I Don’t Understand Michelle Rhee

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Education Week

I Don’t Understand Michelle Rhee

I am trying to understand Michelle Rhee. She has allied herself with the most right-wing governors in the nation, yet she claims to be a Democrat. She has worked with Republican Rick Scott in Florida, Republican John Kasich in Ohio, Republican Chris Christie in New Jersey, Republican Rick Snyder in Michigan, among others. Any governor who wants to cut teachers’ rights and benefits can call on her to stand with him. Wherever there is a governor eager to dismantle and privatize public education, she is there at his side.

In Indiana, she stood with Republican governor Mitch Daniels as he successfully pushed through voucher legislation. In almost every state where charter legislation is under consideration, she is there to promote the glories of privatization. She is active in Georgia and Alabama and many other states, where the charter movement is likely to do serious harm to rural, exurban, suburban, and fragile urban communities, where the public schools are central to the local community.

A friend in Alabama went to an event sponsored by Rhee’s organization, StudentsFirst. Rhee’s representative told the 20 or so people at the meeting: “Alabama’s charter legislation will not allow for-profit operators to manage charter schools. Period.” Except that her statement is not true. The Alabama legislation says that after the charter is awarded to a nonprofit, it may turn full management and instructional responsibility over to a for-profit operator. It cannot be a spirit of civic generosity that motivates for-profit corporations to lobby the Alabama legislature to pass the bill. Why would Rhee’s representative be so misinformed, or why would she seek to mislead?

I am troubled that Rhee thinks that teachers are the biggest problem facing American education. Attacking teachers seems to be her hallmark. I was at an event on Martha’s Vineyard last August when Rhee repeated a story she has often told: three “great teachers in a row” closes the achievement gap. I was waiting for her to say it, and I quickly chimed in to say that it is an urban myth. While writing my last book, I tried to discover if there was any district or any school that had actually closed the achievement gap by providing “three great teachers in a row.” Certainly teachers make a difference, and no one would dispute that it is wonderful to have three great teachers in a row. But no one has ever figured out how to achieve this feat in an entire district. Certainly Rhee didn’t when she was chancellor in the District of Columbia.

Rhee has turned this urban myth into a national crusade against teachers. If scores are low, she suggests, it is because the students have lazy, incompetent teachers who should be fired. She achieved national notoriety in Washington, D.C., for her readiness to fire teachers and principals whom she judged to be unworthy. You may recall the infamous cover of Time magazine, where she posed sternly with a broom, ready to sweep clean the District of Columbia’s public schools. She did clear out a large proportion of the professional staff in the D.C. schools, and she did impose a new teacher evaluation system called IMPACT.

However, the benefits of her innovations are questionable. For one thing, the federal NAEP tests in 2011 showed that the D.C. public schools have the largest achievement gap of any city tested by that program; the D.C. black-white achievement gap is fully double the gap in the typical urban district. For another, USA Today documented a major cheating scandal in the D.C. public schools during her tenure. At the center of the scandal was a principal Rhee had repeatedly singled out, honored, given bonuses, and promoted. He resigned.

Of all the images of Rhee, the one that sticks in my head is when she invited a PBS film crew to watch her fire a principal. She said to the crew: “I’m going to fire somebody in a little while. Do you want to see that?” Of course they did, and they filmed it.

In another infamous incident, Rhee told an audience of young teachers that when she was a teacher, she controlled her restless class by putting duct tape on their mouths; when the tape came off, their lips were bleeding. Apparently, the audience found that act of child abuse very funny.

Today Rhee is a national figure. Her organization claims to have a million members, though it has been suggested that anyone who goes to her website is automatically registered as a member. StudentsFirst sends out deceptive email solicitations — I received one myself — asking the recipient if you want to see a great teacher in every classroom. Rhee’s name does not appear anywhere on the email. If you answer yes, you are registered as a “member” of StudentsFirst. I don’t understand this kind of deceptive marketing on behalf of someone who claims to be concerned about education.

Her organization allegedly has raised more than $200 million and is well on its way to raising $1 billion. This money will be used to attack teachers’ unions; to strip teachers of any job protections; to promote vouchers, charters, and for-profit organizations that manage charter schools; and to fund candidates who want to reduce spending on public education and privatize it. I have heard rumors about big-name donors to Rhee, but can’t verify them. StudentsFirst does not release the names of its contributors.

Let me add that I find offensive the very concept of “StudentsFirst.” The basic idea is that teachers are selfish and greedy and do not have the interests of students at heart. So students need a champion to protect them against their venal teachers, and Rhee is that champion. Supposedly, Rhee and her allies — assorted billionaires, big corporations, wealthy foundations, and rightwing governors — are the only people who can be trusted to care about our nation’s children. A New York City writer, Gail Robinson, recently challenged Rhee’s claim to be above self-interest after Rhee announced that she was bringing her campaign to New York City.

I try to see the good in other people. I have my failings. But, honestly, I don’t know how Michelle Rhee can take satisfaction in fomenting so much antagonism toward teachers. Does she really think that students will learn more if their teachers live in fear? How can she feel good about leading a campaign to turn public education into a for-profit enterprise and reduce teaching to a job, not a profession. I don’t see the good in any of this. And I don’t understand why she does.

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University. Her most recent book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools.  Her previous books and articles about American education include: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, (Simon & Schuster, 2000); The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Knopf, 2003); The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know (Oxford, 2006), which she edited with her son Michael Ravitch. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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