Saturday, November 26, 2011

Michelle Rhee Calls for Teachers with Telepathic Powers

I'm way smarter than
normal teachers.
Therefore, I rule.
 Every so often, I find myself agreeing with something Michelle Rhee says. The rest of the time, I think she sounds nuts.

Rhee likes to say, whenever she can, that smart teachers are better than dumb teachers, and on that we can all agree. I don't even want a dumb plumber coming to my house.

Rhee, of course, got into teaching by way of Teach for America, a program designed to help graduates of top colleges like Cornell (which Rhee attended), Harvard and Yale get into the classrooms of America. And, if you haven't heard leading education experts rave, trust me, they believe Teach for America teachers are going to save public education because, well, they're smarter than us...I mean smarter than us off-the-rack, bargain-basement, every-day teachers.

You can hardly go two days in a row these days without seeing a story about America's failing system of education, and usually, about the third or fourth paragraph, the writer pinpoints the main problem and it begins with a "T."

What makes Rhee so scary, though, is that she says teachers aren't the main problem, they're the only problem. Parents aren't a problem and neither are students. Certainly, culture is not.

M. Night Shyamalan, the producer, once asked her at a dinner to explain what five factors were most essential to a child's education. Rhee scoffed at the question and assured him there was only one answer: "Have a good teacher three years in a row."

Shyamalan bought it, and so do most of the big names in reform today, like Arne Duncan, but that's like saying all you need to make a good movie are good actors. You'd think the producer of The Happening would know better.

You'd think Rhee would, too, but she has the same problem Duncan and almost all our education leaders have at the start of the 21st century. That is: she didn't teach long enough, putting in only three years in a classroom, two of those working with another teacher, and combining classes.

You probably have to be retired and interested in stories about education to notice:  but if you watch or read a lot of interviews involving Rhee, she always talks about how she and the other teacher took kids who were scoring at "rock bottom on standardized tests" and took them "absolutely to the top." 

This is before record-keeping and gathering data became the watchword of education salvation. So no records exist; but Rhee's old principal backs her up.

Okay. Maybe. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt. But what I notice is that Michelle Rhee never mentions the other teacher by name. I find that strange. It's like waiting to see Bigfoot.

It seems like it might be a while.

On this much Rhee is correct:  good teachers make a huge difference. But I taught 33 years and dealt with 5,000 kids and their families, and I wasn't the only person in the process that mattered.

Early in my career, for example, we had a young man in our school who missed 140 days in one year, and without any real medical excuse. It doesn't usually do much good to fail a kid, but in this case we had no choice, and fail him we did. The next year, with his immune system pumping out white blood cells overtime, he missed another 108 days.

Actually, it was a family tradition. There were three older siblings and over the years they all missed at least one day a week on average. Donnie was the last of the line, and the year I had him in 7th grade he was absent 51.5 days first semester. (Maybe he would have come to school more often if I was just smarter.) I did a bit of checking and discovered that in previous years he had missed 39, 43, 45, 49 and 67.5 days.

The year he was in seventh grade we had a fantastic young counselor in our building, and she would often go out to the boy's house and pick him up and get him to school or he would have spent even more time out of class.

We also took his parents to court four times, but the courts couldn't help much either.

Probably not a Teach for America judge.

If education is really all about teachers, then we don't just need smarter teachers. We need teachers with telepathic powers, who can reach kids sitting at home.

I mean, seriously.  Rhee is supposed to be a smart lady. She isn't supposed to miss obvious truths. In 2009, when she was on her way to fixing the Washington, D. C. schools, the average daily student attendance was 88%. That means the average kid was staying home 21.6 days every year.

Imagine the attacks on teachers' unions and all the dumb teachers we'd see in the press (and hear from Ms. Rhee) if the average teacher stayed home that often.

P. S.  Remember the Chicago Public Schools--where U. S. Secretary of Education really made his name?  You know:  the schools he fixed so well? 

In 2010 the average CPS student missed 26 days of class.


  1. You have to admit, telepathy is a very good skill for teachers to develop, if they're not too lazy and set in their ways...

  2. As a teacher with partial telepathic powers, I have to tell you it doesn't always help. If they are high or homeless pre algebra just doesn't matter much to them.

    Susan Wissel Reed