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Is Michelle Rhee Putting Students First?

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Like everyone else who does education for a living, I read that Michelle Rhee is launching a new national advocacy organization, Students First. And after checking out the site and hearing how she articulates its purpose, I see some reasons to feel hopeful -- and many more reasons to feel deeply concerned.

First, the good news: It's hard to argue with Rhee's four "we believe" statements for the organization. Who doesn't believe all children deserve great teachers? Who would argue with the idea that students should not need luck to get a good education? Why not start allocating public dollars where they can make the biggest difference? And who would deny the need for more parental involvement and increased efforts to engage the entire community? So let's all hop on the Rhee express, right? Well, maybe.

It's also clear Ms. Rhee understands which advocacy efforts have been most successful and what sort of work we might therefore expect from Students First: "From the National Rifle Association to the pharmaceutical industry to the tobacco lobby," she explained in the Washington Post, "powerful interests put pressure on our elected officials and government institutions to sway or stop change. Education is no different. We have textbook manufacturers, teachers' unions and even food vendors that work hard to dictate and determine policy. The public-employee unions in DC, including the teachers' union, spent huge sums of money to defeat Fenty... but there is no big organized interest group that defends and promotes the interests of children."

To this end, Rhee intends to build an army of one million supporters and raise a total of one billion dollars -- in a year. Clearly, this is not someone unwilling to think big and in that sense, all of us need to match her sense of urgency and passion.

The danger, however, is if that urgency, passion and power gets deployed in the service of a myopic set of well-intentioned, misaligned ends. And based on what I can see from the website and gauge from her interviews, Michelle Rhee still believes the current way we're evaluating the success of our students, teachers and schools is sufficient for the brave new world of education she hopes to help usher in.

As I have written many times previously, I am not suggesting our current measures of school effectiveness -- third and eighth-grade basic-skills reading and math scores -- are irrelevant. Basic skills literacy and numeracy matter greatly, and we should take note when, as was recently reported, the latest international comparisons on these metrics reveal we remain, despite all the efforts of the past decade, either average or below average in every significant category.

At the same time, these reports should stop surprising us. The deeper problem, counterintuitive though it may seem, is that the more we focus on test scores -- and focusing on test scores is a core message of Rhee's particular brand of advocacy -- the less likely we are to improve the quality of our public schools.

What we are doing is falling in love with the illusory allure of removing the thermometer, dipping our head in ice water, retaking our temperature, and declaring Mission Accomplished. What we need is a different vision for the future -- one that takes the best aspects of our increased emphasis on measurement and data-driven decision-making, and also reconnects us to the deepest truths about powerful teaching and learning -- that it is relational, individualized, non-linear, and a pathway to the development of the higher-order skills we all need to feel successful in college, our careers, and our lives.

Consequently, I wish Michelle Rhee would use her influence to help a million Americans urge their elected officials to pass policies that will usher in a new era of school improvement, one that is grounded in three core conditions:

  1. We will measure all things worth measuring in the context of what our children will need to learn to be successful in this Google-icious world -- where rote learning counts for less and less;
  2. We will make sure that we know how to measure what we set out to measure;
  3. We will agree to attach no more importance to measurable indicators than we attach to things that are equally or more important -- even if they elude our instruments.

If Rhee urged us all to help ensure that those conditions were met, I'd feel less concerned about some of her other objectives. Teachers would have more meaningful information about the extent to which they were (or were not) creating optimal learning environments; parents would have more useful information to consider before choosing a school for their children; and policy makers would (perhaps!) start to develop a more nuanced understanding of education and (perhaps!) embrace the paradoxical, creative tension that undergirds the learning process: on one hand, it can never be reduced to a few numbers or a set of techniques; and on the other hand, it can still benefit from a fuller focus on measurement, school improvement, and mutual accountability.

Help us advocate for those things, Michelle, and then I agree we'd be working together to create a system that, truly, puts students first.

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