Monday, February 13, 2012

Learning from Rhee

This is a guest post by Joanna A. Bujes, an Oakland public school parent and supporter of public education. She has taught at U.C. Berkeley, University of Santa Clara, and SUNY Plattsburgh, and she has been a volunteer teacher and tutor in the Oakland public schools (poetry, drama, math) whenever she could find the time.


On the evening of February 7, Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of DC public schools and the public face of the opaquely funded StudentsFirst,  addressed an audience of some four thousand people at the Paramount theater in Oakland. This lecture was one of a number of lectures purchased as a series, and did not imply any particular interest in Rhee or in education by the older and relatively affluent crowd attending, the sort of crowd one finds at similar series, whether theater, ballet, or classical music.

As I have never heard Rhee speak before, I cannot say that she tailored her talk to this particular audience, but given her consummate skills as a public speaker, I would be very surprised if she had not.

The lecture was divided in three parts. First, Rhee introduced herself and described her leadership of the DC public schools; next, she outlined her fundamental principles about education; finally, she answered questions from the audience.

In the first part, Rhee established her persona: a mix of unprepossessing but feisty "Korean lady," finding herself unaccountably charged with the management of DC public schools and concerned only for the good of the children. Her narrative of her three years as DC chancellor, a position for which she had no qualifications or experience, framed her dictatorial and disruptive tenure as the story of a plain speaking firebrand who sliced through every piece of red tape and obstruction to transform institutional corruption into a working school system. Rich in anecdote and short on facts, the main point of the story was to set up Rhee as a concerned citizen who was out of patience with a dysfunctional system and whose arbitrary and devastating actions (performed under the aegis of Mayoral control) were not a violation of the democratic rights of parents and teachers and children, but the necessary and heroic actions of a woman more concerned with the good of the children than with the interest of other "adults" involved in the educational system. Someone listening closely might have wondered why schools were failing quite so badly since, in fact, they had been following the kill and drill NCLB model for close to a generation. Listeners might have also wondered about her assertions as to how much money is being lavished on these failing schools. But facts are little things, and  Rhee's aim to tell a "Mr Smith Goes to Washington" story largely succeeded. In this story, her lack of expertise and experience prove that she is not part of the education insiders responsible for the education crisis. (Predictably, Rhee, thundered about the education crisis, forgetting to mention that the U.S. poor standing in the world reflects only the plight of our poorer students, and that comparing the right demographic groups yields results that are much different and far more complimentary to U.S. public education.)

Having established herself as regular folk with a passion for education, representing her lack of experience as the necessary foundation for a radical critique of the current state of education, Rhee went on to describe the three factors in the shaping of education: the importance of teachers, global competition, and bipartisanship.

The importance of teaching: First, Rhee acknowledged the importance of teachers. She told a very moving story of a great teacher in action, implicitly appealing to the memory of every great teacher that everyone has had at one time or another.

One would have had to be listening very closely and to have known something about the effect of NCLB on schools and the teaching profession to understand that something was wrong with the picture. How does one reconcile an admiration for teachers with her open contempt for the few benefits teachers enjoy: some measure of autonomy in their teaching practice, due process and stability in their profession, the prospect of retirement after a life-time of dedicated and selfless work? How does one reconcile her belief in the importance of teaching with her curt dismissal of the importance of professional training for teachers? How does one reconcile her appreciation of teachers with her promotion of ineffective and divisive merit pay, or her abject disregard for class size? How does one reconcile her belief in the importance of teaching with her capricious and destructive actions in DC?

In fact there is no way to reconcile these things. At bottom, her belief in the importance of teachers achieves two things: one, it makes the audience trust her because who could possibly believe in the effectiveness of an educational system that did not depend on the quality of teaching; two, to stress the importance of teaching is to minimize the much greater effect of poverty on educational outcomes. A great teacher, Rhee tells us again and again, can make all the difference. So if students are failing it cannot be that they are hungry or ill or stressed by homelessness or their parents' despair. No, if  students are failing, it is because a teacher has failed to teach them.

A constant refrain -- explicit or implicit -- in all of Rhee's talk of education, turns on the notion that the interests of children and that of adults are diametrically opposed, and that educational policy is needed to reconcile them. According to this view, teachers care about benefits, retirement, and protection against their own incompetence; therefore they do not care about children. As a corollary, teachers' unions exist specifically to protect teachers' interests and therefore, necessarily, to undermine the education of children. This is why high stakes testing and merit pay are needed: a stick and a carrot for teachers who would otherwise neglect or underserve their charges.  The notion that a teacher's working environment is a student's learning environment would be incomprehensible to Rhee. Or rather, it would be comprehensible only to the extent that keeping the teacher in a state of constant terror would be the most effective way of making sure that the job is done right.

Global competition: Second, Rhee remonstrated with the audience about how we coddle our children, praising mediocre performance and rendering them unfit to compete with the well drilled and properly humbled children of Singapore, Korea, Japan, etc. To support this thesis, Rhee described the trophies adorning the rooms of her two daughters, admittedly lousy soccer players. One would have to think hard to figure out how unearned soccer trophies are an analogue to the current drill and kill regime in the public schools. I would think that they were opposites. I guess the subtext was that some measure of pain is necessary to make students "competitive," though what exactly the parents would be signing up for under this rubric was not clear. I guess the larger aim was to present education as something that was inextricably tied to competition and to providing exactly the kind of labor that corporations need. Education not as a project of enlightenment, not as a foundation for democracy, not as a second chance in a grotesquely skewed economy -- but as a form of mortification that might render one employable.

Bipartisan agenda: Third, while acknowledging herself to be a die hard Democrat, Rhee asserted that her educational program transcends political boundaries and could include Democrat as well as Republican. Of course, the  neo-liberal educational agenda, which would essentially place education under private control is already completely bipartisan. Obama's "Race to the Top" follows smoothly from Bush's NCLB; the actual goal of both programs is to justify the privatization of all "failing" schools and the transmutation of public funds into guaranteed profits. So why belabor the bipartisan issue? One answer might be the voucher story: At this point she told the story of a woman who had failed to get her child into a good school, and was petitioning for a voucher. Rhee, unable to betray the needs of the child for a more abstract good, crossed party lines and produced the voucher.Thus, under the cover of an anecdote that shows her warm humanitarian concerns, Rhee signals her implicit support for, the next step in the privatization process: from charter to voucher, a step not yet taken by the democrates as a whole. I'm guessing too that rhetorically the first goal is to disavow any personal political interest (unlike those Democratic teachers unions) and second to fish for money wherever it could be found, democratic or republican pockets.

Here's what I took away from the lecture that might be useful going forward:

1. Rhee is an outstanding public speaker, who manages to turn her inexperience as an educator into the virtue of being the objective outsider. Within this frame, questioning her or her motives is simply evidence of one's entrenched devotion to the status quo.

2. Rhee is the public face of a counter-revolution in education that promises better outcomes without additional resources. She insists that we spend lots of money on education without getting results; therefore money does not matter. Except for merit pay. That's not consistent? Oh well. However her insistence that we must work within current economic constraints makes her argument appear more realistic.

3. The core of her argument is that the interests of children and teachers (adults) are opposed. Therefore, limiting the pay of most teachers, taking away tenure or collective bargaining rights, or firing teachers when they become too expensive can only benefit children.

4. She has no notion of anything greater than the self-interested individual. Education is something that happens as a result of a system of punishments and rewards for both teachers and students. The notion that children are naturally interested in learning, that teachers care about children, and that education depends upon relationships-- the relationship of student to teacher, and the relationship of teachers to one another--  has no place in her narrative.

5. Her overt message is framed in such a way that it is impossible not to applaud (unless one looks under the covers): who would deny that education is important? who would deny that children need good teachers? who would deny that we live in a competitive world? Her claim that StudentsFirst has over a million followers is very likely a lie. The tallied numbers represent eyeballs rather than active, engaged members. But it's very clear that her framing is aimed at winning over multitudes and claiming wide popular support for what is essentially a privatization scheme that is backed by a billionaire's club.


It is hard not to attempt to fight Rhee in a rational way, using actual data. She is a liar and that ought to matter. Unfortunately, this counter-revolution in public education should convince us that facts do not matter in the least bit. Or, at least, they have not mattered so far. What matters far more is the framing. So here are our choices.

-- Offer facts and figures about the invention of an educational crisis. I don't think this works because while it's clear there is a crisis; fewer know that it is mainly the result of policies like NCLB and overall economic collapse.

--Offer facts and figures about Rhee's backers. I don't think this works because a lot of people think it's good that the billionaires are donating to public ed. Rhee herself is not shy about acknowledging lunching with Warren Buffet. She uses it as proof of her importance and of the validity of her ideas.

[She reported that Buffett had the solution to improving public education: Make private schools illegal and send all kids to public schools using a lottery system. That, he insists, would improve the schools pronto. I applauded this idea wildly, but she had trotted it out simply to underline the fact that it was an impossible solution.]

--Offer facts and figures about Rhee herself and her failure in DC (re-hired teachers, cheating, destruction of community schools). This would not defeat the larger framing issues.

--Re-frame the debate: insisting upon the following principles:

                       a. The interests of students and teachers are not opposed.
                       b. Education results from the relationship of student to teacher.
                       c. Education is not a race; it is the foundation of the common good.
                       d. Experience matters.
                       e. Education is not a scarce good         
Let us be conscious of the fact that “Students first” recalls the moral imperative of “women and children first," an honored protocol during a time of disaster. But, the promoters of this strategy fail to ask how that disaster came about. They refuse to look at the social, economic, and historical forces that have placed war first, bank bailouts first, and children last. Rather, StudentsFirst demands that we choose the interests of students over that of teachers, implying that their interests are in conflict, that a gain for one must be a loss for the other. Viewed in this light, teachers unwilling to work yet more hours, teachers who are concerned about job security, and teachers who care about working conditions are traitors to student interests. Let us be very clear about the origins of our current disaster.

We have all sat through flight safety instructions, where, counter to our protective impulses, we are urged to put on the oxygen mask before tending to our children. A moment’s thought proves the wisdom of this recommendation. We cannot help our children unless we ourselves can breathe; but StudentsFirst would have us believe that the more tenuous, the more stressed the position of the teacher, the more benefit accrues to their students. Apparently for StudentsFirst, there are never enough oxygen masks. This is the most important frame for us to use in teaching people and teachers how to think about the current situation.

The only way forward is to create a more compelling story that shifts the terms of the debate. It is not enough to claim that public education is for the 99%. In fact, that 99% has been sliced and diced in so many ways, that we are left with the contending special interests of suburban schools, urban schools, charters, vouchers...and the very mistaken notion that a good education is of necessity a scarce good. 

The core of our story must be that a good education is the result of an enduring relationship of student to teacher, and that the commitment of the educational system to the teacher -- to her training, evaluation, and job satisfaction -- will translate into her effective commitment to the education of her students. It is because this relationship is so essential to education that education cannot be industrialized. Neither the teacher nor the student are interchangeable parts.

The absolute rejection of high-stakes testing, which devours the energy, resources, and morale of teachers; which strips the autonomy and authority of educators; and which serves no other purpose than to justify the destruction of unions and eventual privatization.

The insistence that training and experience are key to good teaching...with numerous parallels drawn to every other profession known to man.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Three handy pages with facts about Michelle Rhee, StudentsFirst, etc.

Formatted for 8.5" x 14" paper.

Facts About Michelle Rhee Legal Size Format