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

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Who "Created" Michelle Rhee? John Merrow Did.

John Merrow, education reporter for PBS, has blown the lid off of the Washington, D.C. cheating scandal. It's quite clear that then-chancellor Michelle Rhee was informed that there were potentially large-scale problems across the district with test scores, and that she did little to address the problem.

Merrow is to be commended for his dogged pursuit of the truth; but it's also true that he, perhaps more than any other journalist, was responsible for turning Rhee into a national figure. His coverage of her was not all laudatory - far from it. But he did spend an inordinate amount of time covering her tenure in Washington, culminating in a Frontline episode this past January, The Education of Michelle Rhee.

The program appears to be, at least in part, a digest of Merrow's total reporting on Rhee, which he describes as: "... twelve (!) pieces about her efforts over the 40 months — about two hours of primetime coverage. That’s an awful lot of attention." It certainly is, and it begs a question: why did Rhee deserve all this reportage? Why, when there were literally dozens of other big-city district chiefs running larger systems, did Merrow choose to focus on Rhee?

Merrow himself pondered the question, albeit indirectly, in this blog post:

My question is about the public phenomenon known as “Michelle Rhee.” The one that’s has become America’s most prominent education activist. She’s loved by some, hated and/or feared by others. To her admirers, she’s a shining symbol of all that’s right in school reform. Her opponents see her as the representative of the forces of greed, privatization and teacher-bashing in education.
Who created that character, that symbol? I can identify four possible parents: She created herself. We created her. “They” did. U did.
"U" stands for "unions." Merrow makes the case that their "intransigence" was a contributing factor to the rise of Michelle Rhee: to make his case, he cites, as one example, an interview he conducted in 1996 with Jack Steinberg of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers:
She’s a social reaction to union leaders like Vice President Jack Steinberg of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. In an interview that is burned into my memory, Steinberg asserted that teachers can never be held accountable for student results. No teacher! Not ever! Jack was muzzled when he said that on national television in 1996, but he and his union have stayed on message.
Now, when I read that my blogger-sense went off: paraphrases of union officials saying outrageous things are the stock-in-trade of the education pundit, but many times, there turns out to be a lot more to the story. So I went back to Merrow's link; sure enough, Steinberg's comments were far more nuanced and complex than Merrow's paraphrase. Read all about it here: it's clear to me that Merrow, in his post, was leaving out some of the most important parts of his interview with Steinberg to paint a picture of the teachers union as a major obstacle to student success.

(Since that post, I've found further evidence that the PFT did indeed believe, contrary to Merrow, that educators should be held accountable for student achievement.)

But I'll admit it - the interview got me hooked. Merrow's a good reporter and a good writer: he knows his craft, and I wanted to follow the story he was telling. So I got comfortable, cracked open a beer, and watched the entire program: all 19 YouTube clips, back-to-back, of Merrow's tour de force, The Toughest Job in America. And I'm glad I did, because I now know the answer to Merrow's question:

Who created Michelle Rhee? It's simple, John: you did.

* * *

The Toughest Job in America follows the career of David Hornbeck, the controversial superintendent of Philadelphia's schools from 1994 to 2000. What's astonishing about Merrow's coverage of Hornbeck, looking back after a couple of decades, is how closely it mirrors his coverage of Rhee. In many ways, The Education of Michelle Rhee is the sequel to The Toughest Job in America: it is fundamentally the same story, told using many of the same techniques, and all based on the same narrative about American urban education.

Consider the parallels:

- Both stories have flawed protagonists: crusaders for "reform" whose personal deficits mar their attempts to fight the good fight. Hornbeck is ultimately done in, according to Merrow's narrative, by his political ineptitude. Rhee fails due to her hubris and willingness to overlook a testing scandal. Merrow's telling is practically Homeric: two heroes, fighting against the forces of complacency, ultimately done in by their personal flaws.

It's a great story, but telling it requires us gloss quickly over a serious issue...

- Both stories make poverty, economic inequality, and racism bit players. One of the most striking things about The Toughest Job in America and The Education of Michelle Rhee is how little time is spent dealing with the reality of the lives of urban students. Yes, poverty is discussed in both: but in each program, the largest discussion of economic deprivation takes place when teachers describe the lives of their students.

I won't say that Merrow deliberately set out to make teachers in urban districts look like whiners - but it certainly comes across that way to me. The largest discussion of poverty in The Toughest Job in America occurs immediately following Merrow's introduction of "teacher accountability" into his story:

Here's the rub: go to about 35:30 into The Education of Michelle Rhee. Again, the issue of poverty is brought up by Merrow within the context of teacher accountability:

Watch The Education of Michelle Rhee on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

In both programs, teachers are the ones describing the lives of their poor students - after Merrow has introduced the notion of teacher accountability. How else are we supposed to interpret the role of poverty, other than as an "excuse," when Merrow sets it up this way? 

There is one other time when Merrow adds poverty to the mix: when he explores the three-year teaching career of Rhee. Except we now know that Rhee, at best, way overstated her own teaching abilities - a fact that Merrow reviews quickly before moving on. Could that be because Rhee's manufactured tale about her own prowess in the classroom comports so well with Merrow's framework that "good" teaching can overcome student poverty?

- In both stories, the voices of children are largely missing. The most powerful moment, to me, of The Toughest Job in America is at about 2:40 in this clip:

This child - almost a woman - is crying on national television, leaving nothing back, telling Horbeck that she is tired of being "embarrassed." She is the most compelling person in this report - yet we never see her again.

Watching each program, it strikes me especially hard that Merrow does not spend any time following students outside of school to discover the reality of their lives living in poverty. We never see a child's home; we never talk to a child's parents; we spend a few minutes with some of the older children, but not nearly enough time to get a sense of their lives. I'm reminded of Jonathan Kozol, as quoted by Bob Somerby:
KOZOL (page 163): You have to go back to the schools themselves to find an answer to these questions. You have to sit down in the little chairs in first and second grade, or on the reading rugs with kindergarten kids, and listen to the things they actually say to one another and the dialogue between them and their teachers. You have to go down to the basement with the children when it’s time for lunch and to the playground with them, if they have a playground, when it’s time for recess, if they still have recess...You have to do what children do and breathe the air the children breathe. I don’t think there’s any other way to find out what the lives that children lead in school are really like.

Which brings us to...

- In both stories, the antagonists are the intransigent teachers unions and calculating politicians, both representing the "status quo." Repeatedly, Merrow describes the Philadelphia and Washington school systems as "failing." He simply accepts the position that children are capable of showing much better educational results merely through changes in the schools - changes that could occur were it not for politicians and teachers unions blocking "reform."

It never seems to occur to Merrow that he ought to explore this assumption; is it not possible that low test scores are indicative of low student performance, but not low school performance? Is it not possible that the lives of urban students are so fraught with challenge that the performance their schools do exhibit is actually indicative of academic achievement? Merrow seems uninterested in these questions.

- In both stories, a key, unproven assumption of Merrow's thesis is that there are hoards of bad teachers plaguing urban school systems, and that those teachers could easily be replaced by "better" teachers. At one point in The Toughest Job in America, a consultant bemoans the fact that only a handful of Philadelphia's teachers are ever fired; Rhee complains in The Education of Michelle Rhee that most teachers get satisfactory ratings.

Neither assertion is challenged, let alone explored, by Merrow. He does say, in The Education of Michelle Rhee, that his experience in the capital's schools with his own children aligns with Rhee's statement - but that is hardly proof worthy of a serious piece of journalism.

If Merrow is going to sell the story that the unions are protecting bad teachers, he has an obligation to demonstrate how widespread the problem of bad teaching truly is. It's not enough for Rhee or Hornbeck or anyone else to guess at the extent of the problem; Merrow should use his skills to back up these assertions. In my view, he does not.

Leonie Haimson has noted that the dismissal rates for teachers are not out of line with what we know about other professions. Agree or disagree, you can't deny Haimson has made a case. Where is the evidence in Merrow's pieces that "bad" teaching can be improved by removing seniority and tenure? I don't see it.

* * *

So, to my view, The Toughest Job In America is the template for The Education of Michelle Rhee. Even the programs' journalistic techniques are similar: excerpts of interviews with a central figure, interspersed with video of school life and interviews with allies and detractors. Both shows feature a writer friendly to the protagonist: Richard Whitmire for Rhee, and Dale Mezzacappa for Hornbeck (here's Mazzacappa's elegy to Hornbeck if you don't believe me). Each also takes a position that confirms Merrow's framework: unions are an impediment to "reform." They repeatedly reassert Merrow's contention that bad teachers plague urban districts without adding any confirming proof.

Are there differences between the two programs? Certainly, and some of them are quite significant. But the basic story remains the same: a flawed school leader, outraged at a school system that is "failing," fighting back against a "status quo" that does not put the interests of children first. Look at the description of The Toughest Job In America on YouTube:
Part 19 of the gripping story of one man's battle against an entrenched bureaucracy, a stubborn union, hostile politicians, budget deficits, and a deep-rooted belief that poor and minority children cannot achieve. Can he change the school system before it changes him?
It's a pleasing tale, lending itself to compelling storytelling. But it requires a star; like a Greek tragedy, someone must take on the role of the doomed hero.

Enter Michelle Rhee.

I wouldn't say that Merrow chose to chronicle the career of Michelle Rhee simply because he saw her as an easy analog to David Hornbeck. Certainly, there's much about Rhee that would attract any journalist to follow her, no matter that journalist's view on pubic education. Rhee was relatively inexperienced but coming into a big job in the nation's capital, outspoken, telegenic, and outrageous.

She was also happy to make a big noise about herself whenever she could. Why else would she fire a principal on camera? Why stage a press conference in a warehouse full of school supplies? Why have huge celebrations for test score proficiency rate changes? Rhee made herself a brightly colored target; no one can find fault that Merrow aimed his cameras at her.

No, the problem I have with The Education of Michelle Rhee - and, for that matter, The Toughest Job in America, and so much education reporting these days - is that it is built around a pre-existing framework that makes far too many assumptions

It assumes urban schools are "failing." It assumes "bad" teaching runs rampant in urban schools. It assumes an entrenched status quo is keeping necessary changes from being made. It assumes test scores are reliable measures of student learning. It assumes poverty's effects on educational outcomes can be largely ameliorated with policy changes in urban school systems.

Folks, I've been doing this edu-blogging thing for three years now. I don't claim to have read everything, but I've seen the best arguments the corporate reform side has made, and I'm here to tell you: they have yet to prove that any of these assumptions are true.  Nor do they have to: the media seems all too ready to accept these assumptions as received truths.

But these assumptions form the base of the framework Merrow and others have chosen to work with. And in order to tell his stories, Merrow needs school leaders who will provide him with the drama necessary to set off the conflicts his narrative requires. He needed a David Hornbeck in the '90s, and he needed a Michelle Rhee a decade later. They were the personalities around which he could build his case: a case, again, that makes far too many unproven assumptions.

Let me conclude with this: I think John Merrow is, in many ways, a very good reporter. His story on Rhee and the cheating scandal is the most important work in education journalism so far this year, because it calls into question the legacy of the woman who has become the face of corporate reform. Again, he is a good craftsman, both as a writer and as a broadcast journalist.

But he, and so many others in the press covering education, are trapped in a preconceived narrative about America's public schools. A narrative that inevitably turns school leaders like Michelle Rhee and David Hornbeck into crusaders against the status quo. A narrative that lays all of the problems of our country's underclass at the doors of our schools. A narrative that says you are either the saviors of poor children or their betrayers.

It's time to move beyond this type of storytelling. And the first step is to start demanding proof of beliefs that are being gussied up as facts. John Merrow has done this with the Rhee "miracle" of the rising test scores in Washington; that's important work and it's to be applauded.

But is John Merrow willing to take the next step, and challenge his own assumptions? Or will he simply move on to his next creation?

It's alive! And soon, it will run an urban school district!


RS said...

Thank you for this.

Anonymous said...

Duke, Fantastic analysis.
Utterly, great.
Bob Somersby has also written about this over at The Daily Howler and the dailyhowler blogspot.

I posted over John Merrow's site and it deserves repeating here:

Claud Cockburn proclaimed that facts and rumours were of equal significance, and warned against what he called ‘the factual heresy’ – the claim, dear to journalists with a saint-like idea of their own mission, that lumps of truth lie about like gold nuggets waiting to be picked up.

Claud Cockburn did not think journalism was either saintly or fact-bound. ‘All stories are written backwards,’ he once observed. ‘They are supposed to begin with the facts and develop from there, but in reality they begin with a journalist’s point of view from which the facts are subsequently organised.’

rd said...

This is a truly comprehensive and measured critique of John Merrow's reporting on Michele Rhee and the education reform movement-- the best that I have read.

I would be very interested to read John's response to your constructive criticism and I hope he does take your advice and challenges his (the prevailing reformer-driven) assumptions. I'm not holding my breath, but then again, when I would get almost sick to my stomach with anger while watching his coverage of Rhee on the Newshour circa 2007/2008 isn I never thought he would produce the kind of critical look at her real legacy in DC a few years later so perhaps he will surprise us.

EC said...

Excellent analysis; thank you. One thing that's interesting to think about is how very hard it is to work in mainstream media and NOT tell the story in the way Merrow does. Because really, to tell the story in any other way requires questioning the basic framework of our society. And of course that's one of the motivations of the whole ed reform movement: not only to bash unions, but also to create a scapegoat for the increasingly unignorable inequality in our country.