Home » Uncategorized » My “Conversation” with Michelle Rhee

My “Conversation” with Michelle Rhee

michelle rhee

So a while back, I talked to Michelle Rhee (CEO of StudentsFirst) on a Tioki Forum after seeing on Facebook (I follow StudentsFirst just to see what kind of shenanigans they’re up to next) that she would be available from 4:00-4:30 PM to talk to the common folk and discuss any questions we may have. For a forum, there wasn’t much discussion going on. It was mostly question and answer, where some questions were not fully addressed or even answered and rebuttals were not responded to. But half an hour isn’t a long time, so I cut her some slack.

I submitted my question early, because I really did want a response. When I posted it, I received a message saying that my question would be submitted for review before being posted. Well then. It looked like Michelle would be spared from answering questions from her most ardent critics, and the discussion would be less authentic dialogue and more filtered propaganda.

But luckily, my question was posted! Probably because I tried to appear not so threatening.

I couldn’t limit myself to one question, so I chose two things that are two of the biggest flaws and faults of the education reform movement:

Here was her reply to my question about poverty:

Q: Hi Michelle, I’m a student and currently starting my research in education and I’d love to hear your thoughts. I know you talk a lot about accountability, teacher unions, and the structure of public schools as being the causes of our failing public school system, but I recently came across a considerable amount of research that highlights out-of-school factors such as poverty and economic inequality as the root cause. Whether public or charter, a school in a wealthy community almost always outperforms a school in a poverty-stricken environment. What are your thoughts on this? What are you doing to address this issue and ensure a quality public education for all students, regardless of socioeconomic background?

A: Well let’s start at the top. I have repeatedly said teachers’ unions are not the problem. But yes, the governance structure of public schools is a big issue. Antiquated bureaucracies stifle innovation and are bad for kids & teachers. But you bring up a good topic – education policy is so polarized that people seem to think there are only two camps of thought. 1. Poverty is to blame for all public education ills and all tests are bad vs. 2. We need to test everything that moves and teachers are to blame. There’s little room for reasonable dialogue. Poverty does matter and does affect kids, but that shouldn’t stop us from guaranteeing that the minute a child sets foot in school, they are getting the best education possible. Poverty is something which must be accounted for, such as through comprehensive social services, but we cannot allow ourselves to believe that because a child requires these services or is poor, that they are not interested in or capable of learning.

And here’s what I think about her reply. Let’s start at the top:

Teachers’ Unions

Chicago Teachers Union fighting alongside parents and students to save over 50 public schools from closings mandated by education deformer and Michelle Rhee worshipper Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

First, I honestly don’t know when you’ve “repeatedly said that teachers’ unions are not the problem” because I watched you tear down teachers’ unions in Waiting for Superman (which ironically paints you as the hero???), and I know that StudentsFirst is funded by Walton Family Foundation (the one in control of the money controls the org!), who are historically known for being anti-union (Wal-Mart. Enough said.)

And here’s a quote that also makes you look like a complete hypocrite:

“People tell me the unions are an inevitable part of this [school reform]. My thing is, what has that gotten us so far? All the collaboration and holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’?” – Michelle Rhee at the 2008 round table at the Fordham Institute.

Furthermore, I listened to my SFER/USC President spew his brainwashing rhetoric about how if I wanted to be a real reformer, I needed to stand against teachers’ unions (SFER is basically a branch of StudentsFirst, and you can read Stephanie Rivera’s excellent critical analysis of it here). “Teachers no longer care about students and they are the problem!”

And boy was I fooled. Every starry-eyed student just entering the realm of “educational policy and reform” will be fed the whole “teachers unions are the problem” crap. It made sense, didn’t it? Teachers, people who dedicate their lives to helping students, would put their career before students. As if their career wasn’t about the students.

It didn’t take long for me to realize what a load of bullshit that was. No teacher goes into the field wanting to destroy a student’s love of learning. No teacher wants to dull their students down to test scores. No teacher wants to teach to the test and lecture material in order to satisfy standards. Teaching is a noble and creative profession, an art that requires a system where that art can flourish.

But what would a Teach for America corps member who taped her students’ mouths shut and calls herself an education expert after very little classroom experience know about teaching? Probably only that experienced teachers protected by unions are hurting students. Because that totally makes sense. Here’s a thought: Why do we trust experience in every other field BUT teaching?

Of course, some teachers teach better than others. You don’t need to look at data to know that; any student can tell you! You want to help students and save them from “bad” teachers? Help the “bad” teachers. Stop taking the easy way out and tying teacher quality to test scores. Stop busting teachers’ unions and firing teachers. Start implementing some meaningful evaluation (student work portfolios, student surveys, third party holistic observations – preferably by people who have experience teaching). Unions protect good teachers too, and eliminating them would be dangerous not only to the teachers but also the students. Teachers fight for their students. That’s their job.

Bottom line: Teachers’ unions are NOT the problem. They’re a part of the solution.

Now onto the part of Michelle’s reply about

Poverty

To reiterate, here’s what she said:

Education policy is so polarized that people seem to think there are only two camps of thought:

1. Poverty is to blame for all public education ills and all tests are bad

2. We need to test everything that moves and teachers are to blame.

There’s little room for reasonable dialogue. Poverty does matter and does affect kids, but that shouldn’t stop us from guaranteeing that the minute a child sets foot in school, they are getting the best education possible. Poverty is something which must be accounted for, such as through comprehensive social services, but we cannot allow ourselves to believe that because a child requires these services or is poor, that they are not interested in or capable of learning.

Again, let’s start at the top. I agree, both these ideas are extreme and entirely flawed. I didn’t say that poverty was the root cause of a failing public education system. But it is a contributing factor. And for education reformers to basicaly embody the second camp of thought and tie test scores to teacher performance and ignore other factors that could contribute to low scores is terrible data analysis and quite frankly, very narrow-minded.

Poverty is a large part of the equation. Study, after study, after study proves this. High-poverty environments can cause severe stress and damage in youth brain function. Academic performance correlates with family income and socioeconomic status. The achievement gap is simply a euphemism for the wealth gap. And the “no excuses” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude of the reform movement is ignoring this glaringly obvious STRUCTURAL issue.

Of course, we should believe that students are capable of achieving no matter what ZIP code they come from. This is an attractive, and admittedly genuine idea that Michelle Rhee preaches. But if we truly have faith in students, we should also show them that we do and invest in the communities they live in. If we want to build better schools, we should start by building healthy environments that kids can come home to after school, and the “following up with health and academic and social policy programs at school.” But of course this isn’t what the education reformers want. Because that would mean the tax dollars that they are taking for their own corporate gain would go toward solutions that actually benefit students and their communities!

Once again, I’m not saying that poverty is the sole reason, or excuse, why students from poorer communities don’t do well in school. Far from that actually. I agree with Michelle in that respect: “We cannot allow ourselves to believe that because a child requires these services or is poor, that they are not interested in or capable of learning.” But I’m saying that poverty, along with in-school factors (which I’ll get into later in this post), exacerbates the problem and we need to be brave enough to confront it.

I’ve often said that once we solve the issue of education, most other societal problems will be solved. That’s probably because if we ever want to give students a better education, we need to also simultaneously tackle other societal problems that put pressure on our students.

Poverty NEEDS to be considered. Yes, I agree with Sir Ken Robinson; teachers are the lifeblood of a classroom, of education. Teachers have magic powers, and they can definitely be sources of inspiration and true learning, but to expect a teacher to undo all the pernicious effects of poverty on a student is a tall order. Collaboration (something Michelle is sorely against) between teachers, students, parents, communities, and government is necessary to ensure that every student gets the education he/she deserves.

To truly invest in kids and do what is best for them, we need to recognize that there are BOTH in-school and out-of-school factors that contribute to the problem. We cannot take an extreme side and focus on one or the other. If any progress is to be made we need to step up and target both ends of the spectrum equally.

Bottom line: Poverty cannot be ignored.

Now, what about those in-school factors that we also need to tackle? Education reformers seem to think that apathetic, low-quality teachers are the source of the problem, but what they fail to look at is the strict system and troubling predicament these teachers are placed in. From Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Obama’s Race to the Top (basically NCLB on steroids) and now, corporate America’s Common Core State Standards, we have turned our public education system into a terribly run business, with meaningless data that only serves to punish students, teachers, and communities, all under the guise of “accountability.”

Let’s see what Michelle had to say in response to my question about

Standardized Testing

Q: Also, I’d like to hear your thoughts on lessening the unnecessarily tight grip of standardized testing on our students and using that time and money to focus on providing all students with a well-rounded education that helps them become better people, not better test takers. I feel that over-emphasis of standards and test scores limits creativity (for teachers and students), critical thinking, enthusiasm for learning, and attention to the many other dimensions of an education that simply cannot be encompassed in a multiple choice exam and 3 digit number.

A: When it comes to testing, as a parent, I don’t want my daughters’ teachers to only be teaching to a test. I want them to have a well-rounded education & curriculum. However, we must have an objective way to measure whether kids are learning so that schools and educators can use assessment feedback to improve how they educate kids. Accountability for schools, educators, students, & parents is essential.

Okay first off, great appeal to parental emotion there, Michelle. But of course no education reformer is going to directly endorse teaching to the test. However, that has been the unfortunate consequence of what they call “data-driven assessment” and “accountability.” First, No Child Left Behind let the giant claw of standardized testing get a grip on our education system. Now, Race to the Top has tightened that grip as it promises large sums of reward money to districts with the highest scores (because competition is how we ensure equal opportunity, right?). Alongside this, Common Core State Standards, which are corporation-created standards for language arts and math, are being implemented all over the country, and enforced through yet another onslaught of standardized tests.

Oh, and did I mention these tests are produced by corporations, sold to schools, and protected from peer review and public scrutiny? Yes, these are people who have never been teachers, never even step foot in front of a classroom, dictating what students should learn and reaping profits from this added pressure on students and their teachers. Do they care if teachers teach to the test? Not really.

But moving on from that… whenever I bring up my views on standardized testing, I almost ALWAYS get the same retort, even from my parents:

“We need an objective way to measure progress! It can’t just be a free for all!”

Alright. I admit it. We need hard data to know how to improve. But let me quote Timo Heikkinen, a principal of a school in Finland where there are no standardized tests:

“If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

Right on, Mr. Heikkinen. Yes, we need data to track progress and project growth. But beyond being objective, it needs to be accurate, and by accurate I mean that it should take into account every part of a student. Is such accurate yet still objective data on human beings possible? Probably not.

But then the question becomes: do we care about our kids enough to put in the extra time and money, value their humanity through meaningful assessment, and shift the focus to providing well-rounded educations?

If we do, then we should aim for accurate data. But in order for data to be meaningful and accurate, it needs to be comprehensive. Michelle said in her reply that data from tests is used to improve how kids are educated, but I fail to see how numbers in a data chart (that don’t even take into account a student’s creativity or critical thinking ability) can give effective and constructive criticism to teachers. These numbers only tell part of the story, and are unfairly used to punish teachers for not raising scores. This adds pressure on them to teach to the test in order to fulfill standards and appear “accountable.”

For data to be comprehensive and useful for teacher and student growth, it needs to cover all the bases. Data should try to tell the whole picture of a student, something that standardized testing doesn’t even come close to achieving. To meaningfully assess students, why don’t teachers ask students to compile portfolios of their original pieces of work for evaluation? Work that is able to demonstrate a mix and myriad of skills and understanding, from civic engagement to scientific method to literary analysis. And then, why don’t we give them feedback that shows them that we value their effort enough to write more than one letter grade on it? From there, portfolios can be submitted as a part of the teacher evaluation process, to a third party review team composed of teachers who will then decide how the work meets curriculum standards also created by students and teachers.

Yes, the national standards created by Common Core have good intentions, but poor implementation. It’s yet another get-rich-quick-scheme by the education reformer crew. It’s created even more standardized tests and pulled focus away from funding for and focus on the arts, music, civic ed, the sciences, humanities, physical education, and enrichment programs (all of which are a part of a well-rounded education). The standards were also created and imposed upon schools across the country without teacher or student input.

What we need is a set of standards constructed through collaboration of students and teachers inn various communities, in every subject and area of learning, that are enforced through comprehensive data collection (portfolios and written evaluations).

This will only be one part of improving education, because we should also be evaluating teachers in comprehensive ways that gives them comprehensive feedback from which they can work forward from. Student portfolios are a piece of that puzzle.

Completing the rest of the puzzle takes more emphasis on student voice, rather than numbers. This may come as a shock to reformers, but students can say a lot more about themselves and their learning experiences than a test score. GO FIGURE!

When evaluating teachers for the purposes of accountability, why don’t we ask students:

  • What do you want to see in a teacher? What do you feel a teacher should do (not just academic-wise)? This provides a backbone checklist of expectations that teachers should meet.
  • What does your teacher do well? How can your teacher improve? What do you wish your teacher did differently/more? This gives a broader look into how teachers are serving their students and provides tangible advice teachers can use to improve.

We can also invite a third-party team of teachers to come observe and evaluate the teacher using an assessment that is, once again, comprehensive and covers all the bases of teaching, as well as provides concrete ways the teacher can improve in the future. The key here is to shift from narrowly test to holistically assess.

We should trust our students and value their voice enough to do all this.

We should also trust our teachers to work together with students, teach them with passion and creativity, and assess them holistically.

We should trust teachers to collaborate with and help one another for the sake of their students.

Once this happens, wonderful things can happen in education. I refuse to believe, Michelle, that objectivity is necessary to improve education. Accuracy and comprehensiveness is what we really need. It shows kids that we care, provides clear steps forward, and leads to providing students with the well-rounded education we always talk about, but never act upon… the same education that is made impossible in the face of the standardized testing monster.

And as for accountability for schools, educators, students, & parents? How about input from and collaboration between schools, educators, students, & parents? There are valuable voices out there in education, and we can no longer afford to silence them.

Bottom line: Standardized testing is not necessary. There are better solutions.

I would have replied on the thread… but by the time I saw her reply to me, I realized it was too late and she would never read my post anyway. And she still might not read it. But at least I can reach more people this way. Hope you enjoyed reading! Please spread the word and awareness! The education reform monster needs to be stopped!

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5 Comments

  1. Mariam Khan says:

    Great points, Hannah! Very well-researched and well-written. I wish Michelle Rhee could read this because I would absolutely love to hear her comeback (if she had any, that is…).

    Some food for thought below, regarding some questions I’ve mulled over. I would be very interested to read how you address them!

    1) As far as teacher unions go, I do agree that teachers themselves are not the problem. Most teachers willingly choose this noble career path to make a difference in the lives of their students. However, as a student myself, I can easily tell you that I had my share of horrible teachers along with the incredible ones. Any student will likely tell you the same. Unfortunately, for some teaching has become the ‘stepping stone’ to a better career later on or a last choice option that they reluctantly had to accept. For these few (emphasis on the FEW, they are the absolute minority) unmotivated teachers, I’m not sure if ‘helping’ them out will honestly benefit students. Why? Because these teachers may become comfortable knowing that they cannot be fired and thus, they may not heed the constructive criticism a passionate teacher would otherwise take into account. However, that being said, teacher unions largely protect the experienced and capable teachers who would do anything to fight for their students. How do we ensure that teacher unions remain intact such that the aforementioned experienced and caring teachers are properly compensated, while those who are clearly unmotivated and careless are removed from teaching altogether?

    There are few (again, emphasis on the FEW) teachers out there in classrooms who are unequipped with the skillset and the nurturing mindset to teach… and these individuals do not deserve to be teaching in a classroom in the first place. (Michelle Rhee, based on her TFA stint, is exactly the type of teacher that should NOT be put into a classroom by any means. I don’t want to help ‘teachers’ like Rhee; they should be fired on the spot.)

    2) I completely agree with everything you had to say about standardized testing, and I thoroughly disagree with Rhee’s ‘objectivity’ business. Ever since high school, I have been in favor for shifting the emphasis from standardized tests to holistic assessments that tell far more about the student as an individual. However, I hear from many that standardized testing is convenient, and that’s why it will stay. I was wondering how you would respond to those who cite convenience as the reason standardized testing will prevail because I honestly don’t know how to respond to that… I mean, to be completely honest, it’s true. Standardized testing is too convenient and can allow any school administration to compare students with each other, rank them, and use that data to admit students into college/graduate programs. How would admission committees use student work portfolios to compare students ‘objectively’ (ugh there’s that word again)? It’s far easier or convenient to cut off students because they don’t meet a certain GPA or test score, but once standardized testing is out of the equation, how do these institutions select which students should be admitted since the portfolios will be unique to the student and comparing a unique portfolio of one student to another’s would be like comparing apples with oranges?

    ——————————————————————————————-
    Overall, I love everything you have written in this post especially the way you describe the effect of socioeconomic factors on public school education. “The achievement gap is simply a euphemism for the wealth gap.” YES. This is entirely accurate. Not only can one’s socioeconomic status affect a student’s performance in school, but it also contributes to the ‘unequal’ public schools of our country. Some public schools are perceived to be ‘better’ than others. No surprise there when public schools are funded by property taxes. Some communities do not have the resources, and their schools naturally reflect that. (This is where race and class intersect too, and we are left with inner-city schools where the student bodies’ makeup is predominantly African American & Hispanic… courtesy of redlining)

  2. Byron says:

    Hey Hannah!
    I think its really cool that you are so involved in this. I was just wondering about what you thought about the cost and potential bias that comes with reviewing student portfolios as a main form of evaluation. To me, it doesn’t seem feasible for two reasons. If you want a faster evaluation, you would need more people to look through each students work. However, this reduces the equality of each evaluation, since it then becomes a matter of opinion. To avoid this, you could have fewer people, but this brings up the question of time again.

    A system where this “less objective” evaluation occurs is in college application essays. I would argue that in this system does not work as effectively in selecting the best candidates as planned. Due to the large volume of college applications, readers are chosen in mass, and spend mere minutes evaluating each essay. This emphasizes only the ability of the student to write an essay that catches the reader’s attention. Although such writing skills are necessary in a student’s future, this again detracts from learning an actual subject in school (“all talk no walk”).

    As much as I dislike standardized testing, I think it is still an important part in evaluating student progress. Though the test appears to be stupid multiple choice questions, it shows a student’s discipline and hard work–those who succeed are able to persevere through something they don’t want to do.

    The main problem I see with standardized testing is that it is hard to write a test that allows success for those who really want to learn. In primary and secondary schools, the tests are admittedly horrible, since they only test a student’s abilities to memorize facts. However, I have been through classes with tests that I really respected, since they tested my critical thinking and problem solving abilities. I think the GRE and LSAT are also multiple choice tests that are moving toward this goal. Though I can’t say that such tests will work for all subjects (history??), maybe developing better standardized tests will be a more cost effective way of helping this situation.

    Again, I think its awesome that you are so inspired to improve education. I am very interested in the topic, but unfortunately, I don’t like to get involved with politics. I would be interested in following what you’re doing on this topic though!

    Thank you,
    Byron

  3. […] that said, here’s the first part (part 2 gets its own post) of very thoughtful comment I received from my best friend Mariam, on my post “My ‘Conversation’ with […]

  4. […] educator observations). (This email is getting long so you can look at my ideas more in-depth here and […]

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