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Michelle Rhee: School Reform Savior or Political Opportunist?

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Recently, KPCC's Patt Morrison was gracious enough to have me on her radio show her show alongside one of the giants of the current education reform movement, former Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Throughout her segment, Rhee, the sunny-dispositioned former D.C. schools chancellor and current media darling, clung faithfully to her well-rehearsed series of talking points: All within a five-minute span, she cheerfully excoriated teachers unions, asserted the need for improved classroom instruction, touted the Value Added method of teacher assessment, rationalized parental disengagement, and placed the blame of student failure at the feet of an array of special interest groups, from textbook manufacturers to food companies -- because, let's face it: When it comes to plummeting literacy rates, what's more culpable than tater tots?

Like many of her fellow reformers, Rhee effortlessly doles out exquisitely tailored sound bytes without ever offering up specifics. Frequently substituting bluster for substance, Rhee laments the "crappy" state of education, yet never unpacks the components that constitute sound pedagogy or that define superlative teachers. She trumpets the need for greater teacher accountability but refuses to offer any alternative assessment tools beyond the fundamentally flawed Value Added approach. The Oprah-annointed "warrior woman" talks incessantly about the necessity for greater student achievement without detailing what a student should be able to do once the pomp of high school graduation has come and gone. Predictably, as Rhee takes her premature media-driven victory lap en route to assuming an elite position in national politics or prime time cable news, she has yet to be challenged on any of these talking points.

Which is why, if granted a Q&A with Rhee, I'd bypass the Oprah-like "What do you do to relax?" or "So how did you get to be so awesome?" lob balls and cut right to the following:

  • Since you continually cite the need for better teachers, describe the specific pedagogical and classroom management techniques that a truly exceptional teacher employs. Which types of cognitive skills does a good teacher emphasize for her students?
  • In numerous interviews you've said, "I have not met a parent yet who doesn't want the same things for their kids that I want for mine." Despite this claim, many teachers are faced with a far different reality. For instance, in my classroom, on a typical parent-teacher night, it's not uncommon for fewer than 20 percent of my students to be represented by one of their parents. To what extent are parents responsible for their children's academic successes and failures, and are we demanding enough accountability them?
  • You've said, "If you don't believe that teachers should make up for deficits at home, then you shouldn't be a teacher." How can educators begin to address the scores of slip-through-the-cracks middle- and high-school students who have virtually given up on their education?
  • Although you've repeatedly mentioned how the Value Added approach is an important assessment tool in gauging teacher proficiency, you've recently added the caveat that it's incomplete. However, this past July, you fired 241 teachers due to their "unsatisfactory" Value Added scores. Considering your evolving perspective, would you admit that it was a reckless act on your part to terminate those individuals without first considering the detriments of relying on a single metric - and without first providing a training and support network to help struggling teachers within your district?
  • Would you prefer for your children to be assigned to a teacher who focuses more on developing skills such as writing, listening, oral communication, and critical analysis (none of which are evaluated to any significant degree on most high-stakes standardized tests) or rote memorization, identification and the acquisition of facts -- skills that are most frequently called upon when engaging in standardized test preparation?
  • It's widely acknowledged that the practice of social promotion is irrevocably harmful to its recipients. So why is it rarely mentioned in the reform debate, and why hasn't there been a movement among leaders such as yourself to revoke it?
  • What are the hallmarks of an educated person? How can we ensure that all students have access to the tools and environments that cultivate these attributes?
  • What is the single biggest factor contributing to student failure? Other than mass firings, how would you address it?
  • Does it strike you as the slightest bit unjust that a good portion of public school students' class time is now consumed by standardized test prep, whereas their private and parochial school counterparts are not beholden to them in any way?
  • You've also said that, "If there is any protection in public education, it should be for the children, not the adults." And yet it's been proven, on repeated occasions, that professionals who work in positive, safe work environments; who feel appreciated by their supervisors, and who are fairly compensated produce at a much greater capacity. As a manager of people, why do you find it reasonable to discount these facts?
  • Nearly all public school students in this nation are placed on the so-called college track, which means that thousands of potential success stories are being restricted from developing vocational skills. After they have shown proficiency in basic reading and math skills, should students then be given the option to pursue training in trade fields such as carpentry, auto mechanics, and computer tech?

For me, the biggest question of all is, at what point will we start hearing some of these questions asked of the reformer elite such as Rhee - ones that cut to the unpleasant, befuddling core of student and school failure and that require thoughtful, nuanced analysis by the respondent? Try never.

Rhee's charisma, intelligence, and unflappability have made her an easy figure for talk show luminaries such as Oprah, Larry, and John (King) to fawn over and, consequently, promote as a no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-hip loose cannon and rogue sage of education reform. Which, in turn, makes hard-hitting interview scenarios like mine figments of fantasy. We were already well past the point of ever getting the straight skinny from Rhee. Now, with her substantial screen time in documentarian Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for "Superman", she has officially catapulted herself into that peculiar domain in which a public figures' musings invariably get stashed in YouTube venom chambers, to be accessed and manipulated by the amoral minions of future political foes.

Still, after doing battle with the equally intransigent D.C. teachers' union, in which she proved more than capable of taking and dishing out invective, Rhee's surely aware of the perils of hot-button discourse. Which means that, unless challenged with tough questions, we're more likely to hear more well-worn platitudes like, "What we need is better teachers," "We need to empower parents," and "It's all about the kids" but few specifics regarding the multifarious factors that lead to teacher burnout, parental disengagement, and student failure.

Rhee spent two tumultuous years as a public school teacher before sprinting away from the classroom for good to pursue a career in politics and punditry. Which begs the question: How can a teacher who couldn't hack it in the classroom -- one whose classes were "out of control" because she struggled so mightily with classroom management -- become such a trusted and influential critic of teacher accountability?

Lately, I've been wondering what Rhee would do if she were to walk into my classroom. My guess is she'd probably jump out of her skin with angst and fury at the dearth of Scantron sheets, multiple choice test prep packets, and #2 pencils. This is because she'd likely be confronted with a scene that might appear chaotic and haphazard to the casual observer, but what is actually the messy process of learning. (Administrators and school officials repeatedly tout the importance of student-driven learning and differentiated instruction but then wince upon entering a classroom in which the teacher is not in complete control of every student movement, utterance, or inhalation.)

In my class, at any one time, kids might be working independently or in groups of up to as many as ten (depending on the assignment). And depending on the day, the week, the thrust of the unit, and the current assignment, Rhee might witness any of the following: clusters of kids divided into special interest groups as they prep for a symposium on whether or not neuro-enhancing drugs should be banned from schools and the workplace; a mock criminal trial in which Jay Gatsby is being tried for Murder 1; me showing them how to annotate text via an Elmo projector or using the character of Holden Cualfield to enter into a discussion about a New Yorker piece on PTSD that they've just been assigned; or piles of frazzled students frenetically compiling sources for a unit-culminating essay on ethics that critiques all of their readings through the brilliant, half-mad eyes of Plato.

(When the stars are aligned, my room actually sort of resembles an intellectual Santa's Workshop. But then there are the times when the best laid plans go flat, when I overreach, over-teach, or under-explain, leaving my students collectively flummoxed or disconnected. By learning from past miscues, and working at my craft, these episodes have become, mercifully, less frequent.)

Forcing a polite smile to mask her consternation, Rhee might ask one of the groups what they're working on. Depending on their respective stress levels and feelings of urgency, some might reply, "We're doing research and planning our strategy for our roles as neurosurgeons for tomorrow's symposium." More likely, in not knowing or caring that the hottest star in school reform is standing before them, most would probably respond to Rhee's inquiry with: "Could you give us a minute? Seriously, this is due tomorrow."

And I would be so proud.