Sunday, October 30, 2011

Michelle Rhee: Reformer with a Broom

Is the knife more powerful than the broom?
I'm sorry.  But there are times when the sight of Michelle Rhee makes me gag.  She's an attractive young lady.  That's not it.  She probably looks good in a bikini.

It's what she's been saying, and repeating for years now, and the pathetic way pundits and politicians lap up her "wisdom" that makes me reach for the closest wastebasket. 

You probably don't recall, but Rhee first attracted national attention when Time magazine ran a December 8, 2008 story about her “dynamic leadership” of the troubled Washington, D. C. schools. The cover showed her dressed in black, a broom clutched firmly in one hand.  A caption to the left:  “How to Fix America’s Schools.”  And a caption to the right:  “Michelle Rhee is head of Washington, D. C., schools.  Her battle against bad teachers has earned her admirers and enemies—and could transform public education.”

The title of the story inside was: “Can She Save Our Schools?”  

I taught for 33 years--eleven times longer than the Lady with the Broom--and figured I already knew the answer, but I read the article anyway.           

According to reporters, it was an incident involving Allante Rhodes, a junior at Anacostia High, one of the worst schools in Rhee’s district, that typified the bold leadership the chancellor brought to the task of transforming American education. Rhodes discovered one day that more than half the computers in the school lab were broken. Frustrated, he e-mailed Rhee for help and she answered immediately. (Rhee does everything immediately, and claims to respond to 95,000 e-mails a year.) Soon after, the two sat down for a chat. Rhodes came away impressed. A group of Anacostia kids began meeting with the chancellor to discuss ways to improve the school.

And who could possibly doubt that improvements were needed? 

According to Time students in D. C. were less likely to graduate in 2008 than parents a generation ago. “This is an issue that is warping the nation’s economy and security, and the causes are not as mysterious as they seem. The biggest problem with   U. S. public schools is ineffective teaching, according to decades of research.”  

Rhee promised then (and promises now) to address the problem head on, with a “relentless focus on finding—and rewarding—strong teachers, purging incompetent ones and weakening the tenure system that keeps bad teachers in the classroom.” 

It was bad enough that Rhee believed everything came down to problems at the front of the class. But it was a surprise reporters didn't notice.

First of all, the idea that we had some growing dropout crisis was nonsense. According to the New York Times (October 30, 2009) the high school graduation rate for Americans, ages 18-24, was 80.7% in 1973, and a quarter of 18-24-year-olds were in college. By 2009 the graduation rate was 84.9% and 39.6% were attending college.

The Department of Education broke the dropout rate numbers down like this:

% of Dropouts (16-24 year olds; all students)[1]:   1980  (14.1); 2008  (8.0)

Whites: 1980  (11.4); by 2008  (4.8)
Blacks:  1980  (19.1), dropping in eighteen years to (9.9)
Hispanics:  1980  (35.2), dropping to (18.3)
Asian/Pacific Islanders:  first categorized in 1990 (4. 9), by 2008 (4.4)
American Indian/Alaskan Native:  1990 (16.4); 2008 (14.6)

Look at those numbers carefully. If it’s all teachers, or tenure, what are the chances that all our worst tenured educators end up on Indian reservations?  Isn't it bad enough we stole all their land?
And wait:  Can a teacher MAKE a student drop out? 

Well, no matter. 

The Time article continued:  “In the view of Rhee and reformers like her, the struggle to fix America’s failing school system comes down to a simple question:  How do you get the best teachers and principals to work in the worst schools?” Rhee insisted that the answer was tying teacher pay to test results. The ability to improve test scores is clearly not the only sign of a good teacher,” reporters noted. “But it is a relatively objective measure in an industry with precious few.”

If you were a teacher you read that line and had the sinking feeling that Rhee was deluding herself—that Time was deluding readers—and that experts then, and now, were too arrogant to see they didn't really offer viable solutions. 

Thanks to Rhee, under a new principal Anacostia High was said to be running smoothly. Kids wore uniforms or ended up getting sent home from school. Reporters noted that halls were clear when classes were in session and now the computers all worked. On closer examination, however, it turned out Rhodes and the rest of the Anacostia student body had to be evacuated only weeks before Time ran the story, after fights erupted in the hall and three young men were stabbed. Rhodes told reporters—bad teachers and broom work aside—that he still didn't use the school restrooms which were filthy and unsafe. He waited until he returned “to his grandmothers’ house, where he lives.”

So, if you were a teacher, you rubbed your eyes and wanted to back up a moment. What was the biggest problem in our schools? Wasn’t it “ineffective teachers?” 

Isn’t that what decades of research show? 

Were “ineffective teachers” vandalizing computers before Rhee stepped in to save the day? 

Were they knifing pupils after she did?

Were bad teachers lurking in bathrooms, making them filthy and unsafe? 

And where were Allante’s parents?

If you’re a teacher you wondered why Rhee didn’t use her broom and whack the knives out of the hands of the criminal element and protect the good kids at Anacostia High. In fact, you wondered how test scores could be “a relatively objective measure” of success when students were spilling their blood in the halls outside the classroom door. 

Some day reformers are going to have to face up to the truth and admit that many problems in American education boil down to the stabber vs. stabbed. It’s never a problem to work with kids like Allante Rhodes. He’s motivated and wants to learn. So, I suspect, are most of his peers. Still, we cannot ignore the truth that students were being stabbed at Anacostia High.

This, then, is one of the unanswered questions in education, a question ignored by Rhee and never addressed by voucher advocates nor in landmark legislation like No Child Left Behind.  You can write all the national standards your little reforming hearts desire.

If the question is REALLY teachers, who's going to educate the stabbers and how? 

[1] This is the “status dropout rate:”   the percentage of young adults, ages 16-24, who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school degree.


  1. Michelle Rhee is quite a piece of work. She becomes a star as a diva salesperson for the line that unions are the problem with public education, something conservatives are in lockstep about. Those damn tests have dumbed down and narrowed our teaching and made good students in safe schools cynical about their education. Is there any chance at all that kids in schools where they're completely unsafe could give a crap about standardized tests -- written by contractors, graded by people making $7 an hour with five minutes per essay? No Child Untested is a plot to destroy our schools, ignoring their real problems and the problems of our society that shape our pubic schools. It's sort of amazing that we've allowed this sabotage to take place in broad daylight.

    Keep up the good work, John!

    -- Paul Breidenbach

  2. DC and Atlanta are no differnt than what happened on Wall Street in the early 2000s. The Worldcoms, dotcoms,and Enrons had cutting edge management that "empowered" their employees and reinvented the corporate model. Truth was, they reinvented accounting with Mark to Mark, and balance sheets looked great but the true health of the "new" corporate model was awful.
    DC and Atlanta put all the emphasis on test scores, which turned out to be cooked. The books (tests scores)looked great. The leaders became celebrities, but the teachers on the front line new it was a sham. Ain't no overnight miracles and supermans flying in to save the day when it comes to test scores. Marginal gains take years. At least Greg Canada understands you got to basically have a system that raises the kids from diapers to save alot of them. In the end, cooked books/scores were exposed. Sadly, the models based on "empowerment" and "accountability" didn't apply to the sham leaders like Rhee. They just walked away, moved on, and wrote books about how much they changed the world the for the better.

    1. Great comparison; I may steal this and use it in a future post.