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Michelle Rhee’s Newsweek essay: a great read, with particular relevance to Twin Cities schools

Some of the best scenes in the movie “Waiting for Superman” star Michelle Rhee, acting in her now-former capacity as chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools. In one, she’s simultaneously walking and typing, her tablet computer balanced on one hand and her aides loping to keep up.

In another, she fidgets more than the pupils in a class she’s observing, eventually sidling up to one and whispering, “What do you think of your teacher?” It’s pretty clear she thinks he’s a dullard, why wouldn’t the disengaged kid?

A few weeks back when I saw “Superman” — the acclaimed film that follows the five families trying to find decent schools for their kids — I remember thinking that Rhee was probably one of those attention-challenged innovators we have love-hate relationships with in real life: A whip-smart, effective change agent, but probably h-e-double-hockey-sticks to work for.

And: What did her own grade-school teachers do to lasso that, um, firecracker intelligence?

In October, after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost his primary bid for re-election, Rhee stepped down as chancellor. During the three years she had the job, Rhee repeatedly made national headlines by closing two dozen schools, firing hundreds of poor-performing teachers, cutting central office staff in half and proposing a new wage scheme under which teachers could earn up to $140,000 a year but had to agree to give up tenure.

Oh, yeah — and she fired the principal of the popular school her kids attend without explanation or ceremony.

Double-digit increases in test scores
Although her style earned her plenty of detractors, the double-digit increases in test scores achieved on her watch made her a darling of the education reform movement. Since her resignation, job offers have been pouring in.

Rhee signed on to help Florida’s governor-elect make the transition to office, but eschewed the rest in favor of starting her own reform movement, StudentsFirst. She wants to recruit a million members and raise $1 billion in the next year — a tall order, even for a one-time Teach for America recruit who founded The New Teacher Project.

Rhee announced the start-up in a snappy reflection on her efforts in D.C. published in Newsweek. In it, she defends her brisk pace, arguing persuasively that decisions like school closings would have been no less painful if drawn out, but gives herself poor grades for communication:  

“I did a particularly bad job letting the many good teachers know that I considered them to be the most important part of the equation,” she wrote. “I should have said to the effective teachers, ‘You don’t have anything to worry about. My job is to make your life better, offer you more support and pay you more.’ I totally fell down on doing that. As a result, my comments about ineffective teachers were often perceived as an attack on all teachers. I also underestimated how much teachers would be relying on the blogs, random rumors and innuendo.”

It’s a great read, and I think it’s particularly relevant to those of us who are interested in education in the Twin Cities. Administrators in Minneapolis Public Schools, for instance, have twice announced plans to close North High School, which has lost 75 percent of its students over the last six years, only to respond to the ensuing uproar by saying they would reconsider if the community recruited enough students to make it viable.

Nor has MPS been able to ink a contract with its teachers union for two years running, in part because of its ham-handed handling of a dispute over back pay. If the district can’t sweeten the pot for teachers, the union has no reason to cede some of the same ground Rhee demanded and give administrators mechanisms for staffing schools besides traditional seniority lists.

(What about St. Paul, you’re wondering? Public school brass and union leaders over there are holding hands and singing Kumbaya as they rush to improve city schools. Tellingly, the union designed the new peer-review teacher evaluation process and, state budget calamity notwithstanding, teachers actually got raises in the last contract negotiation.) 

‘We can’t shy away from conflict’
Perhaps Rhee’s most salient observation is that education reform is inherently political, and not Minnesota Nice:

“We can’t shy away from conflict. I was at Harvard the other day, and someone asked about a statement that [U.S.] Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and others have made that public-school reform is the civil-rights issue of our generation. Well, during the civil-rights movement they didn’t work everything out by sitting down collaboratively and compromising. Conflict was necessary in order to move the agenda forward. There are some fundamental disagreements that exist right now about what kind of progress is possible and what strategies will be most effective. Right now, what we need to do is fight. We can be respectful about it. But this is the time to stand up and say what you believe, not sweep the issues under the rug so that we can feel good about getting along.”

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Matthew Williams on 12/13/2010 - 11:47 am.

    And another great read for Twin Cities schools (and all schools for that matter) is Diane Ravitch’s review of Waiting for Superman on the NY Review of books: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/13/2010 - 11:53 am.

    Where is the documentation for double-digit increases on test scores?

  3. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/13/2010 - 12:12 pm.

    There are good reasons to suspect that Rhee’s claims of gains are baloney:


    Rhee “made two policy changes” that generated “artificial test score gains” that represented 75 percent of the increase. She also implemented changes that altered the demographics of the district.

    BTW – the DCPS does not release test scores.

  4. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/13/2010 - 01:30 pm.

    Michelle Rhees teaching strategy: Taping kids’ mouths shut (they bled after they took they tape off). This from Rhees herself.


  5. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/13/2010 - 03:10 pm.

    Waiting for Superman is a compelling movie, but if you are watching it for anything more than entertainment value, you need to look and see that the entire premise of the movie – that charter schools are the solution to everything- is a complete fraud. When your charter school is bankrolled by wealthy philanthropists and its administrator is paid $400,000 per year to be a showcase for education “reform,” things look pretty good. The reality is that charter schools (like other public schools) don’t have unlimited funding, and generally perform worse than public schools. That is why it is more than a little depressing to see MinnPost’s education reporter call the movie “acclaimed” and in the linked article dismiss the flaws in the movie as “oversimplification.” Ms. Hawkins, I don’t know if you are actually interested in the facts, but the link provided by Matthew Williams is a pretty good summary of the problems with the movie.

    Rhee did not just resign when Fenty was defeated. The reality is that the dislike of Rhee by parents and teachers in D.C. played a big part in the defeat of Fenty, who was otherwise a very competent mayor. Its interesting that Rhee faults herself for her failure to communicate with the “good” teachers, but then later on explains that collaboration won’t work and that conflict is necessary. So the problem wasn’t that she didn’t listen to anyone else’s input, it is that she didn’t pretend to listen to their input before implementing the solutions that only she can provide.

    As if the cheerleading for Michelle Rhee didn’t make it clear enough, mocking the collaborative process being attempted by St. Paul as “holding hands and singing Kumbaya” speaks volumes about Ms. Hawkins’ agenda. That’s fine for Fox News, but it shouldn’t be okay at Minnpost.

  6. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/13/2010 - 03:44 pm.

    I must admit it is somewhat disheartening to see Ms Hawkins be taken in by the education deformers.

  7. Submitted by Joel Gingery on 12/14/2010 - 04:52 am.

    In this column I hear the voice of someone who seems very, very frustrated with the schools.

    I know many, many students, parents, teachers, administrators, public officials and citizens in general are too, primarily because schools are not responsive to their needs.

    In situations like this many favor a solution dictated by a powerful individual. But autocratic rules are not satisfying in the long run and not in the American tradition.

    A democratic process responsive to all stakeholders’ needs, while time consuming and at times also frustrating, empowers individuals to participate in building communities.

    I think this is the decision we must make. Do we want someone to tell us what our schools will be like, or do we want to have a voice in it ourselves?

    I vote for the latter. Now, how can we organize the forum?

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/14/2010 - 06:19 am.

    My thought about the Rhee piece was that it was a self serving rationalization of a screw up. I just don’t understand what she expected to gain from the pose of deliberate naivete she assumed.

  9. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/14/2010 - 10:20 am.

    “In situations like this many favor a solution dictated by a powerful individual. But autocratic rules are not satisfying in the long run and not in the American tradition.

    A democratic process responsive to all stakeholders’ needs, while time consuming and at times also frustrating, empowers individuals to participate in building communities.”

    Although Beth Hawkins would probably consider that “holding hands and singing Kumbayah,” I think that captures the problem with Michelle Rhee perfectly.

    A lot of people were surpirsed when Rhee and the mayor that appointed her were turned out by the voters, despite her alleged success. But when “reform” comes in the form of telling the stakeholders (parents and teachers) to shut up and listen, no one should have been surprised. Its not that everything Rhee did or tried to do was wrong. Rather, the problem is that her attitude that only she knows what’s right and if you won’t do it her way you are part of the problem. Again, her regret was not that she did not get input from the “good teachers” – its that she did not communicate TO them very well.

    The sad thing is that instead of learning any real lessons about what happened in D.C., Rhee has gone national with her flawed approach and is on her way to becoming the poster child for education “reform”. For people who have children in public schools and who believe that changes do need to be made, this is a total disaster. Unfortunately, too many people like Beth Hawkins are willing to bypass any critical thinking and buy into the hype, so we are going to have to live with it for awhile.

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