Monday, August 20, 2012

The Rhee-Appeal OR "Hey, at least she’s doing something”

One of the curses of being a teacher is that since everyone went to school, they all feel that they have some brilliant insight about education that they are dying to share with you.  Though these experiences are nothing new to me, I had one a few months ago that really opened my eyes to what I’m now calling the “Rhee-appeal” (referring to former D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee). 

I was at a party at my girl friend’s father’s house. Most of the attendees were upper-class, white suburbanites who, upon hearing that I was a teacher in the city, decided that I should hear their solution to “the urban school problem”:

- One woman promptly asked me, “Well, what do you think of Michelle Rhee?” and before I could answer, followed with, “because we just saw her speak and think she’s wonderful.” 

- Taking a moment to gather my thoughts, I offered, “Yes, well she is certainly a controversial figure in education”. 

- Continuing her own line of thought the woman continued, “It’s just terrible what those teachers’ unions did to her in D.C., but she’s not going to let them stop her.  They should bring here in to Philly and she’d get these schools into shape.  I mean, at least she’s doing something!”

- Getting very frustrated and not really knowing how to contain myself, I just smiled and excused myself to go make a strong drink at the bar. 

As I reflected on this interaction, I realized that this woman was exactly the type of person that Michelle Rhee and her ilk are hoping to appeal to.  These corporate reformers don’t take time to engage parents or teachers in dialogue.  They rarely invite community members to the table when deciding how best to steer their schools.  Instead, they populate their boards with people whose perception of urban schools is based on the media and Hollywood films.  (don’t even get me started on the number of people who have told me that I should just try to be like that nice girl [Erin Gruwell] in Freedom Writers…)

Further, corporate reformers drum up the support of wealthy suburbanites through marketing campaigns disguised as documentaries (Waiting for Superman), “true” stories (Won’t Back Down), miracle stories (The Bee Eater) and even charity benefits (like the nauseating teacher benefit that aired on Friday).  Since being ousted from D.C., Rhee has been working the speaker series hard, spewing her insane reform agenda (and ignoring the massive cheating scandal that she left in her wake) and it is clearly working (see the interaction earlier in this post).   

Though it pains me to admit it, I was once taken in by this “Rhee-appeal”.  I was still and undergrad when my brother began teaching in D.C. through a Teaching Fellows program.  I started reading about this woman who had recently been named Chancellor and who was completely shaking up the system.  She was putting students first, the articles said.  She didn’t care about teachers’ excuses or interests, just wanted what was best for the children.  I found myself sitting back and saying, “well, it may not be the right choice, but at least she’s doing something”. 

I look back on this experience every time I read about a new reform agenda or miracle agenda.  Though I don’t advocate cynicism, I do think that realism is essential in education and perhaps if I had a few more years under my belt, I would have felt more confident  engaging with the woman at that party a few months ago.  Those of us who work in urban schools and communities everyday see how truly damaging this “Rhee appeal” truly is.  City kids are too often treated like guinea pigs in some corporate reform experiment. 

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