All hat, no cattle

JISHOU, HUNAN — I’m referring to Michelle Rhee, who has turned a short time as a classroom teacher and head of the Washington, DC, schools into a full-fledged career as One Who Has All the Answers to “save” America’s public schools.

I remain unimpressed, given that she has few concrete accomplishments to support her claims, thus the headline here.

Rhee is the subject of a short article in the Washington Monthly, and her new book, Radical, is the subject of a longer critical review in The New Republic by Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Lemann’s review is worth the read, especially if you think Rhee is the Queen Bee of school reform. Rhee has a single-minded approach to school reform, one that is fervently anti-union and test-oriented, but which ignores other factors that are related to student (and teacher) performance.

StudentsFirst [Rhee’s latest school reform project] represents the next step in the journey Rhee has been taking all along. All policy and no operations, it frames education reform exclusively in anti-union terms, and ramps up the rhetoric even higher than it was during Rhee’s chancellorship in Washington. (“No more mediocrity. It’s killing us.”) Rhee actually does know what life is like in a public school, but she either openly or implicitly removes from the discussion of improving schools any issue that cannot be addressed by twisting the dial of educational labor-management relations in the direction of management. She gives us little or no discussion of pedagogical technique, a hot research topic these days, or of curriculum, another hot topic owing to the advent of the Common Core standards, or of funding levels, or class size, or teacher training, or surrounding schools with social services (which is the secret sauce of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone), or of the burden placed on the system by the expensive growth of special-education programs.

Moreover, Lemann argues, Rhee has enlisted the support of corporate and political movers and shakers as she paints her manichaean portrait of a public school system beset by “mediocre” teachers and featherbedding unions. Most of her backers, he notes, have no idea what public school is like, and so buy into her melodramatic tale of woe.

But if the world of the more than fifty million Americans who attend or work in public schools is terra incognita to you, then the narrative of a system caught in a death spiral unless something is done right now will be appealing, and the reform movement’s blowtorch language of moral urgency will feel like an unavoidable and principled choice, given the circumstances. …

Likewise, the demand that all teachers be great (or above average, like Lake Woebegon’s children) has a certain emotional appeal, because we can all agree to this premise. Life doesn’t work out that way, however. Inevitably, somebody has to be on the other end of the Bell curve and most everyone else will lie in the middle. The goal of reform should be to improve both teachers and students toward above average, instead of jettisoning the cargo.

The quasi-essentialist idea that teachers are either “great” or should be fired, which pervades Rhee’s book and the movement generally, may be emotionally satisfying, but it utterly fails to capture what would really help in an enormous system. Making most good teachers better, in the manner of Rhee when she was teaching, would be far more useful than focusing exclusively on the tails of the bell curve.

Lemann doesn’t bring it up in his review, but this decade’s “school choice” movement — including voucher programs and charter schools — for the most part siphon the best students out of the public schools. Thus, the public schools in some communities end up with kids on the lower end of the standardized test scale, making the schools’ job to “perform” to an arbitrarily set standard that much more difficult.

Thus, we read reports of cheating scandals involving teachers and principals in Atlanta and Washington, DC, changing students’ answers on exams, and the curious system in New York State whereby the commercial publisher of the state’s assessment exams is also the supplier of materials to ameliorate low test scores.

Rhee is seen as the Queen Bee of school reform, not because she has years and years of experience as an educator and school superintendent. Alas, no! Her own self-promotion and winner-takes-all personality is all it has taken to become the tacit spokeswoman of a reform movement that does not even understand what it is trying to reform.

How very fitting.

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