Thursday, January 10, 2013

Capsule Television Reviews: The Education of Michelle Rhee

I watched the PBS Frontline documentary on Michelle Rhee on Tuesday night and on Wednesday afternoon. As is almost always the case Frontline's "The Education of Michelle Rhee" was, as is typical of PBS programmes, enlightening, educational, and thought provoking.

I had heard the name Michelle Rhee before, largely, I suspect because of NPR coverage of the controversies swirling around her during her three year tenure as the chancellor of the Washington, DC Public School System from 2007 to 2010. I really didn't know much about her and the reforms she proposed and initiated in the DC schools, however. Thanks to the wonderful "The Education of Michelle Rhee" I now know something about the educational reform ideology of Michelle Rhee.

The Ann Arbor born and Cornell and Harvard educated, in Government and Public Policy, Rhee, as she tells us during the "The Education of Michelle Rhee", is a Korean who, when she was appointed by the newly elected mayor of Washington DC Adrian Fenty to run the DC school system, had never run a school system before. Rhee did have teaching and educational reform experience, however. She taught for three years through the non-profit Teach in America programme, an organisation she learned about while watching PBS, in what she describes in "The Education of Michelle Rhee", as one on the toughest elementary schools in Baltimore. After a successful three year teaching stint Rhee founded the New Teacher Project in Philadelphia in 1997 to train professionals to teach in urban schools primarily in New York, Chicago, Miami and Philadelphia. It was Rhee's experience as head of the New Teacher Project that led the DC school system to ask her to redesign its hiring and recruitment process. From there it was but a short jump to the chancellorship of the Washington DC Public School system.

Chancellor Rhee granted Frontline educational reporter John Merrow extensive access to her and to her attempts to change Washington's schools during her tenure as chancellor, something that is hard not to read, at least in part, as an act of self-promotion and publicity seeking akin to her appearance on the cover of Time Magazine with broom in hand. In "The Education of Michelle Rhee" we see Rhee talk to faculty and administration. We see Rhee walk through Washington's schools. We see Rhee interact with students. We see Rhee initiate a test to measure teacher performance based on student performance on the DC CAS, Comprehensive Assessment System. We see Rhee take on the teacher unions and the tenure system. We see Rhee take on parents. We see Rhee grease the political wheels in order to acquire almost absolute authority over the DC school system including the right to unilaterally hire and fire. We see Rhee close schools whose enrollment is too small. We see Rhee do many of the things some educational reformers, particularly on the American political right and in corporate board rooms, had been urging schools and politicians to do for years. We even get to see Rhee fire a principal whose face has been technologically ghosted just like one of those perp pervs on one of those stings of child and teen predators we used to see regularly on NBC's Dateline. When asked by Merrow if she felt "compassion" for the man who she just terminated Rhee said "no" but rather she felt good because she had just let someone go who wasn't doing his job.

At first, as Merrow and "The Education of Michelle Rhee" tells us, Rhee's reforms seemed to work. Test scores and graduation rates in one "the worst school system in America" rose. Rhee's reforms and her treatment of employees of the DC Public School System and parents made her a number of enemies, however, particularly among DC's teachers, teacher unions, administrators, parents, and politicians. Eventually Rhee's enemies banded together and after the defeat of Fenty by Vincent Gray, a Washington City Councilman who initially supported Rhee's reforms but then turned against our White Knight, at the polls, Rhee resigned as chancellor of DC's schools. Rhee went on to found StudentsFirst in 2010, an organisation that lobbies for educational reforms Rhee favours, drafts educational reform legislation consistent with Rhee's reform proposals, and backs political candidates that share Rhee's reform perspective.

If the story ended here it would be a tale of a White Knight who rode into town to bring much needed change and reform but who was stymied in doing so by entrenched bureaucratic interests looking out for their own petty interests and by parents who just didn't get it. But the story doesn't end there. As "The Education of Michelle Rhee" goes on to tell us, those vaunted test and graduation rate achievements during Rhee's reign--increased elementary and secondary school standardized test pass rates in reading and math and increased system-wide high school graduation rates--are not necessarily what they at first seem. The US Department of Education Inspector General and a USA Today study found high rates of erasures of wrong answers and their replacement with right answers on the DC CAS at one "model" school, something the USA Today reporter who wrote the story calls the statistical equivalent of winning the lottery. A former employee of the school system, Adell Cothorne, claims she witnessed teachers changing wrong answers to right ones one evening after school-- remember student achievement on the tests is what determines whether teachers and principals will be kept on--and that once she changed the locks on the storage units in which tests were stored test scores went down. A private company, Caveon Test Security, was hired to look at the issue of erasures and it along with an investigation by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education headed by a Bush appointee could find no evidence that cheating went on in DC's schools. Both of those investigations, as "The Education of Michelle Rhee" notes, however, were limited. Rhee's success in DC, in other words, may not be the success she and others have touted.

While there is much to admire about Rhee--her commitment to improving education and her commitment to improving student achievement, for instance, a commitment her biographer Richard Whitmore calls zealotry in the documentary, a zealotry that I think borders on self righteous messianism--her approach to educational reform is not beyond criticism. First and foremost, Rhee seems to place most of the blame for student underachievement on tests on teachers. She does this in part, I think, because she tends to do what we humans often do, she sees her ability to improve the grades of her troubled Baltimore students in those three years that she was a model teacher, as something that every teacher has the potential ability to do if only those teachers would be more like her and do more like her. Rhee the fetishiser. The problems with this perspective are several. First, yes there may be some bad teachers out there. Yes many of these bad teachers may be bad because they have burned out out there. The reasons for teacher burnout, however, may be less that they are bad teachers than that they have found out after years of teaching that the interest of some students in a liberal arts education is limited if not non-existent. Some teachers may feel, in other words, that they are banging their heads against a brass wall of student disinterest. Second, it is simply easier for Rhee to blame teachers for student failure than to blame the students themselves or their parents because god forbid that we wreck the self-esteem of little Dick and Jane, god forbid that we offend the parents whose political support we may need, and god forbid that we take a critical look at a school system that mandates a one size fits all educational model. Third, there is the issue of Rhee's success itself. As Frontline reminds us Rhee or Rhee's principal, the person Rhee blames for the what turns out to be exaggerated claims that her students at Baltimore’s Harlem Park Elementary moved from the 13th to 90th percentile on standardized tests over the two-year period while she was a teacher in Baltimore, and one of the Bee Eater's--a name Rhee acquired after she reportedly killed and ate a bee in her Baltimore classroom--own students said in an interview with Frontline that she was one of the few who really took learning to heart during her tenure in Rhee's class.

I give Frontline an A+ for "The Education of Michelle Rhee". I give Rhee an A for effort, a D for her educational reform philosophy, and a D- for her failure to really take seriously the broader contexts in which students and schools are embedded, things like TV, music, computers, mp3 players, cultural capital, class, status, poverty rates. I give her a F for not recognising the role parents play in schools and student education, don't forget that many American parents believe evolution and global warming are myths and that the creation myths of the Bible are true--45% in a recent poll said they believe in creationism--and that many of these same parents while proclaiming the divinity of the American Constitution out of one side of their mouth try to undermine the constitutional separation of religion and state out of the other. I give her a F for thinking that education in all its complexity can be measured solely by a test that teachers spend, unfortunately for real education, most of their time teaching for because their livelihoods depend on it. All of these play important roles in student motivation just as much if not more than teachers do. In the end it is hard to escape the conclusion that Rhee herself is part of the problem with education in the United States because she doesn't recognise that the very reforms she is pushing, particularly the notion that you can measure educational achievement or the lack thereof via a test, is itself undermining the very thing it presumably hopes to save, true liberal arts education. The Michelle Rhee School of Educational Administration, after all, is the educational version of Taylorism. Taylorism, which is all about numbers and humans as mental automatons, and its simple minded postivist understanding of the social sciences, humanities, and arts, kills any semblance of critical thinking. Welcome to Rhee's brave new world.

Suggestions for Further Reading:
Diane Ravitch's Blog: A Site to Discuss Better Education for All
Taking Note: Thoughts on Education from John Merrow

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