THE BLOG
04/24/2013 07:09 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2013

Who Co-Created 'Michelle Rhee'?

John Merrow's article "Michelle Rhee's Reign of Error" produced "the smoking gun," or the confidential memo warning Michelle Rhee of the extent of cheating that may have occurred in Washington D.C. schools in response to her draconian "reforms." It summarizes the evidence of an inexcusable failure to investigate the cheating and recalls the lesson of Watergate -- the cover-up is often worse than the original crime. Merrow concludes with the question, "What did Michelle know, and when did she know it?"

Merrow's "Who Created 'Michelle Rhee'?" pushes the conversation further. He distinguishes between the flesh and blood person named Michelle Rhee and the "Michelle Rhee" phenomenon. Merrow says that the force that Rhee symbolizes was created by herself, the mass media, some corporate reformers and union militancy.

Before agreeing with the thrust of Merrow's post, I must challenge the way he describes each of the three co-creators. I agree with Merrow that "They" -- the "Billionaire's Boys Club" -- did not create "Michelle Rhee." But, they re-created her, funding her IMPACT evaluation system and her teacher-bashing second act at StudentsFirst.

In saying that the mainstream media helped create "Michelle Rhee," Merrow gives it too much blame. It was the mainstream media, along with the rest of our popular culture that created her. All societies produce their versions of P.T. Barnum. "Michelle Rhee" grew out of the "Big Sort," or the self-segregation of society and our post-modern economy. Since few policy-makers, media types, or parents have real-life experience with urban schools, most lack the hands-on experiences that would help them sift through Rhee's propaganda.

Merrow claims intransigent policies, like the ones that produced New York City's "rubber room," created "Michelle Rhee." But, surely he knows that the union only played a part of that fiasco. Saying that the union created the "rubber room" is like equating the mainstream media with all of popular culture. (Also, there was both the actual "Absent Teacher Reserve" and the "rubber room," which in large part was a caricature created by the media.)

Merrow has a vivid 17-year-old memory of a union leader's statement and he makes it sound like it is representative of unions' positions. I believe Merrow is confusing today's union members who want to be more forceful in resisting "reform" with militants. We're just defending our profession and, in doing so, some use rhetoric that Merrow doesn't like.

After citing "Michelle Rhee" as a reaction to union intransigence, he accurately describes it as a reaction to administrative policies that infantilized teaching. Merrow then reaches the solid conclusion that "'They,' we and U created the social phenomenon that is 'Michelle Rhee.'"

Previous cultures produced Billy Sunday, Norman Vincent Peale, and Oral Roberts. On one hand, "Michelle Rhee" is just a carnival barker, but she is our culture's carnival barker.

Rhee sounds plausible to many because we live a self-segregated society, but our fractured world is also a legacy of de-industrialization. Not long ago, workers were held accountable for what they did. Then, and now, we expected employees to show up on time and do their jobs. Even then, unions often had to fight to protect workers who were unfairly attacked even though they obviously were performing their responsibilities.

When Rhee lambasts teachers, however, she claims that we should be accountable for raising "student performance." So-called "student performance" is something determined by a statistical model. In the hands of some, it can be a fair estimate of whether a teacher is doing her job. In the hands of "Michelle Rhee," it can be a weapon to beat teachers down. I don't think there are many citizens, politicians, or corporate donors who have carefully studied whether Rhee is in fantasyland when she claims that "Michelle Rhee" raised student performance in D.C. because her metrics could distinguish between "effective" and "ineffective" teachers.

A couple of generations ago, like all other rookies on the first day an industrial job, I was told to find the "iron bar stretcher." Of course, no such thing existed. Like almost everyone I knew, I was being socialized into a world where reality mattered. But, today, we live in a world where "effectiveness" is defined by bursts of electricity in somebody's computer system. Who knows when those metrics have a relation to reality? So, when "Michelle Rhee" claims that her IMPACT evaluation system is a fair measure of teaching effectiveness, how many citizens can take the time, parse the evidence, and determine whether it is just an "iron bar stretcher" or not?

Like Merrow, I agree we need to get the discussion back to students. He may or may not agree whether that is possible without a victory in the teachers' counterattack against "Michelle Rhee." Merrow seems to agree, however, that President Obama and Arne Duncan need to take leadership and face their culpability in contributing to "erase to the top."

Merrow concludes with a call to measure what we value, "instead of valuing what we measure (usually cheaply)." After agreeing that we all created "Michelle Rhee," we all need a heart-to-heart discussion of, " What do we value?"