Education Celebrity

A headline on the Post front page this morning declares “Rhee embraces education celebrity”. For the online version of the article, the top line becomes: “Michelle Rhee, the education celebrity who rocketed from obscurity to Oprah”.

But don’t read this long piece expecting to gain any understanding of major education reform issues. That’s not modern “journalism”.

The writer is far more interested in lining up the sides, slapping political labels on them, and laying out the conflict. The Tea Party loves her! Teacher unions hate her! She’s controversial!!

However, buried in this promotional piece (she has a book about herself to sell) is one important fact about the reform concepts she supports: they don’t work.

“She’s got a very simple message that is highly seductive because it appears to give an answer to our difficult education problems,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal-leaning* research group.

It would be great if her ideas translated into good results for kids, Kahlenberg said.

“But, in fact, we’ve got two grand experiments of her theory,” he said. “The first is the American South, where teachers unions are weak and the schools are not lighting the world on fire. The other is charter schools, which are 88 percent non-unionized. In charters, you can do everything that Michelle Rhee wants to do – fire bad teachers, pay good teachers more. And yet, the most comprehensive studies looking at charter schools nationally find mediocre results.”

I know it won’t happen, but I keep hoping that a high profile news organization like the Post would use actual results as a starting point for a front-page article on education reform. And push all the celebrity crap back to the Style section.

* According to the wise and ever-quotable Stephen Colbert, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias”.

Who’s First?

Tomorrow night Frontline, the PBS investigative series, will present an hour-long show about Michelle Rhee’s relatively short time as the head of the DC school system. I will record the program and watch it later so I have the option of rewinding the parts I couldn’t hear the first time while yelling at the TV.

However, I could probably skip the whole thing since Charlie Pierce, writing in Esquire’s Politics Blog, offers this very succinct and totally accurate summary of Rhee’s accomplishments.

Rhee’s entire (and very lucrative) career as a proponent of educational “reform” is based on her time as chancellor of the public schools in Washington, D.C. Between 2007 and 2010, she did everything that sends a thrill up the leg of the “reform” community. She bashed teachers, scapegoated principals, and shined up her own armor for public consumption every chance she got. She also instituted a system of standardized testing by which Michelle Rhee would be able to judge the awesome awesomeness of Michelle Rhee.

Her organization is called Student’s First but, as others have pointed out, it’s goals are more about putting Rhee ahead of anyone else.

And while I’m quoting Charlie Pierce, one of the best observational writers around, his opening sentence about the education reform industry is far too accurate.

One problem with the education “reform” industry is not merely that it generally looks at “education” as though it were a commodity, like soybeans, and that the problems with how we educate a great many children of our fellow citizens can be solved if we just refine the delivery systems for the product.

Reform? What Reform?

The headline on the front page of the Wednesday Post reads “Rhee to resign as schools chancellor”.

Ok, not unexpected.

Below that is this subheader

D.C. official’s departure leaves questions about future of reform

I have a question: What during her three year tenure as head of the DC school system qualified as “reform”?

Certainly she upset the teachers’ union by trying to change the structure by which their members would be paid and firing several hundred of them.

Rhee pissed off more than few neighborhoods by closing buildings and replacing beloved principals, which in turn rattled members of the DC council who heard from their constituents.

And, of course, student achievement (aka test scores) rose during her time in charge.  Primarily due to a greater emphasis on preparing kids to take the exams.

But does any of that qualify as “reform”?

If guess if the Post says it does, it must be so.

Quality? It’s Gonna Cost You

Continuing with the theme of teacher quality from my previous post…

Just up the road and across the river from here, Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of Schools for the District of Columbia, thinks she’s found a way to make the teachers in her schools better.

Pay them a whole lot more and at the same time make it a whole lot easier for her to fire teachers who don’t measure up. To what standards is not quite clear but you can bet it has something to do with test scores.

However, in this economy, where is the money going to come from to make her grand plans happen?

For the first five years Rhee says funding for the pay increase will come from $100 million in grants provided by large foundations (the names of which are being kept secret), with another $100 million for teacher training and other improvements. After that, she says DC can sustain the costs.

However, putting aside the question of whether the concepts at the foundation of Rhee’s proposal are valid, a bigger question is whether any major school reform program can or should be based on private money.

If we really want to have a quality public education system, one that provides students with the foundational skills to be a successful part of American society, shouldn’t the public be willing to pay for it?

For that matter, shouldn’t the public also be involved with planning and making it work?

It Will Take More Than Well Paid Teachers

Earlier this week, Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of the DC public schools, was trying to sell her plans to reform the city school system in the pages of the Post Op-Ed section.

The core of her proposal is to provide a large boost to teacher salaries in exchange for them giving up tenure and agreeing to tie future pay increases, and employment, to student achievement (aka test scores).

But pretty much from her first day in the District, Rhee has pissed off teachers and the unions, and quite a few other people, with her efforts to transform the DC schools.

So this piece in the paper was also an attempt to make nice with the teachers she has to work with.

I am often asked to name the most important factor in this district’s success. It is teachers. It is their classrooms and what happens there, the expectations they set as they push students to go further. Teaching is the toughest job there is: Doing it well can keep you up at night thinking about your students, their stories and your role in their lives. But as teachers know, this work is also sure to surprise and reward. Teachers deserve recognition and respect for their efforts.

In the news the following day, it was clear that Rhee’s plans will have to be scaled back due to the economy.

However, it really doesn’t matter.

Certainly teachers are an essential factor in student learning but not the only one.

And, in a city with high levels of poverty and violence against children, a miserable educational infrastructure, and generally poor leadership, probably not the most important part of the equation.