If Michelle Rhee is the Devil incarnate as her critics insinuate, Satan’s time observing the challenges of public schools was well spent.
Rhee notes characteristics of poor-performing schools: low expectations – particularly of low-income and minority students – uneven teacher quality – marked by the worse teachers in the poorest schools – and a bloated bureacracy paralyzed by dueling views on education reforms.
Solutions – big and small – are laid out in “Radical: Fighting to Put Students First.” The book is part memoir, chronicleing Rhee’s tumultuous period as superintendent of the Washington, D.C. school system. Rhee was just 39 when she became the surprise choice to run the lowest-performing school district in the country – the gap between the achievement levels of DC’s white and minority public school students was 70 percent at that time. Her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty told her to move at 100 miles per hour to improve the system. (His advice came at his own political peril. Fenty lost a bid for re-election in 2010 largely because of Rhee’s education reforms.)
Rhee followed Fenty out the door and launched StudentsFirst, an advocacy group envisioned as a counterbalance to the formidable fundraising and political clout of the two national teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. StudentsFirst’s inaugural report ranking states on education reforms gives Washington state a D grade based on this state’s slow crawl to reform.
A Washington Post review of Radical said of Rhee: “Either you admire her do-whatever-it-takes attempts to overhaul a system that had become a national embarrassment, or you loathe her as a power-mad, union-busting, school-closing dictator who trampled over teachers, parents and public servants.”
Rhee has some faults. Her ham-fisted attempt to fire her way to teacher quality sent many good teachers out the door. But Rhee is also deliberately misunderstood. She does seek a balance in standardized testing, which remains still the best way to compare millions of students with each other. She supports using test scores as part of a teacher’s evaluation. As a former Baltimore public school teacher, she points to valuation models that control for poverty, English language difficulty and other challenges as offering teachers fairness and transparency. This kind of regression analysis is a common statistical tool. Rhee also supports student input and classroom observations as part of teacher evaluations.
Rhee, like her political opposite, Diane Ravitch, is far more nuanced in person than her detractors give her credit for. Regardless of the side of the education reform divide one falls on, most people agree public schools must improve by changing how they operate. Charter schools may still be verboten in some circles, but everyone is now talking about innovative schools that differ from regular schools largely in the amount of flexibility and freedom from rules they have.
I suspect the ire against Rhee has more to do with the way she promotes reforms rather than with the reforms themselves. Rhee has ripped off the rose-colored glasses many card-carrying liberals have worn since Brown v. Board of Education. These public school boosters knew the schools did not work for every student – and they knew those most likely to get the least out of the public system would be brown, black and/or poor. The response was to cloister ourselves into a system of haves and haves-not tracked into the best schools and the worse.
Rhee not only shakes everyone out of their complacency, she makes them feel bad for protecting a system that disenfranchises generations of black and brown kids. She makes some Democrats feel as demonized as those Demcrats sought to make Republicans feel.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that “Ms. Rhee’s weakness is her bedside manner.” But, he correctly added, “pussyfooting around difficult issues hasn’t helped America’s schoolchildren.”
Photo: Lynne K. Varner/The Seattle Times