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!?
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All for None: The Racial Failure of the Duncan/Obama Agenda

Barack Obama

Barack Obama at the Urban League Conference Discussing Education

“There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” These were the words that echoed throughout the mind of many Americans as they watched Barack Obama ascend from a state senator to a prominent Democratic US Senate candidate. These words also echoed into the psyche and the rhetoric that has surrounded the idea that we currently live in a post-racial America. Who knew that in three short years he would be elected the first African-American president of the United States? What better indication that we truly live in a post racial America?

Ronald Takaki wrote in his book A Different Mirror using Maya Angelou’s words, “Race has functioned as a metaphor necessary to the construction of Americaness in the creation of our national identity. ‘American’ has been defined as white.” American has been defined a white. As inflammatory as one may see these words, there is truth to those words. Mr. Takaki went on to talk about how a cab driver thought he was immigrant, because he has Japanese heritage although his family had been in America for 100 years. The cab driver (whether intentionally or unintentionally) has portrayed the fact that a “Post-Racial America” is a nice idea, but doesn’t align itself with the actual reality of the situation.

Unfortunately, Barack Obama working with his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has ascribed to the idea that because we are all “American” that their “revolutionary” education reform plan Race to the Top is a measure that will benefit everyone equally. As Tim Wise discusses “To be fair, of course, the rhetoric of post-racial liberalism wasn’t something invented by the current President. Rather, it has its roots in the period immediately following the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for instance — an advisor to President Johnson before becoming a United States Senator — who first suggested that the nation would do well to engage in “benign neglect” when it came to the issue of race.” However, the “benign neglect” doesn’t just affect the rhetoric or the discussion it affects the future of Black Americans, Hispanic Americas, Asian Americans, Arabs Americans, etc. Why? Because despite what people may want to believe in their hearts, the history, experiences, and position of these people are very different from each other. A one-size-fit-all approach to education reform in his country is NOT the answer. Furthermore, reform measures like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTP) will not solve the problems of everyone. What it does it is make “Americans” be able to sleep at night.

Jonathan Kozol in his book Shame of the Nation discusses the paradigm of the one-size-fit-all approach.

“New Vocabularies of stentorian determination, new systems of incentives and new models of castigation are termed “rewards and sanctions,” have emerged. Curriculum materials that are alleged to be aligned with governmentally established goals and standards and particularly suited to what are regarded as “the special needs and learning styles”…a new empiricism and the imposition of usually detailed lists of named and number “outcomes” for each isolated parcel of instruction…are just a few of the familiar aspects of the new adaptive strategies.”

I read a lot of education blogs and education newspaper columnists who praise these efforts as a way of turning around education for “everyone.” However Kozol sheds light on the actual outcome. “Although generically described as “school reform” most of these practices and polices are targeted primarily at poor children of color.” Isn’t that what I am arguing for in this blog? Yes/No, yes I am arguing for a targeted approach however, not an approach that is “valued chiefly as responses to perceived catastrophe in deeply segregated and unequal schools.” (Kozol, 64) In other words, “Americans” cannot tell people of colour what the problem is when they are the creators of the problems then in turn mandate a solution. At the bare minimum, there is a conflict of interest.

The “Conflict of Interest” reform polices of Bush/Spellings and Obama/Duncan are prevalent in NCLB and RTTP. The policies ask for the creation of choice in public schooling so parents can choose a “better school” for their child. There has never been a mention of historically disinvestment in public schools that has been documented in many narratives including Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. The policies punish schools (teachers in RTTP) for failing students. However, there is no mention of the lack of resources for schools/teachers that has been a consistent problem and complaint since for decades in urban/rural school districts. The policies call for the creation of high stakes tests so that the government knows whether or not the students are succeeding. However, no one discusses that fact that these test typically measure the bare minimum in standards and do assess for other aspects of the students including “soft” skill increasingly seen as important in a service-based job market. Theoretically speaking I could go on and on, but I am going to choose to stop. Not because I feel that I’ve driven in the point, because all of this misses the ball.

My experience working with students of colour has presented me with a set of challenges that I have not seen addressed by the policies of Spellings/Bush and Duncan/Obama. I have had students who are homeless and the only meal of the day is the lunch at school. I have had students who have vision problems, but cannot afford glasses. Even if they get public assisted glasses, they have to wait for weeks and fall behind in school. I have had students whose older siblings are molesting them everyday, but afraid to say anything under the fear of being “stuck in the system.” I have had students who have no one to go home to at the end of the day, and therefore no one to keep them accountable for their homework assignments. I have had students who wanted to complete my research paper, but don’t have a computer at home to type it on and complain that the library doesn’t have word processing. While, these problems are not unique to students of colour in urban/rural school districts they have chronically been seen as prevalent problems. However, there is very little discussion of these problems. This is a reflection of not only a failed education policy, but also the fact that a post-racial America doesn’t exist. It is only when are ready to have a REAL discussion. We need a real discussion of the SPECIFIC historical and contemporary disadvantages of students of colour in urban/rural school district. We need a discussion that will make “Americans” feel uncomfortable. As long as we continue to believe that is not happening, we allow “Americans” to hide behind the notion of a post-racial America.