Another Perspective

Good Rheedance

If Michelle Rhee is the best the school reform movement can produce, then we're  in even worse trouble than we thought.

By 10.18.10

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Although the incumbent mayor of Washington, D.C., was soundly defeated in the Democratic Party primary a few weeks ago, the larger story, judging from press commentary both locally and nationally, was that the voters of the nation's capital had rejected public school reform. No one could point to any truly substantial difference between the politics of Adrian Fenty, or his policies, and those of his rather popular predecessor, Anthony Williams, nor for that matter those of his main challenger, the chairman of the city council, a veteran of Washington politics named Vincent Gray (who has indicated he may give Williams a job). However, the manner in which the incumbent was advancing his school-reform agenda became an issue during the last weeks of the campaign, particularly when the young schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, openly joined his campaign, possibly in violation of the Hatch Act despite her own insistence that she was acting in a private capacity.

When he won the mayoralty four years ago, Adrian Fenty gave school reform pride of place on his agenda. He quite deliberately declared himself a student of New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and said he too would take control of the city public schools away from a politicized school board. Pointing to the kind of administrative reforms that the New York Chancellor, a Bloomberg protégé and former Clinton Justice department lawyer, Joel Klein, favored, Mayor Fenty appointed Michelle Rhee, a product of the Teach-for-America movement, to the top job and told her that whatever she wanted to do, he would cover for her. In this, Fenty surely was transparent, making it quite clear that he not only agreed with Miss Rhee's ideas and policies, but was, in effect, ordering them.

Washington thus became the latest city in the country to serve as a "showcase" for public school reform, the latest, that is, in at least a hundred years of public school reform. It is typical of today's reformers that they seem blithely unaware that public schools, like our nation, evolve, and indeed evolve in ways that parallel the larger society's. The most significant of these parallel trends is the surrender of local responsibility to government authorities, and the pretense of the latter to rely on "experts," a.k.a. technocrats, people parachuted into communities where they have no ties but whose problems they can solve.

It is not likely that in rejecting Miss Rhee, Washington's voters voted against the federalization of education, because Washington is a federal plantation and no politician here would dare oppose the movement for statehood which, given the city's socio-economic condition, would serve only to render more blatant this fact. However, they do seem to have rejected the form, if not the substance, of rule-by-experts into which the school reform movement morphed in the past 20 years or so.

To be sure, school reform always has been led by know-it-alls, of whom the archetypes were John Dewey and several generations of specialists in education at Columbia University's Teachers College. Specialization has its uses, of course, but even in a discipline where knowledge can be defined with great precision, like nuclear physics, it is unwise to apply notions to real life without knowing something about just that, real life.

School reform has focused historically, one might almost say cyclically, on such scarecrows as "entrenched interests" and "out of date pedagogy." In plain English, reformers have tended to think they understand the problems and challenges of educating undisciplined if lovable savages (children and teenagers) better than the people whose job it is to do it, and furthermore that they have a system for teaching math and reading that will work better than any other. In both regards they are very much in the venerable American tradition of snake-oil salesmen, though the Ph.D.'s they often hold are authentic, compared to the "doctor" titles conferred upon themselves by your old-fashioned mountebanks. In terms of truth-in-packaging, the latter were probably more honest.

Not a Ph.D. holder herself, Miss Rhee (Cornell B.A., Harvard-Kennedy School M.A.) entered the education field through Teach for America, the successful 1990 brainchild of Wendy Kopp (a Princeton graduate), whose core idea was that it could recruit young graduates to serve in public schools in difficult, usually urban, neighborhoods, give them the requisite training to pass state certification requirements, and motivate them to teach for at least two years, thereby improving the teaching corps, since they were graduates of elite schools. Like so many other universal-improvement ideas, Teach for America rapidly turned itself into a money-making organization. Its most ambitious members tended, as did Miss Rhee, toward administrative positions. After teaching for a year or two in Baltimore, she created a TFA look-alike which obtained public funds to train "excellent" teachers, among other things.

The 1990s go-teach-the-underprivileged movements, which several cities, including New York and Washington, soon imitated with their own "Teaching Fellows" programs, was that if you demonstrated that there were lots of bright kids (as well as dim middle-aged folks looking for a career-change) willing to sacrifice themselves for the poor, the money would follow. This is not to denigrate the "send forth the best ye breed" idealism that undoubtedly played its part, or the thoughts to another notch on an attractive résumé that are, after all, altogether reasonable, but it is to underscore that there in fact was money in it. The teaching missionaries typically were funded by, and in fact became de facto recruits of, AmeriCorps, the federal government's "domestic peace corps."

The money was there because since the entry of the government into education during Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, there has been a constant search for programs on which to spend the taxpayers' money. (The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, renewed by the Obama administration with an added incentive called "Race to the Top" which encourages all-out cramming to produce high test scores, are direct descendants of the 1960s Elementary and High School Education Acts.) The inescapable evidence, however, is that the more federal money has been spent on public education, the more student achievement has plummeted.

The question then has to come down to this: does money matter? During her brief tenure as D.C. Schools Chancellor, Miss Rhee claimed as her top achievements that she was diminishing the administrative staff at the schools headquarters; that she was encouraging teachers to brighten their classrooms; and that she was providing programs of professional development for weak teachers.

She also took credit for improved test scores, which is the last defense of the educrat. No one who has looked seriously at the way achievements in math and reading are assessed under the No Child Left Behind rules believes you can judge a district on the basis of scarcely a couple of years. The D.C. schools implemented reforms aimed at improving scores, anyway, in 2006, so at most Miss Rhee should claim credit for staying with them, notwithstanding her stated plan to break with business as usual. But the substantive issue is whether it serves a useful educational purpose to turn schools into fill-the-bubble-test cram boxes instead of teaching content-rich courses.

No one can possibly complain about this; any schools superintendent would include such items as a matter of course in his program. It does not cost anything, however, or very little. Teachers traditionally decorate their classrooms with their children's work, books are not that expensive, and professional development properly understood means that experienced teachers give pointers to younger ones.

The real problem with money, especially money that the local community does not see because it is cloaked in the mysteries of Department of Education allocations or Gates Foundation grants, is that it turns the schools over to the professional educators, all too often individuals like Miss Rhee with almost no classroom experience. These professional educators include the union leaders whose specialty is to negotiate contracts based on the principle that every moment a union member spends on the job (calibrated, literally, to the minute) is remunerated, including when he, or she, gives advice to a fellow-teacher. Professional development, which used to be known as collegiality, thus also became a racket.

Miss Rhee, quite laudably, got into trouble with the Washington teachers' union. But the quarrel was not over the kind of issue that principled insurgent-unionists would have joined her in -- replacing venal leadership, for instance (that had already been done) -- but over the division of the spoils, under the cover of non-issues like merit pay and tenure. These items, often mentioned by conservative critics, because they sound like breaths of fresh and efficient air in sclerotic boondoggling systems, completely miss the point.

Miss Rhee fell into this kind of argument because she, like the union leaders and community activists who rallied the city for Gray by denouncing her, does not want to see the point any more than they do. A free society gets the public schools it deserves, and if we, as Americans, cannot create and sustain institutions for public instruction as good at reaching their stated goals -- with all obvious caveats and in all due perspective, of course -- as the Army, for example, does, then maybe it really is time to start over from scratch. At the present, the children of many of our school districts scarcely would lose anything by being given a six-month vacation while the adults ponder just what schools are for.

It is here, precisely, that Miss Rhee unfortunately epitomizes the contemporary reform movement of which she is both a product and an emblem. She was probably right to fire teachers and principals whom she did not like -- she said they were incompetent, or "under-performing" in the reformist jargon, but the simple truth of the matter is that if she is in charge, by virtue of commonly acknowledged rules, and she does not want someone, she should do exactly what she did.

She was the boss. Leave aside the sexual predators who can be found in any institution, and leave aside, too, that Miss Rhee's then-fiancé, now husband, was investigated for exactly that sort of thing, as well as misappropriation of AmeriCorps money when, precisely, he led a reform-inspired public-charter type school (publicly funded schools that stay outside ordinary district supervision). You should leave it aside because, after all, what's past is past. True, there is the disturbing detail that Miss Rhee, close to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and, reportedly, President Obama, intervened, by means of her prestige (then at its peak) in the matter. And yet, even if this sounds a bit like crossing lines that public officials simply should not cross, could it not be said that she was only standing by her man?

No, the core of the matter is not this or that lapse of judgment or a clumsy manner with people. She is said to be abrasive, texts even while in the midst of formal meetings. Well, you can put that down to an American get-to-the-point spirit. However, Miss Rhee never bothered to explain just what all this reform and professional development and search for "excellent" teachers is supposed to mean. She did not explain it to the parents. Or to anybody.

And the reason she did not is that, no more than the unions' labor-fakers or the paper-pushers in the Education Dept. or the tax-dollar entrepreneurs of TFA, she does not know or does not care. Should our kids be studying Latin and classical music? Should sports be compulsory; should ROTC? Should Shakespeare be on the finals and should a ninth grader be able to recite the Second Inaugural? Should every kid learn a trade as well as a foreign language?

The distinct impression D.C. voters got was that Miss Rhee does not think about these things. Like her beloved, who is now mayor of Sacramento, and, frankly, like so much of the political-administrative leadership of our country today, these are unimportant questions because they do not matter to them. In the world they inhabit they do, of course matter. Michelle Rhee is surely concerned that her children (her first marriage was to a TFA executive, and it somehow seems not a matter of irrelevant gossip to report this) learn calculus and foreign languages and violin. (It seems not a matter of irrelevant gossip, either, that the President of the United States had the candor to allow as how the D.C. schools were not good enough for his daughters, and he might have noted while he was at it that close to a majority of unionized teachers in big-city districts do not send their kids to public schools, either.)

Much was made during the Fenty-Gray contest of the fact that Michelle Rhee offended people by her brusque manner, that she was not "in touch." One's first reaction is to think: So what? But on reflection, this can be seen to go to the heart of what's wrong with our public schools. They are run by people who are, in some essential way, antinomians. They use power arbitrarily, for example to block investigations that are too close to home. The inspector general of AmeriCorps lost his job when he got too troublesome in the matter of Miss Rhee's betrothed. Now he may have been a lousy inspector general, incompetent. But ordinary people see this sort of thing happening too often, and they notice that the individuals who do it simply do it again when the chance presents itself.

The schools reflect our society, and being vitally, warmly, constantly interested in the immediate and crucial bond between our communities and our schools is part of the job of running them and working in them. This bond has been sundered by the massive infusion of federal money in our school systems. That is what is really wrong with them. It scarcely matters that teenage boys hate to read -- that would not be news. They should spend more time in shop then, or under the supervision of their coaches and their ROTC colonels. They will come to reading in their own good time. No superman is going to change that, and it is symptomatic of the narcissistic, rules-are-for-others types that they can think of nothing better than blaming teachers for a system that has lost its moorings and its compasses, including most pertinently its moral compasses.

The charge that Miss Rhee was not listening to the community she was appointed to serve turns out to be not the sort of trivial matter that distracts the voters in a bitter campaign. It turns out to be very close to what is, in fact, wrong with the schools -- which Vincent Gray, no more than the people he chose to run against, gives little indication, so far, of understanding. For this very reason, the "defeat" of the Washington Schools Chancellor may at least serve a useful purpose, namely as a reminder of the core requirements for real reform of our schools.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.