In the TLN Forum daily discussion, Mary, a teacher in Virginia, wrote:
When I saw D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee on the cover of TIME I sat down immediately and read the story from beginning to end. Two things disturbed me in the text. This passage I found particularly alarming coming from a school leader:
"'The thing that kills me about education is that it's so touchy-feely," she [Rhee] tells me [the reporter] one afternoon in her office. Then she raises her chin and does what I come to recognize as her standard imitation of people she doesn't respect. Sometimes she uses this voice to imitate teachers; other times, politicians or parents. Never students. "People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning,'" she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. "I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job.'"
This passage also set off alarm bells:
"Rhee's ferocity has alienated many people--even those who support her ideas and could be helpful to her. This summer the chair of the Washington city council called dealing with Rhee a "nightmare." There has been talk of passing legislation to rein her in. "Michelle Rhee believes in scorched earth," says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union that has become unusually involved in local matters in Washington. "I am not saying that D.C.'s school system doesn't need a lot of help. But I have been part of a lot of reforms, and the one thing I have never seen work is a hierarchical, top-down model.'"
I know Rhee has a formidable job ahead of her, as I have watched Washington DC closely over the years -- a place I consider my hometown since I was born (but not schooled) there. But this sounds like an administrator who has little respect for teachers. Am I overreacting? Perhaps I've been around too many administrators who use whiny voices when imitating teachers. But jeeez. Rhee kinda sounds like middle school to me....
An inner city teacher in New York replied:
Thanks for sharing this. I had started it but hadn't gotten to the parts you clipped. However, I was already perturbed by this paragraph, which I guess reflects the writer's perspective. It is the last sentence that really got me. Not only does it put down teachers, but parents?!
"They understand that if she succeeds, Rhee could do something no one has done before: she could prove that low-income urban kids can catch up with kids in the suburbs. The radicalism of this idea cannot be overstated. Now, without proof that cities can revolutionize their worst schools, there is always a fine excuse. Superintendents, parents and teachers in urban school districts lament systemic problems they cannot control: poverty, hunger, violence and negligent parents. They bicker over small improvements such as class size and curriculum, like diplomats touring a refugee camp and talking about the need for nicer curtains."
This seems to be a very simplistic "good guys vs. bad guys" world view. Something I abandoned years ago when I graduated from... 8th grade.
I do work in a high needs school, and I am sick and tired of hearing that ineffective teachers are the problem from people who could not teach in my school. I am in a mood to seriously cuss about this. My graduate school advisor had this great quote on her office door that somehow seems appropriate: "The beatings will continue until morale improves."
A North Carolina teacher added:
I pulled Rhee's article out of my school mailbox this morning. Talk about a miserable way to start the day: "How to Fix America's Schools: Battle Teachers."
Several questions are running through my head:
1. Are America's schools really the failure that everyone -- including Rhee -- claim them to be? I know that international comparisons are horrible, but international comparisons are unfair because the majority of nations around the world don't try to prepare everyone for a university education. What's more, America's schools have consistently adapted to the changing demands placed on them by outsiders---and we've done it pretty successfully.
2. Are Rhee's actions yet more blind rhetoric and short-sighted practice? We keep thinking that "pulling up our bootstraps" and "knocking off the whining" and "making teachers work harder" will reform education. Is it possible that no matter how hard we work, we'll never be able to get every child over the formidable obstacles to success?
3. If we did start hacking away at all the bad teachers in our schools --and I'm not denying that they exist -- would we have enough "highly qualified" people to fill their shoes? I always wonder about people like Rhee who want to fire all the "dead wood" -- because it ain't like they got a line of wonder teachers pounding down their doors looking for jobs. I'd love to see some stats on the qualifications of "the replacements" that Rhee hires. Are they significantly more qualified? More effective?
4. Do these negative messages keep capable teachers away from high needs schools? I won't go work in a high needs school because I don't care to be disrespected on the cover of every magazine and newspaper in the nation for my perceived failures. That kind of unfair and negative criticism is literally ensuring that I won't go to the kinds of schools that Rhee needs me in.
A teacher in southern California followed up:
Who could blame any self-respecting teacher for not wanting to go teach in a high needs school in THIS high stakes climate. I taught in a high needs school, and I miss the demands of working with those kids a lot. However, I'm really clear that unless there was a unique situation that addressed some of the real external roadblocks that at-risk kids and their families face, I wouldn't go back.
Another Virginia teacher, in the D.C. suburbs, wrote:
Michelle Rhee is interesting to say the least! I've been following her through The Washington Post. I don't live in the city and I don't actually know anyone whose children attend DC schools, but from what I can ascertain, there is a high level of dysfunction in the system.
Here are some things I've noted about Rhee's actions:
• Her dual track compensation plan gathered a great deal of attention and with good reason. The pay for performance track offered up to $130,000 annual income within 10 years in exchange for one year of probation. The second track still offered a generous salary scale with no challenge to tenure. The union leadership was very resistant and pushed back against members who wanted a referendum on whether or not to accept the plan. From reading in TIME about her school visit, I can understand their concerns, but from the perspective of an outsider, it looks like union protectionism at its worst. Refusing to negotiate, in my opinion was political suicide for the union.
• The firings have been very controversial with good reason as well. Changes in administration are not fun and teachers, parents and students don't like them. However, sometimes people don't realize that what they have isn't functioning because it's all they know. Competence is the first filter when choosing a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant. I have to agree with Rhee that while nice matters, it's not enough.
What bothers me is this: Her primary supporter, NYC school chancellor Joel Klein, came to education without an education background and still has only six years of experience in running a school system himself. He, like Rhee, seems to believe that all education needs is someone who is not afraid to challenge the people who have been working in these difficult situations. Rhee leans heavily on her personal experience as a research base. She taught for three years through TFA and while she wasn't so hot the first year, she believes that she and her teaching partner impacted student learning significantly during the next two years. Against what standard she judges her success is unclear since there were no benchmark testing records from those two years. She seems a little too sure of her own abilities and a little too disinterested in that reflective practice stuff.
I also find it troubling that, at least from this article, it appears that Rhee enjoys being combative. This is a no win. She says to the TIME writer:
"Have I rubbed some people the wrong way? Definitely. If I changed my style, I might make people a little more comfortable. But I think there's real danger in acting in a way that makes adults feel better. Because where does that stop?"
So much for collegiality and collaboration. A more experienced person would realize that when someone raises the tension level in schools, it is often the children who suffer the most. She might realize that building consensus with the school board, the union, and school personnel might be a little more efficient and effective and helpful to children in the long term.
Bottom line: My judgment is still out. She offers some fresh ideas and insights. She also offers what appears to be a great deal of unnecessary and unproductive aggression.
Gail, another Virginia teacher and D.C. watcher, added:
The TIME cover photo says it all for me. When I saw it on the newsstand at the grocery store, my first impression of the black-suited, stern-faced, holding-a-broom Ms. Rhee was -- wicked witch. Seriously! I assume that the impression they were going for was "a new broom sweeps clean," but all I saw was a mean-looking bully.
After reading the article, one of the things that really rubbed me the wrong way was the same one that bothered Mary -- Ms. Rhee's view of education as "too touchy-feely." That, and other comments she is quoted as saying, leads me to believe that she knows next to nothing about what quality teaching entails. No wonder DC teachers are reluctant to accept her offer of more money.
What criteria will she use to define quality teaching? Touchy-feely is out. She disdains people who talk about the importance of creativity. And she doesn't understand why a third grade teacher would "waste" time chatting with her students in a morning meeting (hasn't she ever heard of building positive relationships as an important precursor to a focus on academics?). And what kind of due process will a teacher have if s/he is arbitrarily dismissed by this power maven?
I'm sorry, but I don't think three years of teaching qualifies her as an education expert, and her own words back up my lack of faith in her "expertise." I don't dispute that DC schools need transformation from the ground up, but I don't think Michelle Rhee is going to be successful with her condescending, combative attitude.