Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst

Posted on September 23rd, 2012 in Uncategorized

Earlier this week, I attended a small dinner party with Michelle Rhee.  She gave an overview of her StudentsFirst initiative, as well as reviewing some of her experiences running the Washington, DC, public schools.  While I try to support anyone trying to improve education, I had deep reservations about her strategy and priorities.

StudentsFirst is a 100-person organization seeking to raise $1 billion to a) counter the lobbying influence of teachers’ unions, b) reduce the power and influence of unions, and c) give parents far more influence in managing local public schools.  In her remarks, Rhee cited egregious examples of union actions (protecting pedophiles from being fired, etc.) and argues that unions are the principal impediment to improving our schools.  And I share her view that our education system would be better off without tenure, if pay were tied to performance and not seniority, and if teachers are accountable and poor performers can be replaced.

But as much as I was hoping to admire StudentsFirst, I think they are an angry dog barking up the wrong tree.  Michelle Rhee is wrong about what is the key problem with our education system,  and her vision of “better” education is completely off-track.  Here’s why:

Firing Teachers:  There’s lots of data that shows that charter schools don’t, on balance, out-perform public schools.  And I’ve found that almost all schools (private, charter, or public) do a lousy job of preparing students for the 21st Century.  So if the magic bullet to improving education is being able to fire teachers, why are the schools that can fire teachers just as ineffective as the schools that can’t?

Good Education:  The biggest problem I had with Michelle Rhee’s talk, and her responses to questions, was that she seemed clueless about what constitutes a good education.  She cited increases in standardized test scores as the measure of the progress she made in DC.  In response to a question about which international school systems she admired most, she cited Singapore and Korea.  And she stressed the need for even more standardized testing, and the need to fire teachers who can’t raise scores.  But other than grinding out incremental gains in standardized tests, she was completely unable to articulate what our schools need to do to prepare students for the 21st Century.

I really take issue with what I view as a the cheap trick that many high-level administrators rely on — putting all of their focus on grinding out year-to-year changes in standardized test score performance.  Administrators can direct classroom priorities to teaching to the test, and improvements will be widely publicized and make them look like heroes.  They shift resources and classroom time away from important things like art, sciences, deeper learning, and igniting kids’ passions.  They pound students and teachers to drill, over and over, mind-numblingly stupid exercises that lead to modest improvements in government-mandated standardized tests.  Kids are be bored to tears, lose all enthusiasm for school, and fail to acquire valuable skills.  And our best teachers go home every night knowing the school day is a charade, and all too often flee to different occupations.

Caveat creator.  Let the parent beware.  Anytime an educator cites improvements on a standardized test as a goal, or sign of accomplishment, be sure to ask questions.  What are we testing?  What did we do in the classroom to improve those test scores?  What did we give up?  How does the tested performance translate into developing the skills needed to do well in the 21st Century?  Far more often than not, you’ll be disappointed by the answers, as I was disappointed by Michelle Rhee and her StudentsFirst.







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