I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Rhee On Stewart: A Final Thought

What does Michelle Rhee want to do to fix our "failing" schools?

It's not a secret: you can find the policy prescriptions for her Republican money funnel education reform organization, StudentsFirst, right at their website. The basic plan is as follows:
As I said: none of this is a secret. It's all right there, and here's the thing: this is pretty much it. StudentsFirst isn't real big on curriculum development, or expanding wrap-around services, or implementing high-quality pre-school, or expanding access to the arts, or any number of other school improvement policies. My list above is pretty much all that they say they want.

I'm not going to bother debating each of these policies here, because that's what this entire blog is about, and I've tackled each one at length many, many times. And if you can't stand to read my take on VAM or the parent trigger or tenure one more time, just click on any of the links at your left.

It's clear to me that none of the policies above will help American public school students; in fact, most of them will make schools worse. But let's save that debate for another time, and get back to Michelle Rhee's appearance on The Daily Show.

If you have a spare twenty minutes - and the stomach for it - watch all three segments from Jon Stewart's extended interview with Rhee (and read my previous takes on it here). As you watch, continue to refer to the list I provided above and ask yourself: how many times does Rhee advocate for any of these policies specifically?

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Here's my count: zero. Rhee says absolutely nothing in support of the specific policies StudentsFirst wants to implement. Oh sure, she talks in generalities and trots out plenty of platitudes:
  • Let's put kids first!
  • Let's have fair and transparent teacher evaluation!
  • Let's hold teachers accountable!
  • Let's put kids first!
  • Let's make sure all kids have a great teacher!
  • Let's get rid of ineffective teachers!
  • Let's put kids first!
  • Let's honor teachers! Like Rhee does! Because teaching is so hard!
  • Let's get rid of stifling, antiquated bureaucracies!
  • Let's judge teachers by how well their students learn!
  • Let's not trap kids in "failing" schools!
  • Did I mention we should put kids first?!
These, however, are meaningless generalities, because everyone in their right mind agrees with them. Everyone thinks that the best interests of students should be paramount in the development of education policy. Everyone agrees that kids need great teachers, and bad teachers need to either improve or be fired. Everyone thinks teacher evaluations are necessary to enforce accountability.


What Rhee never gets around to, however, is telling us why her policies are the best way to make schools better. She never explains why charter schools and vouchers are so necessary. She never explains why VAM-based scores, even with their massive errors, should comprise at least half of a teacher's evaluation. She never tells us why moving away from pension plans would be good for students ("The only reason I got an 'F' is because Mr. Chips's pension isn't portable!").

Now, some of you might say, "Well, Comedy Central isn't really the right forum for this sort of stuff." OK, fine. How about This Week with George Stephanopoulos? Sorry - no mention of tenure or merit pay or de-capping class sizes there. 

OK, but that was a short interview; how about HuffPost Livewhere Rhee did a 34-minute interview on education policy? Granted, she does at least mention a few of her specific policies, like gutting seniority and tenure. But any discussion of why this would work? Any evidence that these policies improve student learning?

Nope. Instead, we hear Rhee declaim the incredibly powerful insight that countries that perform better than the US on standardized tests (oy...) "focus on education as a top priority." I know - it's hard not to stand in awe of such perspicacity...

How about The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC? Surely public radio would finally put Rhee under the microscope? Well, give Lopate credit: at least he knew Rhee was embroiled in a cheating scandal following her tenure in Washington, D.C. Like Stewart, at least he was willing to challenge Rhee on standardized testing and the role of poverty.

But unfortunately - like Stewart - Lopate never gets to the "whys" of Rhee's arguments. We get a nice glossing over about poverty and standardized testing and teachers unions... but we never get to the heart of the matter. Why would VAM-based teacher evaluations help students overcome poverty? Why would vouchers improve student achievement in public schools? Why would removing caps on class size help students? Why?

Apparently, we don't have time to get into that. Michelle Rhee has a book to sell, and now we need to take a time out to hear from our sponsors...

Look, I like Lopate a lot. And I love - I mean, I love - Stewart; he's our era's Mark Twain. But we live in an unserious time when it comes to the lives of our nation's kids. We'll spend hours of airtime listening to Michelle Rhee's mea culpas about firing a principal on camera, but we won't take the time to examine whether firing principals based on their VAM scores will actually improve student achievement. We just don't seem to care very much about whether "reform" works or not; if we did, we wouldn't waste our time with the trivial nonsense Rhee spouts regularly.

I wish I could say this is a new phenomenon; sadly, it isn't. Way back in 2008, one of my favorite bloggers, Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler, wrote a series of pieces about an interview TFA's Wendy Kopp gave to Charlie Rose. Over and over, Rose tried to get Kopp to tell us why a great teacher is a great teacher; over and over, she refused to say. Over and over, Rose tried to get Kopp to tell us why she thought children in poverty could achieve at the same levels as children from privileged homes; over and over again, Kopp evaded answering the question.

Kopp even, unbelievably, evoked the teaching career of Michelle Rhee as "proof" that "great" teachers can save the world. Looking back over four years later, it's obvious that Kopp was selling Rose a big bag of magic beans; Rhee never did what she said she did while teaching in Baltimore, and Kopp, as we gaze in our rearview mirrors, looks like a fool.

I wish I could say that things have changed much since 2008. But as Rhee runs from one media outlet to the next, what Somerby wrote back then rings especially true today:
Has anyone ever pimped “easy answers” in the ridiculous way Kopp does? She seems to know nothing about low-income classrooms—unsurprising, since she’s never taught. She keeps making grandiose claims for her program—claims the studies don’t seem to support. But so what? Ever since the 1960s, our elites have favored pleasing, non-answer answers to the problem of low-income schools. They’ve always loved the music men who come along with their magic solutions. This new music man is especially helpful, since her program can be used to take silly shots at teachers unions, which simply aren’t the cause of this problem. But whatever! Manhattan elites have settled on Kopp. She provides the latest version of the pleasing, high-minded tale. 
Our elites have tended toward this sort of thing since (soon after) Day One. They’ve always loved the pleasing tale in which our finest children, from our finest schools, solve this nagging problem with ease. That helps explain a tragicomical fact: Our finest children have been solving this problem for the bulk of the last forty years! Kopp’s just the latest pseudo-influential—the latest music man. 
The problem lies in Kopp’s “most influential” status. As long as we pretend she knows what to do, others won’t bother to search. [emphasis mine]
Sadly, this is exactly our current situation today. Yes, there is some gentle push-back from the Jon Stewarts, for which I am grateful. But it's far too little, and far to late.

Our nation's dialogue about education has been commandeered by a bunch of ill-informed, intellectually lazy, bought-and-paid-for edu-celebrities. Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Wendy Kopp, Ben Chavis, Steve Perry, Jeb Bush, Arne Duncan, and a few others are pushing an agenda that has little evidence to support it; worse, they are rarely questioned by well-informed journalists as to the specifics of their plans.

When I see this, I fear for America's future. We cannot continue to be a country that makes policy through bouts of trite media exposure. Our fatuous ways got us into Iraq, crashed the economy, and are burning up the planet. Now that same brainlessness threatens to destroy our public school system.

We don't need more Oprah-style interviews with edu-celebrities where we let them babble on about how much they love teachers; we need, instead, a frank and informed discussion about the implications of the "reform" policy agenda. Until we get that, it is the duty of everyone who cares about public schools to point out - over and over, if necessary - how truly stupid our national conversation about education has become.

I appreciate that Stewart was willing to engage Rhee and challenge one of the central tenets of her philosophy. But when he asked her to name districts that she thought were models for success, he never pressed her as to why she thought they were working. It was enough, for both of them, to let the conversation devolve into yet another silly paean to teachers.

Well, if they really do respect teachers, they should show that by giving us what we really deserve: a serious conversation about education where the plans of the "reformers" are challenged by serious people.

Is that really so much to ask?

We'll be back after this important message...


Anonymous said...

Thanks to Mr. John Clemm, my ninth grade social studies teacher, who created a very effective unit on propaganda techniques, I could identify Ms. Rhee's vacuous talking points as Glittering Generalities, meaningless cliches (Put Kids First!) that no one can argue with, but which disguise her true agenda of turning the schools over to her 1/10th of 1% funders.

ad77 said...

Democrats: Wake Up About Broad!

It's no longer traditionally partisan (D v R) - need to look at the individual. Don't make assumptions; Look before you Vote!

It is clear that Commissioner Cerf's (Proud Democrat)education policy agenda is one of privatization of our schools. The education of students is a by-product so to speak. This is being done with aggressive Broad Foundation support.

Take a look at Broad's campaign contributions. According to "Newsmeat", up to July 2011, FEC filings show that Broad contributions were at 63% to Democrats, 35% to various special interest groups, & 2% to Republicans.

According to campaignmoney.com

2008 shows 42 contributions totaling $115,437. Only 1 contribution to a republican. Only 1 contribution to NJ - $2,437 to Frank Lautenberg.

2010 shows 29 contributions totaling $107,186 with only 1 contribution going to a Republican - California Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack.

2012 shows 27 contributions at $477,800 - no visible funds to republicans.

DMRosenblum said...

For a refreshing contrast to the Michelle Rhee school of "thought," see Prof. David L. Kirp's piece about the Union City, NJ schools in today's (Sunday 10 February 2013) NY Times Sunday Review at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/opinion/sunday/the-secret-to-fixing-bad-schools.html

CCSSI Mathematics said...

This kind of rah rah rhetoric goes on everywhere.

Just this past weekend, we witnessed through a live-twitter feed David Coleman & Co. of Common Core fame trying to put one over on the National Urban League and the NAACP.


BPF said...


Great post, but here is just what you need --
the continuation of a two part post on how Michelle Rhee may sometimes misrepresent herself.

When it comes to Michelle Rhee's lies, how do you choose among them?
Her resume? Saying, first, that she was firing teachers in DC for monetary
reasons and, later, saying she had had the money, but she had no choice but
to fire those 266 teachers without due-process (or good accounting)
because they were, hitting children or having sex with kids or had been absent 78 times.
Of course, there was a grain of truth there – a small grain.
There were 9 out of the 266 who had some sort of disciplinary hearing
pending, 1 of whom had been charged with sexual misconduct.
As for the other 257, they seemed to just have had poor luck.
They got on her bad side and they were in her way when she
wanted to make a point.

Or forget lies for a second – that is what she would like us to do.
Instead, maybe we could look at lies of omission. According to Steve Brill,
not exactly a Rhee enemy, Rhee received donations and/or
pledges from Eli Broad, Rupert Murdoch, Julian Roberson,
Ken Langone and others. She doesn't like to talk about that.
Similarly, StudentsFirst doesn't disclose its financial backers.
The organization's tax filings show that StudentsFirst and a related nonprofit, StudentsFirst Institute, brought in more than $7.5 million between October 2010 and July 2011.

They also spend money in political campaigns –
According to the Sacramento Bee, the group spent nearly $375,000 to support, Ian Calderon, the son of a powerful California assemblyman with whom Students first coordinated. Ian used the money last fall to run successfully to take his father's place representing the Whittier area in the Assembly.

BPF said...


The real shame was that Rhee did not make the changes she
could make to improve the system and then give it time.
Rather, she thought it best to fire a principal while video cameras
were rolling. It was later on television. John Merrow, of the PBS News Hour
reports that at one point, Ms. Rhee asked if his crew wanted to watch her fire a principal.

What sort of person is she?
This is something that she probably felt would help her image and make a point,
after all, her bunch'o'lies program was based on the idea that
the educators --not the politicians, not our economic system in
which the gap between rich and poor is growing rapidly and
more rapidly -- were at fault.

Now, with StudentsFirst she says 'everyone knows the
evaluation system is broken.'
No – not the truth, that is merely a talking point.
It is also Arne Duncan's & Joel Klein's & Steve Brill's
& Bill Gates' & Rupert MurdochInc's & White Caste --
I'm sorry, I mean White Hat, the charter chain that has
less nutritional value than White Castle.

But the vast majority of teachers are good or better than good.
I go over this in Respect for Teachers
(https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781475802078, aorry for the plug, but lots on Rhee)
The ones who work in the highest poverty districts get the
worst results on tests, but that is because they have the
hardest jobs.

To blame them, as Ms. Rhee does, is like blaming a
Fire Fighter who works in an area where just about every house is on fire.

You'll hear things like,
"Accountability needs to be spread broadly between principals & teachers."
Some of those people, to their credit, will include parents as well.
But 'accountability' is another emulation of the business world,
the same place where most businesses go belly up in 4 years.
Do we want a fire sale for education?

No, this is a collective issue --- our child poverty rate is too high,
we group all those kids together in schools that are inadequate.

If there is to be accountability, we all need to be held accountable,
not point fingers at educators.

They're fighting the fire, but there are arsonists about,
plus a lot of people who are being careless about
where they flip their lit matches.