Special for Saturday Afternoon: Listening to Michelle Rhee

I'm here on a Saturday, special edition. Hoping to drop something decent on you before I bid you adieu and TNC is back in full effect. I have two, maybe three posts to drop. Hope you guys enjoy. Here it goes:

I don't believe Michelle Rhee. I should admit this before I get too far ahead on this post. I'll admit to that the public school system in DC has nourished the cynic in me. Each time I hear news of what's happening from up high - whether it's teachers being fired or word of some new initiative, I listen with my hands on my wallet. My skepticism is fed by four years of working at a school in Southeast, a school with a higher teacher turnover rate than any McDonald's. I'm jaded. 

Which is why before I began writing this post I went back to the long series the Post ran on DC schools a few years back. I ran into this quote:

The history of D.C. school reform is filled with fix-it plans hailed as silver bullets and would-be saviors who are celebrated before being banished.

I fear this will be what people say about Michelle Rhee. The entire Post series is worth a read, because it gets into the cycle of reform that has left the nation's capitol with a school system that is a mockery. More than that it talks about the myriad issues facing any would be reformer - issues that the public wouldn't really consider, i.e., theft of funds, excessive payments to lawyers of parent's filing special ed claims, moneys to pay for tuition of special needs students, etc. None of those issues break the system, but they all make up the shoddy foundation that all else is built upon.

I spent most of today (yesterday) at a conference on race, education and the justice system run by Joe Madison and Former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen put together. This was just one of a series of such conferences, held under the umbrella of Race Reconciliation in America and today's conference was on Justice in America. This is where I heard Michelle Rhee. She spoke for about seven minutes.  
Michelle Rhee told an anecdote, a story about having dinner with Warren Buffett. Buffett told her how to fix the public school system. He said it was simple, that you just private school's illegal and create a lottery to randomly assign students to schools. After hearing this, I believed she'd offer something profound when asked three tools needed right now to fix the school system. The thing is, the DC Public School system has arguably been failing since Brown v Board. And so, I wanted to hear something profound coming from Rhee. I wanted to hear something that would make Buffett's assertion seem silly.

It's not that I hadn't heard the criticism of Michelle Rhee, it's just that I've often heard it from teachers and people sympathetic to teachers. And as I sat and listened, I wanted to know what she'd say to make me willing to send my child to a DC public school. Sadly, she prefaced her answer with "I know you aren't going to like this answer." Once she said that, I was nervous. Nothing good comes when people say that. And Rhee's answer fit that category. "People, people, people." 

There were other things said. Other reform developments that sound good, but also sound like pieces of reform tried and dumped years ago. Much of the most controversial involved getting power away from the teacher's union, tying teacher evaluations by 50% to student performance, and finding away to get the best quality teachers in the worst school. None of what she said dealt with how to handle behavior problems, none of it dealt with how to handle charter schools. If Buffett's advice is to be taken seriously as something that would work, wouldn't it also seem true, even truer, that charter schools and vouchers are just as much anathema to a working public school system. 

I work in the schools, and I watch good teachers struggle to control classrooms with six behavior problems, three kids that need some serious counseling, and a heating and cooling system that doesn't work. I watch mediocre teachers absolutely fail - but I've felt a mediocre teacher should be able to teach fifteen or twenty kids what a noun is. And so, I've always felt that it was the total lack of control, the behavioral problems, the huge class sizes, the turnover rates of the teachers - I felt and feel those are major issues facing public school perform. The call for better teachers always rubs me the wrong way. I believe the profession would change completely if teachers made 65 grand a year coming out of graduate schools, but that doesn't seem realistic. It seems realistic to find a way to create a system where kids knew how to shut up. 

But I'm not arguing about school reform. I have ideas but so does everyone, and I'd rather direct you to this excellent essay by James Forman, Jr that was in the Boston Review. What I'm talking about is politics that are built around predictable failure. I can't see how a call for people, people, people will be effective - but worse, in something that was nationally broadcast, with a room full of intelligent people who on the surface had the political clout to make something happen, the call for people, people, people was far too simple. Maybe Rhee is tired of speaking of big ideas each time she is handed a microphone. I could understand that. Her answer really does appear to be a moving away from from the big plans and ideas that have failed DC for years and years. But she has moved to a simple answer that is a beautiful catch-22. If she succeeds, she had the people. She found a way to hire talented teachers and get rid of slackers; if she fails, it can't be her fault, it was the absent of good people. And such an idea can go on forever, in fact we are where we are today because we've lacked good people. Every person who has ever worked in the system, save a few heroes who will get their lives made into movies, have not been good people. Myself included. It's a frightening conclusion.


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