I Hate When You Put on the God Costume

Omnipotence – an agency or force of unlimited power

George Sr. - Arrested Development - Wearing the God Costume

I was told at a forum that I went to on education reform by a man who had a PHD in Education Policy that, “teachers are the most important factor in aiding whether or not a student succeeds.” I was struck by this comment. Not because I haven’t heard it before, but because someone with a PHD in education policy would ever utter those words. I thought to myself, Me? The most important factor in student success? I must be God.

Rhetoric regarding education reform is full of this level of unrealistic omnipotence. There is an alarming level of complacency in the idea that the teacher is the centre of education and the answer to failing schools is centred on addressing the inadequacies in the teachers across the country. Moreover, the omnipotent rhetoric doesn’t end with just attacking teacher “ineffectiveness;” it also exists in discussing the solutions to fixing failing schools.

Education reform will not come to past if there is a continued filter of omnipotence that guides rhetoric and policy. Rhee argued in her Student’s First Mission Statement that “[o]nce inside the school, a great teacher is the single most important factor in a child’s education. While there are many factors that influence a student’s ability to learn, a great teacher can help any student overcome those barriers and realize their full potential.” Can Michelle Rhee explain to a teacher how they are supposed to help a student “overcome” living in a home with lead paint and being subjected to lead poisoning through their developmental years? Can Michelle explain to a teacher how to help a student “overcome” the barrier of a father who is sexually abusing her, and the local child protective services say, “There is no evidence to prove that this child has been abused, because she is sexually active?” Can Michelle Rhee explain to a teacher how to help a student overcome the “barrier” that is in place for a student who is so exhausted when he comes to school because his parents get in physical altercations that keep him up nightly? These are all examples of students that I’ve had in the past, whose “barriers” stifled their “full potential.” The student with lead poisoning had to be placed a severe learning-disabled self-contained classroom, because he only read at the second grade level (he was in 10th grade). The student, whom was being abused by her father, killed herself because despite my (and other teachers) best efforts, she felt that no one could save her. The student, who witnessed daily domestic violence, watched his mother being killed and went into a deep depression because he was essentially an orphan. As much as these situations pained me, and still do to this day, I know that I did my best to help these students. It is my awareness that I am not omnipotent that keeps me going to help the students who have a lesser degree of personal circumstances. However, to Michelle Rhee, I am an ineffective teacher because each of those students was failing my class when their lives changed forever.

I wish I could say that these are unique problems that many teachers, who work in the toughest schools in this country, deal with. The problems that plague our schools are so much deeper than any one inadequate teacher, the bureaucracy of the teachers unions, the layout the teacher evaluation system, and the rigour of the state standardized tests. The problems that plague schools are historic, economic, racial, and societal. This is why I am confident that Michelle’s “RHEEforms” aren’t omnipotent, regardless of the number of billionaires, media outlets, and filmmakers that are on her side. There is no simple solution, and the mere fact that the Student First’s mission statement is nonchalant in “the factors that influence a student’s ability to learn” implies that solutions are omnipotent.

Principals? Administrators? the Federal Government? Angels?

The Student’s First blog featured a video that was a compilation of teachers, who were concerned about school reform, and one teacher’s comments gave me pause.

“When we have to contract out how many hours a teacher spends, how many hours they get paid after school…how many hours they have to be on school premises…that is not putting kids first.” – Barbara, Learning Specialist

Additionally, in an interview with nj.com, Michelle Rhee argues:

“I don’t think we need to reform tenure. I don’t think there is a need for tenure. Teachers need to understand they are not going to be discriminated against. If they feel they’ve been unfairly terminated, they need to have a process by which they can address that issue. School districts need to ensure firings are not happening in an unfair manner. But all of those things can happen without tenure being in place. [T]here are federal protections in place against discriminatory firings.”

In both the statements by Barbara and Michelle Rhee there is an “air of omnipotence” that seasons their rhetoric. The “air of omnipotence” is demonstrated here in three forms:

• Teachers are not human; therefore they should give all of their time, effort, and energy towards educating students with little to no compensation.
• Principals and other administrators are infallible; therefore they will not subject teachers to any practices that may be deemed discriminatory.
• If a non-infallible principal happen to slip through, then the omnipotent anti-discrimination laws by the federal government (you know…the law that makes sure that women and men are paid the same) will protect them and their reputation while they go through the courts.

I am sure most of you reading this are thinking that these statements are ludicrous. Nevertheless, this is the nature of their rhetoric. This is what happens when you scapegoat one group of people in a system with a lot of players. There is an unrealistic precedent created that will not lead to the reforms needed. This is why the Due Process (pejoratively known as “Tenure”) and teacher’s unions are important. These two elements of the educational landscape do their best to level the playing field for the people who work with STUDENTS day in and day out. While I will never assert that teacher’s unions are infallible and omnipotent, stripping the landscape of these two entities only serve to leave unrealistic expectations for all players. When I was unfairly fired from a charter school a couple of years ago, I created/adopted a mantra that I will always believe: “As long as schools are run by people, we will always need unions.”

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Really Michelle Rhee!?

Michelle Rhee wearing her signature black suit showing that she is "sweeping" away the bad teachers. (Photo: flackrabbit.com)

One can’t help but have a warm-fuzzy feeling when you hear Michelle Rhee talk about education. It is those warm and fuzzy feelings that have garnered Rhee the celebrity that she has gotten since she left her post as the Chancellor of DC Public Schools after 3 ½ years. (NOTE: Waiting for Superman made a pun against a former DCPS school leader who left after a short time. – But I digress) As sympathetic as I am in the need to reform schools, I am quite stunned at the apathy that Michelle Rhee has towards anyone that doesn’t support or embrace her agenda. Her apathetic tone has been a trend since she left her post at DC Public Schools. Before anyone embraces her or her drive to “reform” America’s education system, one must ask what really are Michelle Rhee’s motives?

 

“Yesterday’s election results were devastating, devastating. Not for me, because I’ll be fine, and not even for Fenty, because he’ll be fine, but devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, D.C.”

This was a quote taken by the Washington Post on the day she found out that soon to be former Mayor Fenty lost his primary bid for re-election. In an interview with NPR she said, “I wish that the reporter would have actually expressed the entire sentiment and not just those words…[b]ecause what I said was, it was devastating because I have received calls from people inside the city and across the nation who are saying this is the worst thing that could’ve happened to school reform.” Even Rhee’s half-baked attempt to backtrack on her words still had an air of arrogance that shouldn’t surround a reformer, especially for the “civil rights issue of our time.” Reformers for civil rights issues like Martin Luther King never purported that the issue was hinged on one person, however Rhee has certainly set up that precedent.

In all fairness to Rhee, who wouldn’t feel arrogant? She was propped up as a hero in the movie Waiting for Superman. She has been made education advisor for the governor’s elect transition team in Florida. Oprah enthusiastically embraced Rhee on her show by saying, “I don’t have the know how to fix it…I have been saying from this platform that somebody needs to fix it. [A]nd the fact that you stepped up and said ‘I am the one to do it,’ God bless you.” Is arrogance what he need in the school reform movement?

Despite the fact that I disagree with many of Rhee’s policies, her apathy towards anyone who doesn’t agree with her agenda is the biggest sticking point with me. I am sure there are many educators across the country that would be willing to sit down and discuss the issues facing education with Rhee and come to a consensus. Unfortunately, Rhee’s goal is not to develop or create a consensus rather, it’s to develop a national competition on who is right, and who is wrong. She is creating national competition on who can be labelled education reformers and who are the members of the status quo. The most alarming thing about this competition is that she is participating in a competition that she feels she can invariably win. Why? Because she has the backing and support of big names with large sums of money like Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and Oprah who believes that Rhee has the “solution” to the problem in education. To add to the alarming factor, she believes that competition is acceptable in the education – even among children. She was quoted saying, “We have become a little too obsessed about making kids feel good about themselves…[w]e have lost the competitive spirit.” Is the competition what we need to change the American school system for the better?

“After the shock of Fenty’s loss, it became clear to me that the best way to keep the reform going in the D.C. schools was for me to leave my job as chancellor….But I felt that Mayor-elect Vincent Gray should have the same ability that Fenty had to appoint his own chancellor. And I knew I had become a lightning rod and excuse for the anti-reformers to oppose the changes that had to be made.” (Newsweek Editorial)

Really Michelle Rhee!? “Anti-reformers oppose the changes that had to be made.” It is that inflammatory and self-serving rhetoric that spurred the opposition against Michelle Rhee. Education is a consequence of and rooted in democracy. In other words, the stakeholders must be represented in the decisions that are being made throughout the school district. The mere fact that the stakeholders are demanding that they are to be heard is not a function of being an anti-reformer but of being an anti-“RHEE”former. Rhee should not be allowed to say, “I know people say I wasn’t good enough at building consensus, but I don’t think consensus can be the goal” on one hand and then appear on Oprah or purport on her new “Student’s First” website that the mission is to build a national movement to defend the interests of children. Are the parents integral to the success of children, therefore they the first defence in looking out for the interests of them? Aren’t the teachers that work with them day in and day out looking out for the interests of children? It is unfair for Michelle Rhee to vilify and stifle the voices of the stakeholders in the name of her version of reform.

Is this picture very inviting to you? (Photo: atlantic.com)

Really Michelle Rhee!? I think the most ironic thing about her fame especially on the hills of her Student’s First website launch is that she is going to “transform education” by creating a special interest or lobbying group? (I hope that everyone reading took a few moments to let that settle in.) Isn’t this same person who tarnishes teacher’s unions for being a special interest group? Isn’t this the same person who in her Newsweek editorial, argued that even textbook manufacturers shape the agenda in education reform? However, it is not ironic to believe that her Student’s First organization is no better than the teacher’s union or the textbook manufacturer simply because she puts the word STUDENT in the title. She even asserted that school board meetings rarely discuss children, however her agenda includes mayoral control, merit-based pay for teachers, and increased accountability based on test scores. Where is the mention of children? Aren’t these just bureaucratic policies towards education? This is the same bureaucracy that Rhee is against.

Really Michelle Rhee!? This “reformer” clearly has a difficult time staying consistent. In her Newsweek editorial she said, “I did a particularly bad job letting the many good teachers know that I considered them to be the most important part of the equation. I should have said to the effective teachers, ‘You don’t have anything to worry about. My job is to make your life better, offer you more support, and pay you more.’ In other words, hindsight ‘I should have been nicer to teachers.’” However, in her speech in Sacramento she once again antagonized ALL teachers by asserting that teacher training schools are filled with the “lowest performing students” – better students choose other careers. Once again, Rhee failed to discuss the nuances of some of the better Schools of Education around the country including the one of her alma maters, Harvard University. In that one statement she debased a whole segment of current teachers and future teachers who went to teacher training schools –many of you reading this blog post. (Full Disclosure: I went to a teacher training school too.) However, teachers around the country are supposed to rally behind her in her brand of school reform.

After reading and listening to Michelle Rhee it has become very difficult for me to have any warm-fuzzy feelings about her or her agenda. Contrary to her belief, I do want the best for my students and I am sure the educators reading this blog post do too. It is in that vein, that I can never support someone so condescending and self-serving as Rhee has become. Oprah may be a successful media mogul – successfully endorsing books – but I am not quick to jump on the Oprah bandwagon here. In the end, I have found that Rhee’s “Student’s First” organization is nothing but a platform for Michelle Rhee to pontificate on a national scale. Her organization will do no more to serve the needs of children than the teacher’s union, the textbook manufacturer, and bureaucrats that she lambastes in the media. The organization is not about students; it’s about Michelle. That’s fine! However, don’t insult the intelligence of many educators in the meantime. Really Michelle Rhee!? We don’t need a queen; we need a leader!

Late Add
Let’s just say for the sake of conversation that her “reforms” are “well-intentioned” and in the spirit of students. Here is some data she cannot dispute:

  • She will still be the wife of a prominent politician.
  • She will still make a lot of money with her “Students First” organization.
  • She still made $275,000/year as chancellor of DCPS.
  • She makes good money from her television appearances, movie appearances, and her work in Florida as Hess’ transition team in Florida.
  • Because of her wealth she has the option to send her children to private school.
  • AND if her “reforms” crash and burn because of her untested “reforms,” alienation of educators, and apathy towards anyone who disagrees with her including her stake holders, she will STILL have all the above, and the parents, community members, and students will still lose. Really Michelle Rhee!?