Monday, January 24, 2011

Michelle Rhee's achievement

It says here: DC schools are not the very worst

Check out the most recent edition of Lapham's Quarterly. In his preamble,"Dancing with the Stars", Lapham sketches out the anatomy and history of celebrity, associating it with earlier manifestations like, "the vanity of princes" or the "wish for kings" or the "pretension to divinity " found in some leaders in all societies, including ours, especially "since John F. Kennedy was king in Camelot, and the collective effort [to manufacture fame]--nearly fifty years of dancing with the stars under the disco balls in Hollywood, Washington and Wall Street..."

There is always, always, a hot new thing, and always a new niche opening. For the moment, former DC public school chancellor Michelle Rhee occupies a celebrity niche in education; type Michelle into a search engine and Rhee will pop up before Obama.

But her moment is likely passing. Rhee has moved on to her own nonprofit organization, Students First, and to Sacramento where she will live. The Students First website promotes the organization as the agent of a national movement that will influence educational policies down to the state and local level. The website features glowing generalities about great teachers, informed parents and motivated students, but little about the Rhee's confrontational attitude toward teachers unions, the ultimate basis for her celebrity. Rhee and Students First, according to Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss, "are attempting to raise $1 billion for her new effort to take on the teachers unions." Rhee, it appears, still prizes confrontation with teachers unions above all else.

In her short turn as chancellor, a little over three calendar years on the job (but likely less than that in real time), Rhee crafted her own image as a teachers union nemesis. And the media responded. See, for example, Time magazine's 2008 take on Rhee, who posed on their cover holding a broom with which she would presumably sweep out the "bad" from America's schools as a way to get on the right track, or Fast Company's 2008 cover story, "The Iron Chancellor," which applauded Rhee's serve-the-children-damn-the-adults rhetoric, or the same magazine's 2010 follow-up on Rhee, which included her off-with-their-heads explanation for the firing of some 250 teachers, "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school," Rhee says. "Why wouldn't we take those things into consideration?"

Standardized test scores improved after Rhee's first year on the job, but the results from the next two years were mixed. Nevertheless, Rhee gets lots of credit for "fixing" a disastrously bad school system. "When Rhee took over in 2007, D.C. schools were tied with Los Angeles for worst-in-the-nation status," writes Richard Whitmire (author of The Bee-Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation's Worst School District), in "Rhee's necessary toughness." Her achievement, Whitmire, observes, "boosted the District off the cellar floor." Such an improvement hardly seems worth celebrating, but Whitmire is pleased with it and pronounces his disappointment at being unable to "identify one state poised to make Rhee-style academic gains."

So in the wake of Rhee's scorched-earth march through DC, we are now looking for other leaders who will, at a minimum, literally decimate the teachers unions in various school districts, abandon her post in three years or so, and leave behind minimal gains on standardized tests that cannot be correlated with specific, sustainable reforms. Such are the gifts of celebrity.

No comments:

Post a Comment