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February 20, 2013 at 6:00 AM
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
February 7, 2013 at 7:30 AM
Some decided not to have kids. Some thought they did not want to have kids, but did and loved it. And some have kids but understand why others are opting out.
I’ve been overwhelmed by reader reaction to my column, “Why I’m not having kids.” The emails I’ve received have been thought-provoking, honest, heartbreaking and uplifting.
On Monday morning, I spoke with Steve Scher on KUOW’s “Weekday” about the column. If you missed it, you can listen to the recording at KUOW.org.
Danny Westneat, a columnist on the news side, made the chase for why you should have kids in a Wednesday column.
I wanted to share some of our readers’ thoughtful emails. I’ll feature other emails in the next few days. Come back to the Opinion Northwest blog to check them out. Here are some edited excerpts from readers who agreed to share their names.
From Kathy Rauzi in Woodinville:
I admire your making the decision to not do it as opposed to just avoiding it until you can no longer physically have the option. Good for you. …
When I was in your place, I was definitely not interested in having kids and for all the reasons that you listed. Then my husband and I started talking about it and I realized he really wanted kids and I had never told him before we got married that I didn’t. So I decided to have children because of no other reason than the fact that I could not bring myself to deny them to my husband after so many years of marriage and the assumption that we would. It was that simple.
I am now 57 years old. My children are 25 and 22. I can say without a moment of hesitation that they are the greatest thing to ever happen to us. I have loved every moment of being a mom and my kids tell me almost every day that I am a great mom.
I write this to you only to say — its too bad couples can’t try it out parenting. I almost made the wrong decision based on my careful thinking about whether I should have children and that thought came to mind immediately after I read your piece.
From John J. Shaffer of Stanwood:
You have nailed it that we will not have children to deal with our aging issues. We are not close enough to nieces and nephews to entrust them with “end of life” decisions. So who will have the power of attorney for us when the end comes? A difficult question, yet to be resolved, though we do have some one (a friend) in place in case of an accident.
You speak of having a lot more money to shower on real-life nieces, nephews, mentees and philanthropic causes. That is true in our case, as far as philanthropic causes is concerned. Thus far we have endowed two significant scholarships, not for our own flesh and blood, but for students at a university. The one focused on the Congo gives a full ride to a student. The one in the United States only ‘helps a little’ for a student in the school we selected. The difference is in the obvious difference in cost.
Our decision enabled us to have some experiences ‘in the world’ that we would not have considered if children had been in the picture. We worked in one exotic place for seven years where I would not have taken children and we have had some travel opportunities that would not have been possible if children were in the picture. Children or travel? Many of our friends testify that they preferred the children, but others were able to do both. To each his or her own.
From Jenny Rhodes of Seattle:
I am the mother of two, and wouldn’t change it for the world, but I deeply respect your well thought out life plans. Too many people do not do that exercise before deciding to have children. So, thank you for doing your part for our planet and your family and for sharing your very personal life decision publicly.