I watched the Frontline report on Michelle Rhee last night, and there will be no shortage of more detailed critiques, so I’m going to offer just a couple of observations before moving on to the broader issue. (You can also see Frontline’s webpage for many critiques, and strongly negative reactions to both the reporting in the program and the subject herself). First, I found it striking how much Rhee’s tone and affect shift depending on the topic. When the question is about how she wields power and holds those below her accountable, it’s no nonesense, no excuses, no compassion. When it’s a question of her role in creating a climate that encouraged cheating, and her weak response to the evidence of that cheating, then we get the softer Rhee, smiling, shrugging, and equivocating.
I was also struck by the artificiality of this exercise where she calls principals into her office and puts them on the spot to guarantee a certain gain in test scores for the upcoming year. It’s an exercise in guesswork, conducted in a high-pressure and high-stakes setting, and with little precision or clarity. What exactly would it mean, in terms of students’ actual knowledge, skills, and educational dispositions, if those numbers go up five points vs. ten points vs. fifteen points? With zero experience running any school, did Rhee have any actual idea what these numbers would mean, or what kinds of numeric goals were reasonable? Can anyone really differentiate the meaning of those five points in terms of school operations or teaching practices? Do the principals have a set of school improvement plans intended to produce five-point gain, but then have to modify those plans if they aim for a ten-point gain? Did Rhee specify what was more important: aiming high, or reaching the goal? Were principals supposed to read her mind? (For more on the problems with setting firm numerical goals in such dynamic social enterprises, see this blog post by Dave Reid).
Now we have Michelle Rhee leading Students First, which is quickly shedding any semblance of an advocacy group focused on students’ needs (if anyone actually fell for that at first), and is showing its complete focus on political policies that will weaken teachers unions and promote all manner of shaking money out of the public education system and into the bank accounts of those who profit from charter schools and voucher systems. The recent education policy “report card” put out by Students First shows simply which states have policies they like, with no real external validation or benchmarks that mean anything in terms of quality education or governance. Bruce Baker puts it all in perspective in his blog post, RheeFormy Logic & Goofball Rating Schemes: Comments & Analysis on the Students First State Policy Grades. Don’t let the title fool you -Baker offers a serious and scholarly analysis of a document that hardly deserves it, as he exposes the nakedly political aims of this document that does anything but put students first.
So, while John Merrow and the Frontline team focused on Rhee’s legacy, which seems to be more a matter of style than substance, it is worth noting that the larger issues and political battles have moved to a much larger stage than Washington, D.C. Covering Rhee as a tough-minded former bureaucrat who wasn’t afraid to shake things up might pull in some viewers and stir up the internet debate. Hopefully, that’s only a prelude to having journalists looking more closely not only at her new career in politics, but also beyond Michelle Rhee individually, examining the politics and profits in education reform.