end of her tenure,she has very little to show for her "reforms," many of which will not survive the decade, but she did manage to sink the political aspirations of Adrian Fenty, her erstwhile ally. On the whole, she has accomplished very little and said even less that merits much attention. Somehow, she made the cover of Time Magazine and has been given a forum in every major media outlet in the country. Obviously, aggressive rhetoric and personality-driven showmanship have kept her in the spotlight as such strategies have buoyed Sarah Palin and similar lesser lights. Something doesn't add up. But like Paglia and D'Souza, she too will eventually fade away.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | January 17, 2011 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Wow, another disgusting negative piece about Michelle Rhee. Valerie Strauss will publish anything that slams her. Of course, Rhee's philosophy is POSITIVE, not negative. Her foundational idea, doubtlessly shared by the author, is that all children deserve an excellent education. Surely achieving that vision requires removing many obstacles. She shrank a bloated central staff, she got rid of many of the textbook delivery issues, fixed up the school facilities and achieved many of the things that lesser managers have failed with over the years.

However, get rid of a few teachers and all of a sudden you stepped across the lines of the unions. These organizations, with illegal monopolies on labor supply, do not tolerate threats to their power. So, a campaign of racist lies began, flamed by idiots such as Strauss and Turque at the Post, combining to show their power by helping drive Fenty from power in favor of old school back scratching politics.

Posted by: staticvars | January 18, 2011 9:53 AM | Report abuse

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