No actual bees were harmed yesterday when Michelle Rhee appeared at the Minneapolis Convention Center yesterday, but a number of hornets’ nests got thwacked wide open.
As a young Teach for America recruit many years ago in Baltimore, Rhee famously swallowed a bee in a desperate attempt to shock her unruly class into silence. The ensuing two decades have been characterized by the same audacity, just displayed on larger stages.
Yesterday, as the featured speaker at a luncheon organized by the Economic Club of Minnesota, Rhee kept an entire ballroom full of politicians, business moguls and educators wholly engaged, exhorting them to simultaneously become more political and cast off partisan orthodoxy when it comes to running schools.
“If we look outside of our parties and just make decisions about kids the way we do for our own kids, it would be a very different agenda,” she said. “It would be an agenda that would put kids first.”
During 20 short minutes, Rhee told funny, trenchant stories about cold-calling classrooms during her tenure as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, made fun of her own cosseted daughters’ motivation gap and likely left pretty much everyone in attendance flummoxed in terms of where to place her on the traditional ideological grid.
Declaring herself a “lifelong, card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat,” Rhee lamented the party’s ties to teachers unions, insisted that more money won’t fix education, and endorsed vouchers.
A walking Rorschach test
In case you are among the 1 percent who follow education news but haven’t yet decided whether she’s more Goofus or Galant, here’s the skinny: Rhee is a walking Rorschach test for most people’s public-policy views, slight in the corporeal sense but outsized in reputation.
In 2007, then-D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed Rhee to head the city’s 47,000-student district, which was performing so abysmally that its board had been dissolved and the schools placed under direct mayoral control.
“We had the opportunity to do more than had ever been seen,” Rhee said yesterday. “We made a lot of very necessary, but very controversial decisions.”
Many of which — Rhee’s status as lightning rod notwithstanding — are now on education-reform agendas being pushed by both parties throughout the country.
At the time, there was a 70-point academic proficiency gap between D.C.’s white students and African-Americans. Just 8 percent of ninth-graders were proficient in math. And a student entering ninth grade had a 9 percent chance of going on to graduate from high school and college.
Under Rhee’s leadership, the district closed more than 30 schools, replaced two-thirds of its principals and cut central administration from 1,000 staffers to some 400. Over three years, D.C. seventh-, eighth- and 10th-graders posted double-digit growth on test scores and graduation rates rose.
(And yes, as Learning Curve’s loyal comment-thread critics will surely point out .14 seconds after this piece is posted, a controversy involving allegations of cheating on standardized tests by teachers has yet to be resolved. And yes, there are other good reasons to be skeptical of Rhee, who does seem to do an awful lot of apologizing, but let’s just listen quietly for a moment, shall we?)
‘People cared more about the processes’
“I thought at the time that if we produced outsized results, people would want us to continue,” Rhee said. “I was absolutely wrong. People cared more about the processes.”
Among the antidotes, she told those in attendance at the Convention Center: “Get out of partisan decision-making.”
Easier said than done.
The Rhee legacy that perhaps looms largest since her resignation in the wake of Fenty’s 2010 primary loss is her attempt to fundamentally alter teacher tenure. Rhee proposed to fire teachers whose student test scores betrayed ineptitude, and to pay their effective peers six figures.
The union local famously refused to put the proposal to a member vote, and Rhee and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten have been portrayed — far too simplistically — as antagonists ever since.
It’s easy to forget that four years is a lifetime in terms of the education-reform movement. If tenure reform and using student outcomes as one measure of teacher effectiveness were as rare as bee-gobbling in 2007, they are ideas many teachers unions are currently engaged in refining.
At the same time, in the year since Rhee launched her own education-reform effort, StudentsFirst, she has given critics plenty of fodder to suggest that she would not mind getting rid of organized teacher labor. For starters, she refuses to name the nonprofit’s major donors — a disclosure the tax code will eventually force.
Awkward political bedfellows
And then there’s her willingness to acquire awkward political bedfellows. Last spring, Rhee spoke in favor of school choice alongside Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker at an event hosted by an organization founded and funded by Michigan Republican activist and voucher proponent Betsy DeVos.
And then this fall, StudentsFirst campaigned against the recall of union foe Michigan state Rep. Paul Scott.
Yet yesterday, Rhee’s chief message was that it is time for the United States to “recognize, reward and honor teachers for the exceptionally difficult job they do.”
“We have to acknowledge the fact that teaching is a really, really hard job and not everyone is cut out for it,” she said.
The remarks that drew Rhee the most applause involved her feelings about vouchers. When she assumed the chancellorship, a voucher program in operation in D.C. was up for renewal. She started out dead-set against them, only to enrage supporters by changing her mind.
Affected by young mothers
“I met with young [black] mothers who did exactly what we would want them to do,” she said. They researched their neighborhood school, learned that it was a dropout factory and filled out D.C.’s equivalent of an open-enrollment application for a seat in another, most likely white neighborhood. All but a few lost.
Talking to those parents, she said, gave her pause. “If I don’t have a space in a D.C. public school, how can I deny a $7,500 voucher — which, by the way, is less than [the $17,000-plus] we spend,” she said. “What am I supposed to say, ‘Just suck it up for a little while, give me five years?’ ”
An end to the city’s voucher scheme, she concluded, would damage children of color: “In this day and age, we are still allowing the color of a child’s skin to dictate the quality of the education they receive.”
In the end, it’s unlikely anyone in the Economic Club’s decidedly multipartisan audience heard their worldview endorsed by the speaker. But arguably, that’s not Rhee’s role in the world. No, better she keep the hive buzzing.