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.