Heather Wolpert-Gawron

NewsHour with Jim Leher: Michelle Rhee

By on January 17, 2009

I recently watched John Merrow’s interview with Michelle Rhee on the NewsHour.  Michelle seems like a real mixed blessing for education. On one hand, she’s willing to clean house, and education does seriously need it.  On the other hand, however, and much like the sweeping policies of NCLB, she’s a bit of an all-or-nothing authority.  (She’s also known as a Chancellor, which gives me a mental picture of a Lilliputian bearing a sash and gold medal, so sometimes it’s hard to shake the image even while listening to her policies.)

Education certainly has fat that needs trimming, but good teachers are not the magic bullet to shore up all the problems that result in underfunding.  They are part of an equation, and policy makers refuse to make each of these multiple variables accountable for their individual failures.  To put student and school success solely at the feet of teachers is to downplay the importance of those other responsible variables.

In the NewsHour segment, Rhee talked about the schools she’s closed and the principals she’s replaced.  At some point in the interview she says that despite the challenges facing school these days, a good teacher can handle it.  “If you have great people,” she says, “they can overcome continuing challenges with the system. ”  Inferring, of course, that those teachers who can’t overcome those challenges must not be good teachers and, additionally, taking the responsibility off of those variables causing many of those same challenges.

I agree with Rhee that failing schools, their administration and teachers, do need to feel pressure.  I agree that an overhaul of personnel is not uncalled for in a failing system and, frankly, should be made easier, with fewer incidences of union resistance and legal interventions.  

It’s not her theories, however, that have me cocking my head.  I’m most interested in where she’s going with her methods. My concern is that her pendulum of toughness has swung so far as to distance herself from reasonable expectations.

For example, she mentioned one probationary school in particular that she’s recently merged with a failed school.  She’s fired the past principal and brought in another with the goal of instilling a 10% literacy increase in one year.  Of course we all want it, but who else is being held accountable, besides the school, to make this leap happen?  Since many factors went into the students’ failures, should not many factors be held to solving them?

This principal has spent his first few months bettering the absenteeism problem at this new, merged school.  Check.  He’s been working on establishing a safe environment, which we all know, is the first step towards learning.  Check.  

But will he also accomplish higher-learning?  And if the students are learning more, will it translate immediately into test scores?  It seems like an unfair expectation of a principal that is just trying to keep his students safe and in school as a result of the school mergers.

Principals should be accountable regarding the stability of their schools: decreased violence, decreased absenteeism, etc…But to judge a principal on students he has just received (students from failing schools, no less) and to expect him to bridge the gaps in their previous educational experiences in just one year, is a preposterous goal.

I once worked at a school that closed during my time there.  It was like a divorce for an entire community.  It was bloody.  It was messy.  Some kids scattered to this school, some to that.  And some to the wind.   And as a society, we can’t expect those involved in an emotional catastrophe of that kind to just move on and survive without added support.  

Kids can’t pull up their own bootstraps without the help of others.  And schools can’t do the same without more support.   

Rhee seems eager, well intentioned, jump-right-in, but alienating.  This doesn’t scare me.  The best reformers have long since fallen under these categories.  But if she can’t massage the masses and she loses her way in her educational crusade (which many a crusader has been known to do), it is our students who will have truly fallen.  


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  1. David Cohen
    January 18, 2009

    And if Rhee is unsuccessful, do you think she’ll take any blame, the way unsuccessful teachers are supposed to? Good people rise above their circumstances, after all. If test scores aren’t up 10% per year system wide, shouldn’t she be fired? How long does she get? What’s the grace period?

    Or, will the same “problem teachers”, and their unions, be blamed if Rhee can’t make progress? What I’ve seen and read of her approach suggests that there’s always someone to blame for every problem, and none of the problems will ever be traced back to her.

  2. Mike Albert
    January 23, 2009

    One of the things that typically happen is that we look at a successful school and say, “That school has block scheduling (or SSR, or red and purple uniforms), and their test scores rose, so let’s ……..” What people like Chancellor Rhee need to look at is how block scheduling is complemented by the SSR which is complemented by the purple and red uniforms.
    Unless the entire package that creates an environment within the community is recreated, the success won’t be recreated. Of course, there is no one combination or idea that works, but there is no one thing that works in isolation.

  3. Gail Ritchie
    January 23, 2009

    I think that Michelle Rhee is too combative to be successful at reforming DCPS. She has alienated the linchpin of school change–the teachers. She would do well to reflect on Rumi’s words: Out beyond the ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field; I’ll meet you there. Or the more prosaic: You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I also wonder about how she’ll measure teacher quality for the purposes of retention and bonus pay. Teaching and learning are too complex to be judged by a single measure such as student test scores.

  4. heather
    January 24, 2009

    I couldn’t agree more, Gail. It’s like there’s this marketing team behind her that has decided she’s the face of “tough education” as if the rest of us have never really taken success seriously enough. But I also think it would benefit our profession if we as teachers took a look at ourselves and our staffs more honestly. There are those teachers who need to improve their level of effectiveness, and if they can’t, they shouldn’t be in this profession. If more teachers (and our union) stood up and demanded a certain level of professionalism from our colleagues, the press and the civilian corps wouldn’t think there was a need to bring in such a pugilist. But, frankly, it’s surprising that more people, even those outside of education, can’t see the ridiculousness and unfairness that is evaluation based on test scores. (note my confused shaking of the head)
    Thanks for your comment.
    aka Tweenteacher

  5. Mary
    January 25, 2009

    I know the school featured on PBS. Discipline is in a shambles and grades have already been manipulated.

    It’s a scam.

  6. Caroline
    January 30, 2009

    I found your blog on Twitter – really appreciate your insights into this and other ed issues. I think effective teachers are key to the solution, but so are effective schools (leadership, collaboration, and facilities/resources).

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