Missing the point on Rhee
Enough oxygen has been sucked out of the air about whether former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee really raised student test scores through the roof when she taught briefly at a Baltimore school. I still find more telling her admission that she taped her students' mouths shut when she didn’t know what else to do to keep them quiet. (This really happened and it would be a career killer for anybody but Rhee.)
The real issue is what she and her supporters say she accomplished but didn’t in D.C. public schools when she was chancellor for about 3 1/2 years before quitting in October when her biggest supporter, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, was ousted from office.
A myth has grown up around Rhee and her D.C. tenure that essentially has her swooping in like an avenging angel ridding the place of bad teachers and setting the troubled school system on the road to redemption. The reason it matters that the myth be dispelled is because Rhee has become a hero to state legislatures around the country who seem to think that everything she says about school reform is gospel.
If Rhee had in fact saved the school system, or even come a significant way toward that goal, nobody would be cheering more loudly than me. But she did nothing of the sort. She came to the District, talked very tough and proceeded to make a number of changes, as new school district leaders always do. Some were helpful, some weren't.
She didn't stay long enough to know if any could qualify as a success, but her major initiative, a multimillion-dollar teacher evaluation system called IMPACT, has serious flaws and as a result, there is no telling whether some of the teachers Rhee fired were really ineffective. The Rhee myth leaves no room for this reality.
Perhaps the person who knows best how much work Rhee left needs to be done is her successor, interim chancellor Kaya Henderson, who has been trying to clean up several messes Rhee left in her wake.
Henderson has already made two changes in school leadership because of Rhee’s bad decisions, and now, she faces having to implement the ruling of an independent arbitrator who concluded that Rhee improperly laid off 75 new teachers in 2008 because she didn’t follow this simple rule: She was supposed to tell the teachers why they were being let go. Pesky rules just weren't her thing.
My colleague Bill Turque reported that now the District has to find the teachers and offer them reinstatement in an appropriate job -- and give them back wages minus any earnings they have accumulated since. The total could cost the system $7.5 million.
Perhaps Rhee, who is raising $1 billion for her new anti-teachers union Students First organization, could contribute to pay for her mistake.
The debate of the last week has been over whether Rhee inflated how much her students’ test scores rose when she was a teacher at Harlem Park Elementary School. There seems to be no conclusive evidence, and, frankly, I care more about the ill-advised test obsession that drove her reform effort while she was chancellor. Standardized tests are a lousy way to measure anything, and she wanted to measure everything by the results.
The statement that the Students First organization issued to refute the allegations that she inflated student test scores had a most telling last line:
“To our members, this episode is further proof of what we’re up against and why we need your support to get the message out."
It is bewildering to imagine what Rhee thinks she is “up against.” She is the darling of the reform world. The Obama administration supports and funds her style of reform, Philanthropists have showered her with millions of dollars for her to pursue her educational dreams.
The people who need to get their message out there are the very people Rhee and other reformers have attacked: public school teachers.
Here’s part of an e-mail that was shared with a handful of people, written and sent by a veteran teacher in the Washington region, Ken Bernstein. He was responding to a critic who said that those people who do not support current education reforms only complain and offer no alternatives. That is not at all true, but that discussion is for another time.
I am publishing Bernstein’s response (edited to remove names) because I think it authentically speaks to the way many teachers are feeling. I will leave in his abbrevations but here is what they stand for: NCLB, No Child Left Behind;TFA, Teach for America; DFER, Democrats for Education Reform; NLNS, New Leaders for New Schools.
From Bernstein's e-mail:
“There is near systematic exclusion of other voices from the media.
"Yes, Diane Ravitch has gotten an audience as a result of her recent book. .... But that is swamped by the puff pieces on Rhee in Time and Newsweek, by editorials in supposedly liberal papers that support the test-centric - or should I say test-obsessed? - approach to education.
"One reason Diane Ravitch experienced the overwhelming support for her book is that for many teachers it was the first time they had heard a major voice expressing the things that really matter to them...
"We can tell lots of positive narratives. How about Lori Nazareno at Denver’s Math and Science Leadership Academy, a teacher-run school? But does the president focus on that, or does he not give a dog whistle by focusing on a school which is used to pound on teachers unions with the claim that the union rules were interfering?
"And how can the President be telling people to become teachers when his Secretary of
Education is agreeing with Bill Gates that masters degrees are a waste of money, when his administration supported putting language in that let TFAers and people out of similar programs be considered ‘highly qualified’ under NCLB in direct contradiction to the ruling of the 9th Circuit?
"Right now the future of American public education is hanging by a thread.
"Right now the administration, DFER, TFA, NLNS, Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation, Walton Foundation, and a whole host of other interconnected groups are pushing an untested (except where it has been tried and failed) set of approaches that will be destructive, yet the issue is how we present?
"Why not ask Anthony Mullen about his experiences as NTOY [2009 National Teacher of the Year]? I remember one of his blog posts where he described that when he raised some questions he was treated like a skunk at the garden party, even though his was supposed to be the voice of America’s teachers.
"The shape of the teaching profession has to change. Lots of us know that. But not in the direction being pushed by this administration.
"Might I suggest that anyone who has not already done so read the new book called "Teaching 2030: What we Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools... Now and in the Future,” by Barnett Berry and a batch of teachers including the likes of Renee Moore, Ariel Sacks, Jose Vilson, Shannon C’de Baca, Cindi Rigsbee, Emily Vickery, Laurie Wasserman ....and if you do not know who every single one of those people is, is that not part of the problem....?
"Heck, I want the voices of students included. I showed two brief clips from "Race to Nowhere" to my AP students. It absolutely coincides with their experience. These are highly motivated kids, taking college level government in 10th grade. They are getting burned out.
"And yet we are offered scare stories, international comparisons (which do not support the uses that are made for them, but that is nothing new in educational politics) with an insistence that we must do more, have higher standards at the same time as we are cutting funding (which still largely comes from local governments whose tax bases have shrunk dramatically) at the same time as supposedly we leave no child behind. Balderdash - although I would prefer stronger language.
"Yes, we need to do the best job of presenting we can. But it will not matter if we cannot get access to the organs of mass media, without which it becomes harder to convince elected policy makers that we actually represent a point of view that is more commonly held by those who truly understand education.
"OH, and by the way, why are so few in the media pointing out the obvious: we have been pursuing a path on education at least since 1983 that has repeatedly failed, so why do we act like the compulsive gambler and still keep doubling down again and again on the same failed approaches?
"Sorry, I’m tired, and cranky.
"I am spread too thin.
"I am taking on even more, going to a conference cosponsored by EWA [Education Writers Association] and Carnegie on teacher quality. I am participating in a panel in my district trying to ameliorate the worst outcomes of tying teacher evaluation to student assessment. I keep writing.
"Yet all of that has to take second seat behind my responsibilities to my students.
"Those of us who take our teaching seriously already work too many hours.
"Some of us are still willing to take on more, to ensure that the voices of teachers are heard....Peace.”
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| February 10, 2011; 12:34 PM ET
Categories: Michelle Rhee, Teachers | Tags: d.c. schools, michelle rhee, no child left behind, rhee school reform, school reform, students first, studentsfirst, teach for america, the answer sheet
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