“Radical” Michelle Rhee has been on a real PR push leading up to and immediately following the release of her new book Radical: Fighting to Put Students First. She’s speaking at the Free Library of Philadelphia tonight to a sold-out crowd who will no doubt eat up each vague generalization that she makes about teachers and students and every misguided assertion about how to reform education that she spews.
And who can blame this audience for their acceptance of and even reverence for her words? She’s an intelligent, well-spoken woman with a compelling narrative, who presents herself as an expert on the shortfalls of urban schools. However, what makes her so compelling to so many people is that unlike many educational historians and scholars, she doesn’t get caught up in all the messy talk about poverty, funding, and lack of resources and instead proposes a “solution”. She is also quick to point out the people get in the way of her “solution”. Her appeal stems from her ability to lay out educational reform as a binary - either you are a Reformer who puts students first or you are Anti-reform and don't care what's best for children.
I have written before about Michelle Rhee and how there was a time when I too thought, “hey, at least she’s doing something”. It wasn’t until I started working and living in an urban district and researching urban education that I realized the systemic and intractable forces at work in large city schools. Putting aside the DC cheating scandal and Students First’s political ties & support, I see Ms. Rhee’s reform agenda as being terribly short-sighted and ignorant of the inequities and realities that will continue to plague urban districts if they aren’t addressed at a systemic level.
This came to the forefront in her interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show on Monday night. Say what you will about the biases and leanings of Jon Stewart or the fact that his show is preceded by some of the dumbest programming on television (though for some reason I find Workaholics to be hilarious), he did what interviewers almost never do when sitting across from Michelle Rhee: challenge her.
At first, after watching the five minutes or so that aired on TV, I was concerned that this was going to be just another venue for her to push the message that she’s the only one out there who really cares, she’s putting students’ interests first, blah, blah, blah. She made her typical statements like, “If bringing common sense to a dysfunctional system makes me radical, then I guess I am and maybe more people should be radical” and “I come from teachers, that’s why I have an incredible regard for what they can do”. Too many so-called reformers get away with making empty statements like these. It’s like saying, “I spend time around doctors and I know they work hard, so I can tell them how to best perform surgery” or “I’ve been going to the dentist all my life, so I’m an expert of orthodontia”.
But Jon Stewart came through for me in a big way. Towards the end of the broadcasted portion of the interview and certainly in the extended version posted online, he did a powerful job pushing her to be specific and addressed much of what her "brand" of reform ignores.
In one exchange Rhee referred to teachers as the greatest tool to improving student achievement. Stewart replied, “That’s true, but teachers are the only tool that gets yelled at. Teachers are the only tool we look at and say ‘fix it or you’re fired’”. Stewart’s response demonstrates the inherent hypocrisy and disconnect in the corporate reform model. You can’t argue that on one hand teachers are the greatest tools to improving achievement and have the greatest impact and need to be supported, but then on the other hand portray them as lazy and needing to be threatened into doing their jobs. Corporate reform seems to have a paradoxical view of teachers as incredibly powerful and important, but ultimately inept.
Stewart also pushed her to address some of the social and environmental realities facing urban schools.
She replied: “Does poverty matter? Absolutely. I mean that makes it much more challenging… To escape poverty, we know the best way to do that is through education”.
Stewart offered a simple but powerful reply, “Education can only take root if the soil is fertile”
This short exchange gets to the heart of what’s absent in her reform agenda: the structural forces that have a profound effect on academic and educational success. Yes, in a perfect world all the social programs would work together and every student would get the support they need so schools can focus all their efforts on academic success (actually, I’m not so sure that’s my idea of a perfect school… but anyway). Those in schools everyday know that’s not the reality , especially not in urban schools. Students are hungry, they’re homeless, they’ve experienced major trauma, they’re sick, they have emotional or behavioral disorders, or they have undocumented learning disabilities. To ignore these realities is hardly putting students first. In fact, to expect a child who is hungry or in extreme emotional distress to sit through a two-hour math lesson or to take a standardized test seems cruel and unrealistic.
Near the end of the interview the two have another great exchange that I’d like to highlight:
Stewart: Have we abandoned the model of public schooling? Especially in urban environments
Rhee: No family should feel like they’re trapped in a failing school
Stewart: Doesn’t public school become a repository for worst, most troublesome students?...
Stewart: Your solution is if a school is failing, why not give students an alternative that works. But if you know how to create an alternative that works, why not offer that to the entire system and address the larger problems?
What Jon Stewart is pointing out is one of the major holes in the corporate reform movement: it focuses so much on individual schools and eliminating bureaucracy (which I will admit is exhausting), that it ignores the need for systemic change and even ignores the need for a system at all.
Further, this whole reform ideology relies on “FAILING schools” to demonstrate the need for charters & vouchers so they can swoop in and save the day. It’s like waiting for a person to drown before you throw them a life preserver. If reformers like Rhee have the solution, why aren’t they sharing it or putting it out there? Why are they sitting back and waiting for more and more students and schools to drown?
This question harkens back to Diane Ravich’s “challenge” to KIPP to take over an entire district. Her argument was, if you are having so much more success than the public schools and your model is so groundbreaking, let’s see it in practice. Take over a district and show them how it’s done. Of course, KIPP’s reply was essentially ‘that’s not what we do’.
Rhee tried to wrap up by casting herself as a savior who’s not only putting students first, but also trying to support teachers (though she’s been pretty clear that if you recognize teachers’ needs, you aren’t putting “students first”). Fortunately, Jon Stewart refuses to let her use his show as a soapbox.
Rhee: We need to free teachers to be innovative & respond to students’ needs. This dysfunctional bureaucracy that’s driven by these antiquated policies. Let’s change the laws and policies so they don’t stymie the educators into having to do things in a certain way. Let’s free them up to be able to do what they know is right for kids.
Stewart: But isn’t that the antithesis of the testing regime?
Rhee: No. We must have measures by which we understand whether or not kids are learning appropriately.
Stewart: The entire system of that metric is somewhat broken.
Rhee: We should be always working towards finding better assessments.
So there you have it. Apparently fixing our education system is that easy:
- Ignore students’ realities
- Label & close schools
- Open new schools that can remove “problem students”
- Test the hell out of kids
- Vilify, intimidate, and terrify teachers
- Make them compete for what slim resources remain
- Tell anyone who doesn’t agree with you that they are selfish and don’t put “students first”
- Write solipsistic memoir
- Collect a big fat paycheck & look for a fancy private school for your own children