The controversial former chancellor of the D.C. school system was the subject of this week's PBS documentary "The Education of Michelle Rhee." Tangential, can we stop with the "Education of..." headline already? After David Patraeaus the title has official jump the shark. And anyway, the Frontline series hardly gave us the background education on Michelle Rhee, I'm sure we would have all found quit interesting. If anything it clarified the issues of a broken education system, that one person cannot solve.
When I say broken, we are talking about the lowest tier of our society, the impoverished, the class that the rest of society has left behind.
The controversy which has swirled around Rhee's tenure as canceler goes like this: instead of pinning progress and failure on students, Rhee pinned the responsibility on teachers. Former mayor of Washington D.C., Fenty, appointed Rhee chancellor with sweeping and unchecked powers. Rhee decided that the best metric to measure student progress was the tie standardized test scores to teachers, principles and schools. Failing schools would have principles and teachers fired, and successful schools would be awarded cash incentives. A teacher or principle could be given between $8,000 and $10,000 for student progress.This obviously caught the ire of the teachers union, in which job security is king.
Naturally within the first year of Rhee's chancellorship student test scores in the D.C. school system improved dramatically, in some cases by 20%. Unbelievable progress. So unbelievable enough people began to suspect cheating. And here's where problems begin, although various investigations into the test scores have taken place (which Rhee had not fully cooperated with), there has not been definitive proof that cheating had taken place. One principle in the documentary actually said that she caught administrators in her school, erasing and changing test scores.
The controversy has been left open ended, since Rhee lost her position, after Mayor Fenty was voted out of office. Rhee has since gone on to form Students First, an organization designed to train teachers and implement policy changes at local and national levels.
I'm skipping a lot of the details here, you'll have to watch the doc to form your on opinion on Rhee and her tactics. There are as many ardent detractors as there are supporters.
I only have one thing to add to this conversation. If you have never taught in an inner-city, under-performing public school, its easy to get caught up in the politics of the Rhee story and take sides. But if you have, you will have experienced first had the layer upon layer of problems that face poor youths in our country. Kids who come from dysfunctional homes like you've never seen, and going to underfunded schools where few teachers want to be. If you are a smart young teacher who starts out at one of these lower performing institutions, chances are you are looking for the next opening at a higher tier school.
One friend of mine was burnt out after 6 years as a "Teach for America" candidate in an inner city school. She stopped teaching for two full years before being hired at a high end charter school. I did a semester for the Board of Ed, subbing for teachers in GED programs, where students with various issues were dumped after having been kicked out of or dropped out of their district high schools. Whatever is going on in these places is more like crowd control, very little teaching can happen. I vowed never to teach in lower ed again, and fortuantly became a college professor (which has its own set of issues.)
Yeah the schools are broken but so is our society, its an embedded set of obstacles from home-life, to environment, to lack of opportunity, which all link back to poverty. Poverty in America is the last issue ever addressed by any politician, we prefer to place blame on reformers who "fail."
So maybe Rhee wasn't as successful as she envisioned or even pretended to be, but at least she gave a shit. I can't tell you the amount of stagnation and disinterest within the public school system in lower class neighborhoods that I saw in my short tenure. I was relieved and glad to get out. At least Rhee turned a light in those decrepit halls, for all of us to see.