Saturday, December 14, 2013

How Michelle Rhee is Failing America’s Kids

Saying you are standing up for America’s kids is very profitable and gets you on Oprah.

In case you missed it, education reformer Michelle Rhee launched a vigorous defense of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in an op ed piece in Politico Magazine on December 12, 2013. The piece was ironically titled “How America is Failing Its Kids.” You can read the piece here. The article is a “woe is me” piece about how we are falling behind other countries based on the recently released results on the PISA international tests and how we have disparity across states and within states in student achievement. Rhee’s solution – the Common Core, of course.

Let’s skip for a moment the fact that Rhee is cherry-picking the PISA results to suit her arguments. We all know that Rhee really, really cares about America’s kids; after all America’s kids have been very, very good to her. Or at least playing the part of someone who cares about America’s kids has been very good for her. It got her a high paying job as chancellor of one of the largest urban school districts in the country despite having very limited teaching experience and no experience at all in school district leadership. After she left that job hastily after 3 years, a voter rejection and a cheating scandal, she set up a multi-million dollar non-profit, StudentsFirst. Saying you are standing up for America’s kids is very profitable and gets you on Oprah.

Rhee started her career in education hurting children as a Teach for America recruit. She tells a “humorous” anecdote about herself putting masking tape on second grade children’s mouths to keep them quiet in the hallways and then watching them bleed as they pulled the tape off. Rhee continues her arrogant abuse of children through the educational policies she supports. Here is how.

1. Ignoring Poverty: Rhee loves to say that all children have the right to a great teacher and a great education regardless of their zip code. Who could not agree with that? What she fails to say is that all children deserve a healthy beginning to life, access to good health care, a stable home environment, rich early childhood experiences and a family that is not debilitated by the effects of poverty. All children deserve to arrive at the school door ready and able to learn. Poverty works against that. By ignoring poverty as the chief cause for children failing to thrive in school, Rhee and her reform compatriots fail children.

2. Demonizing teachers: Rhee famously fired hundreds of teachers and principals in Washington, D.C, including one principal who she callously fired in public and in front of television cameras. After firing the teachers, Rhee told a magazine, "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school.” She later had to apologize when it became clear that her statement wildly exaggerated the reasons for the firings and that many good teachers were laid off for budgetary reasons. Rhee’s insistent rhetoric about weeding out bad teachers, basing teacher evaluation narrowly on test results, and advocating the abolition of tenure, has left the teaching profession ducking for cover.

This hurts children. Low morale, teaching to the test and yes, even cheating to get higher scores by people who should know better, all hurt children. If we undermine the confidence and morale of the person who spends day in and day out in front of the children, then we are hurting the children. And the truth is, teachers don’t deserve this treatment. The vast majority of teachers are well-trained professionals doing their best for kids. Rhee’s narrative of “bad teachers’ serves her own agenda and fails children.

3. Supporting Charter Schools: Saying that parents need choice, Rhee supports the diversion of public funds to privately run charter schools. Charter schools are a false choice. Parents get the choice to send their children to a charter school, staffed by inexperienced teachers, led by inexperienced principals, subject to high teacher turnover and often run under militaristic disciplinary systems. Is this a choice that parents in affluent areas would make? These charter schools rob money from school districts already struggling to provide the resources children need. You can read about the economic impact of charters on one state here. Rhee’s charter school advocacy hurts children.

4. Falsely Characterizing the Common Core: In her Politico piece Rhee characterizes the Common Core as a bottom-up reform movement. She further asserts that the Common Core was voluntarily adopted by the states. Both these assertions are laughable. The Common Core was developed by a small group of education reformers with very little teacher representation. It was adopted “voluntarily” by the states, so that they could get a waiver for the impossible to meet No Child Left Behind strictures and so that they could get millions of dollars in Race to the Top Funds. That sounds more like extortion than volition. For a good analysis of this, I suggest you read Anthony Cody’s piece in Education Week here. Neal McCluskey of the CATO Institute also takes on Rhee’s comments on the Common Core here.

As to whether the Common Core will have Rhee’s desired impact, Rhee has no idea and neither does anyone else because these standards were rushed into place with no piloting or research to support them. Tom Lawless (2012), has discussed the issue of the probable impact of the Common Core in detail here. His conclusion? “On the basis of past experience with standards, the most reasonable prediction is that the Common Core will have little to no effect on student achievement.

The Common Core, and the tests being designed to measure student achievement and teacher performance that come with it, encourage a narrowing of curriculum and teaching towards the test. Important curricular components like the arts, creative thinking and physical education will fall by the wayside. A narrow, standardized test focused curriculum fails kids.

Michelle Rhee started her career in education by putting literal tape over the mouths of school children. With her rhetoric now, she seeks to put metaphorical tape over the mouths of those who would speak up for fair, equitable public education available to all. Don’t let her get away with it.