About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Friday, February 18, 2011

The Meaning of Michelle Rhee

No one involved in education – probably including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan – has the media profile of Michelle Rhee, ex-Chancellor of the Washington D.C. public schools. For those of you who don’t follow the politics of school reform, and might know of Ms. Rhee only through, her appearances on Oprah and in Waiting for Superman, let me offer a brief history.

Ms. Rhee, who had taught school in Baltimore for three years through Teach for America and founded an educational non-profit called The New Teacher Project, was selected by then-Mayor of D.C. Adrian Fenty to run the D.C. schools – and to shake them up. Rhee did so, famously firing a number of teachers and administrators and closing some schools. She also negotiated a new contract with the teachers union.

The media loved her – young, attractive, spunky (she used words like “crappy” and “suck”), and determined, she was all over TV and radio and made the cover of Time Magazine holding a broom to sweep clean the district. When in 2010 the voters turned out Mayor Fenty, in part because of Rhee, and she resigned soon afterward, her popularity only seemed to rise. More OpEd pieces, more interviews, and lots of rumors about what next large urban school district she would run. Instead she has started a non-profit education reform group called Students First.

I don’t know Michelle Rhee. I don’t know what she’s like personally, off-stage. So what I’m going to write here concerns the public Michelle Rhee, the persona she offers to the world with, one can assume, forethought and strategy. There have been two recent events that have been much discussed and that might tarnish this persona and that I think are revelatory about some of the features of contemporary school reform – for which Ms. Rhee is a powerful symbol.

The first event. An independent arbitrator ruled that the District of Columbia must rehire 75 teachers who Chancellor Rhee fired during their probationary period in 2008. The dismissals were improper, said the arbitrator, because Rhee did not provide a reason for the terminations. The teachers had “no opportunity to provide their side of the story.” There is much to say here: the violation of due process, the hardship these teachers endured, the significant burden the ruling places on the already burdened district. But I can’t help but think as well of the irony that teachers in D.C. never felt they were heard by Chancellor Rhee (or, for that fact, by Mayor Fenty), and that the arbitrator cites Rhee’s not giving teachers a chance to speak on their own behalf as the “glaring and fatal flaw” in her action. So the broom that sweeps clean – the brash and decisive kick-ass-and-take-names persona that the media celebrated – in fact operated improperly and ended up causing her successor a whole heap of trouble.

Here’s the second event, and it has gotten a lot of attention in the blogosphere. When Michelle Rhee was applying for her Chancellor’s post in D.C. she stated in her resume that when she taught in Baltimore, she raised her students’ test scores in two years from the 13th percentile to the 90th percentile. It is a sign of her appeal that Mayor Fenty and then the media didn’t balk. Or was it just that they know so pitifully little about education? That kind of gain, even if Mother Theresa were teaching the class, is not credible. But it passed, and it resurfaced here and there as part of the developing mythology surrounding the dynamic Chancellor.

A short while ago, a fellow who teaches math in D.C. posted an analysis of the test scores from the school in Baltimore where the young Ms. Rhee taught. Though scores weren’t broken down by teacher, the overall scores were sufficiently modest to make the kind of gain Ms. Rhee cited statistically unlikely. It is possible that Ms. Rhee had those astronomical scores, and they were averaged out by several classes that were entirely in the hole by 40 or more points. Possible, but a quite unusual occurrence. A few weeks ago, Ms. Rhee said that if she were applying again, she would word the claim differently. The Chancellor who put such stock in standardized test scores has some difficulty representing the scores from her own classroom.

So what might these two events mean for the reputation of Ms. Rhee? Probably not much. She has extraordinary support from very powerful people and a remarkable ability to work the media. In a recent column in The Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss noted that the test score flap is beside the point and put her finger on the big issue: What did Michelle Rhee accomplish during her 3 and 1/2 years as Chancellor? The jury is still out on that question, though as has been happening in the reform environment of the last decade, initial big bang initiatives and events turn out to be disappointing – or worse have unintended consequences. Witness the reversal of Chancellor Rhee’s firing of those 75 teachers. (For a damning assessment of her tenure, see Leigh Dingerson’s The Proving Grounds.)

Perhaps it’s my old English major background surfacing, but I can’t help but see the firing/rehiring and test score episodes – and the very creation of the public Michelle Rhee herself – as emblematic of the weaknesses of current school reform.

There is the unflagging search for a miracle cure, a highly potent structure (small schools, charter schools), or technology (value-added measures), or figure (Ms. Rhee) that will do what past reformers were unable to do – and will be able to do it in any setting.

There is the technocratic faith in the machinery of standardized tests – and a vindication when the test scores rise. But the rise in scores frequently turns out to be temporary or in some way manipulated. Remember the “Texas Miracle?”

There is a belief in the tough, bold outsider, the gunslinger who will come in and clean things up. These gunslingers are often young, smart, quick on their feet, and very, very assured. But what comes with this character – a very appealing character for Americans – is a disdain for anything already in place, an unwillingness or inability to find the local good and take the time to learn local history. This attitude and bearing fits also with the technocratic dismissal of the old and the embrace of the new. A bad mix: the righteousness of the gunslinger with the naïve belief in the latest technology of reform.

The above suggests a Manichean view of the world; there are good guys and bad guys. You’re on the side of the good – and these days the bad are older teachers, teachers unions, ed schools, and pretty much anyone not on your reform wagon. Ms. Rhee is fond of saying that she and like-minded peers are in this “for the kids” and everyone else is simply looking out for their own adult self interest.

And finally there is the media savvy of the reformers. They are masterful at framing the debate, demonizing their critics, creating appealing narratives that touch a chord in the national consciousness. The public Michelle Rhee is a creation of this media machinery. But as my friend John Rogers, the Director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, pointed out to me, she equally represents the danger of the celebrity reformer – a creation that brings with it impossible expectations. The miracle cure embodied.

The sad thing, and at the end of the day it is sadness I’m left with, is the degree to which Michelle Rhee gave herself over to this celebrity machinery, a machinery that will amp up one’s most attention-grabbing qualities, indifferent to the consequences to one’s self or anyone else in the way. There is a scene in John Merrow’s PBS feature on Michelle Rhee and described in his new book, The Influence of Teachers, in which Chancellor Rhee is talking with members of Merrow’s film crew and casually announces that she is about to fire someone – and asks the crew if they would like to tape it. Fire someone on video. The person’s dignity is stripped away. But so is the humanity of Michelle Rhee.


  1. Very fine and thoughtful analysis. Thanks, Mike, for your thoughtfulness

  2. You are right, Mike, in that Rhee is an important symbol. What is sad, and even scary, is that she continues to have too many in the press who fawn over her, that she still has access to government leaders despite a record replete with inappropriate and even illegal actions dating back to her days as a teacher in Baltimore - for example, her taping shut the mouths of students. She will probably be able to raise the billion dollars for her new venture. She will continue to be sought out by the likes of the new Governor of Florida, on whose transition she served.

    Meanwhile those who have some real insights to offer on what we really need to do are excluded from the public discourse.

    Sad, isn't it?

  3. So...our challenges...and they are...is to challenge ourselves individuals and a community of teachers to not just TAKE BACK the dignity of our profession, but to MAKE BIG its PROMISE and POTENTIAL. I'm tired, like everyone else, of every single excuse we articulate for why something works or doesn't. Said, done, over! What matters more is that we don't pass the buck, that we don't turn a blind eye...because when we do, the Michelle Rhees of the world see a vacuum they can fiil. And those vacuums when filled with the right people with informed by dignity and a collective vision can transform to strengthen us all. When filled with ill qualified people, we end up where we are today. The "magic pill" is what many seek because it's easy, it's passing on the buck. Working hard, I guess, used to be a American ideal, but now we'd rather just pay others to work for us? Is that the new reform?



  4. Coming as I do from the perspective of "we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it any more", teacherken's remark about this being sad makes me want to start mobilizing! I mean yes, it's sad, but it is indeed the current situation which - as recent history proves - will only get worse unless we do something about it.

    Some of us are mobilizers, and some of us have other work ... mine isn't mobilizing (and I suspect, Mike, that yours isn’t either), but I do see a number of initiatives happening in our culture that suggest the time will come when like-minded educators will come together *inclusively* to create change in our field.

    Mike, your perspective often resonates, and today I especially enjoyed “These gunslingers are often young, smart, quick on their feet, and very, very assured. But what comes with this character – a very appealing character for Americans – is a disdain for anything already in place, an unwillingness or inability to find the local good and take the time to learn local history.” Having recently relearned about Chairman Mao and his disdain for anything traditional (and observing what that's done to China) makes me feel particularly energized about not letting it continue to happen here.

    Those of us who have been given a life that demanded we grow know the value of tradition (some of it, anyway) and the wisdom of maturity. Collectively we can provide a balance to the vagaries of today - we just have to come together (which I acknowledge is not an easy task).

  5. Excellent post, Mike. I have met Michelle Rhee, on several occasions, and what I have found is a person who can put on the charm and who dissembles on too many important matters. Some of us here in DC call her Madam Rhee because, just like Mao, she was more into tearing down and destroying than really building anything. Her claims of gains in the system, when examined more deeply, prove to be chimeras created by manipulating which students took the test. Instead of finding the good in our system and strengthening and building around that good she attacked everything. Good schools, such as Hardy Middle School, that not only did not need tinkering with but could have also served as models for other schools, were hurt by her management. Meanwhile, some of the worst schools in our system remain unchanged. Michelle Rhee spent a lot of district money on consultants - scandalously so. If a major news organization ever decides to really investigate her time in DC (and the Washington Post cannot be that newspaper because their parent company, Kaplan Testing Services, received millions in contracts under Rhee)it will be a national scandal. You can bet good money on it.

  6. People like to say that it doesn't really matter whether Rhee was misleading about her claims as a teacher. I think it's pretty important. I think denying Rhee another opportunity to claim, with stories from her "experience," that the only reason we have an achievement in the country is because of a failure on behalf of adults in the system is a worthwhile effort.

  7. sorry - achievement gap in this country*

  8. Thanks for this sober commentary on the Michelle Rhee media phenomenon and others like it. The shallowness, crassness and crude ambition of people like Ms. Rhee are pretty much on public display. Their dishonesty is not. Unfortunately, the first three qualities appear to be celebrated by the media and prized by their wealthy and powerful supporters. Whether the fourth will faze them is still doubtful.

  9. Thank you for this fine analysis, Prof. Rose. I put Rhee in abut the same category as Palin = celebrity without substance. I heard Diane Ravitch speak at the U of AZ on Feb. 16, 2011. A few solutions she offers for schools: (1)Recruit, train, mentor, & support teachers. (2) Do NOT hire non-teachers as principals or superintendents. (3) Balanced curriculum of arts, phys ed, science, math, language, etc. (4)Ask expert evaluators to make recommendations for specific schools. (5) High quality pre-K programs; start with parent education at childbirth. She also said that we cannot measure "caring" among teachers, but I think we can. She said firing teachers for low test scores is like firing doctors for bad test results when patient first goes in for exam. She said test scores reflect parents' SES. I think poverty can often equal poor health. Same analogy for education? She recommends SaveOurSchoolMarch.org in Wash DC in July 2011. Best regards from Tucson.

  10. Excellent essay, Prof. Rose. I have admired your work since reading "The Wooden Shack Place" years ago, and am equally impressed by this astute analysis.

    About a month ago, I published a similar analysis at Truthout (http://www.truth-out.org/lets-not-reform-public-education67006), a venue with a wide audience (of many teachers) I hope you consider republishing this excellent entry at.

    Thanks again,
    Adam Bessie
    Assistant Prof., English
    Diablo Valley College
    Pleasant Hill, CA

  11. Hi Mike,

    I particularly enjoyed your analysis of Rhee as the American gunslinger. There is a lot of truth to that. Why is it that we continue to hold such disdain for tradition, preferring instead to tear it all down and rebuild? The arrogant and unreflective American public is just as responsible for the hysteria surrounding current school reform as the symbolic big guns like Michelle Rhee. When we don't learn the local context and respect what has been built, we all suffer.


  12. Not much has been said yet about the ultimate dollar cost to the District of Columbia that will be the legacy of Chancellor Michelle Rhee. The recent decision demanding that DCPS reinstate 75 teachers and pay them back pay is only the beginning. There are other lawsuits pending that may cost DC 75-100 million $$. One action taken by the initial group of DC school principals fired by Rhee demands $68 million. A top to bottom examination of Rhee's impact on DC schools will present quite another picture of this "superwoman." She is dangerous.

  13. Thank you for this REAL analysis of Michelle Rhee. Perhaps the media should focus on the teachers and students who were greatly impacted by Ms. Rhee's actions. But, of course, that might not make "good" news.

  14. Spot on, Mike.
    Here in New York we have Cathie Black, a “tough, bold, outsider” following Joel Klein another “tough, bold outsider” and you’d be hard pressed to find a teacher or student who thinks that it has become easier, under these people who have no idea how education works, for learning to take place in our public schools.
    Where, I believe, you make a mistake is in trusting that these people are popular because their approach promises to make public schools better. I suspect that their real job is to make as big a splash as possible so that their supporters can throw up their hands and say, “See, the system is broken beyond repair. We need to all but abandon public schools and turn to the private sector.”
    Arlene Ackerman, Superintendent of Schools in Philadelphia, is busy turning schools that have been set up for failure into Charter Schools, refusing to listen to educators, students and parents who far prefer to hold on to what is good and target what is bad. Is she arrogant, well, here’s a quote she gave to Education Week (“Ackerman: Outspoken Teacher’ Crossed the Line.” Mar. 17), “All of this other stuff is of no concern to me. As long as I’m fighting for these young people, they’re going to be OK."

    I wonder if Michelle Rhee writes her copy.

  15. Great piece Mike. This sharpens your "silver bullet" critique further by pointing out the blindness/grandiosity of the characters often leading the charge for "reform." As the public, we tend to follow our infantile desire for a "hero," rather than take time and effort to understand our society's complex problems.

    I also appreciate you recognizing the dehumanizing impact on the "heroes" themselves ---Bravo!

  16. Sorry to pop in twice on the same posting Mike, but here is further support to the idea that destroying public schools (and thereby weakening our democracy) is at the heart of much of the current "reform" movement. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/03/21/26detroit.h30.html?tkn=WSUFZdcK9jXrQWbyYCI%2F2dYXSiKJWs2EaIeL&cmp=clp-edweek

  17. Hi, Mike,

    I know you're going to the march. I would like to make sure it's okay to list a link to your blog on our website under "Blogs That Endorse Us."

    Also, it looks as if the EdBloggersThankYouFest will be on Saturday, the March day. I don't yet know if it will right after the march or later that evening. I will keep you informed.


    Katherine Cox