Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Education of Michelle Rhee

I had a very interesting experience last night. I'd watched some commercials for "The Abolitionists" on PBS and I was really intrigued. I made sure I had Tuesday night at 8:00pm open. And now I have to keep every Tuesday night open because it was just the beginning of several parts. Ugh, but Yay! all at the same time.

Anyway, after The Abolitionists, Frontline came on. I haven't watched a Frontline episode in years, so it was quite fitting that the one playing last night at 9:00pm was "The Education of Michelle Rhee." My natural instinct was to turn it off. I remember all too well how dwelling on her power made me feel as a teacher. Those were NOT healthy feelings. In fact, deciding I could no longer pay attention to any media coverage of Rhee was probably the best decision I made during my year of depression recovery. That was a powerful healing moment.

But last night, I watched. I was in the safety of my home. In Wisconsin. My two kids were snug in their beds and my hubby was at the Church doing some clerk duties. I could stare at Rhee on the TV screen and finally feel safe.

And as PBS always does, the coverage was balanced enough that for the first time since November 2007, I admired Rhee. I also felt the judgement of disapproval that rushed in during the 2009-10 years.

That's the most interesting thing about Rhee. She truly is heroic and many of her reforms NEED to sweep the nation. But as an employee you cannot be on her side. No matter how much I admired the work she was doing, no matter how much I wanted to support her, I could never feel safe as a colleague on her team. And maybe that was an additional strength she carried with her. Even teachers who win national recognition were convinced she'd fire them in a heartbeat if the mood struck. I really can't decide if that was to her advantage or what led to her fall. Probably, it was both.

Those of you who didn't follow her career are likely lost. What is Liz rambling about today? So I will give you a short synopsis. But really, I recommend you go to (or is it org) and watch the episode. It is a small window into the world I lived. You will literally see security guards I loved, teachers I learned from, meetings I attended, principals I worked for, and the boss who terrified me.

What struck me most about the episode was it's focus on the cheating. There was so much pressure on teachers and principals to get good DC-CAS (standardized test) scores that it was inevitable someone would cheat. I'll never forget Linda, my first mentor, shaking her head in disgust as she predicted, "some fool in this city is going to change those kids' answers and Rhee's reforms will be scarred because of it."

Linda was absolutely correct. Schools made 25% gains for two years in a row. Then investigations started, Principals disappeared, and new faculty tightened testing security. With new measures in place achievement dropped 30 to 40%. But there is no way to "prove" cheating on tests that are two years old, so the cheaters spent their large bonuses and the teachers who received those students in coming years were fired for having such big drops in performance.

Lack of integrity is destructive. Complete selfishness on the cheater's part.

My favorite part of the whole episode was watching Mr Hughes walk into his classroom and shout "Good Morning my favorite class" and then see him smile at the camera as the students shouted back "Good Morning Mr Hughes, my favorite teacher." For each teacher in the district that cheated students for their own gains, there are at least a dozen teachers who changed students lives through dedicated service.

As I watched one struggling Principal herd students in the hallways of DC's roughest neighborhood school, I couldn't help but remember all the feelings of hope and hopelessness that come with inner city teaching. As a teacher, you have to believe all students can succeed. Do I believe they can all be "proficient" in every subject? Not using standardized test measures, no. But I do believe every child can be taught to make a positive impact on society. They can all learn the basic skills needed to enter the workforce, be responsible, and live a good life. As a teacher, I do have that hope.

But watching Anacostia High's Principal struggle to turn the school culture around I was reminded of the hopelessness.  The feeling that you are doing everything you can to change things. You are doing everything you can to make the future brighter. But no matter what you are doing it isn't enough. Maybe you just aren't the right person? Maybe you just aren't in the right place? Maybe you just can't force others to care about their future, even though you know they could have a bright one.

Rhee says nice things about that Principal. Nicer than she said of many others. But in the end, she was still fired.

That's what is so complex about being the type of high profile Education reformer Rhee was. You have to care so deeply, but hide any emotions you have. You have to foster a deep hope for a brighter future, while constantly giving up on people you had high hopes for. You have to make an entire city angry, to try and make theirs a better place to live.

It was nice to finally see Rhee's fearful face, and admire her again. Our careers in DCPS matched almost month to month. Even if she hated me (and that is truly how you felt as one of her employees), I was on her team. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well written Bettylou. I am glad you were finally able to reconcile your feelings for Rhee. She was quite the fright. She made hearts grow cold even outside her district!

I love my baby girl, who now is married and has two babies of her own. When are you going to come home? I miss you!!!


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