Report: Why Michelle Rhee is overrated
The wait is over for those who seek a rebuttal to former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee's ideas about school reform, or the laudatory treatment she's received from many education commentators.
Writing in Slate, Richard Kahlenberg offers a full-throated takedown of Rhee's take-no-prisoners style, her campaign against teachers' unions, and press coverage that he says overlooks basic facts about her tenure in the nation's capitol.
"Rhee's message about education reform is very seductive because it's simple and optimistic," writes Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. "Childhood poverty and economic school segregation, in Rhee's world, are just 'excuses' for teacher failure."
"Most education researchers, though, recognize that Rhee's simple vision of heroic teachers saving American education is a fantasy, and that her dramatic, often authoritarian, style is ill-suited for education," he adds. "If the ability to fire bad teachers and pay great teachers more were the key missing ingredient in education reform, why haven't charter schools, 88% of which are nonunionized and have that flexibility, lit the education world on fire?"
Kahlenberg writes that Rhee bungled the most important task facing her as D.C. schools chancellor: managing the complex politics of race and class. If not for her incendiary methods and inattention, he says, Rhee could have lured more middle-class families to stick with the public schools and found ways to make test-score gains permanent, rather than temporary.
He says commentators have missed the fact that the nation's second-largest teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, has committed to reforms that are designed to support struggling teachers and, if necessary, fire them. (Both the AFT and the larger National Education Association have endorsed such reforms in Hillsborough.)
"Several communities, from Montgomery County, Md., to Toledo, Ohio, use peer evaluation and review, whereby expert teachers come into a school, try to help struggling educators, but in the end recommend that some be terminated," Kahlenberg writes. "This might seem like the fox guarding the hen house. But in both communities, teachers were tougher on colleagues than administrators had been because the 7th-grade teacher is hurt when the 6th-grade teacher is incompetent. Beginning in 2002, 177 Montgomery County teachers were dismissed, not renewed, or resigned in the first four years of peer review, compared with just one teacher who was dismissed due to performance issues between 1994 and 1999. Peer review remains controversial among many teachers, but the AFT has a national policy in support of it."
In other words, he says, Rhee goes too far in trashing all teachers' unions, when some are supporting tough-minded reforms. Do you agree?