Home » Uncategorized » Michelle Rhee’s Teacher Town Hall… Through A Student’s Eyes

Michelle Rhee’s Teacher Town Hall… Through A Student’s Eyes

Michelle and I after the event when she spoke directly to me. Taken by Alexis Estioko.

Last Thursday, I met Michelle Rhee for the first time. After months of writing about her, researching her, and reading her book (which I couldn’t finish out of boredom), I finally got to see in person the woman I once adored and now completely mistrust. Not only that, but I got to speak directly to her. Needless to say, it was quite an interesting encounter.

Thanks to my network of support on and off line you’ve probably already heard about the speech that I gave to Michelle Rhee, Steve Perry, and George Parker during the Los Angeles Teacher Town Hall. But a lot went on before and after that I would like to bring light to now, especially for the folks who plan to attend the Teacher Town Halls in Birmingham, Alabama on 9/12 or Philadelphia on 9/16. 

Please use my experience to help you plan some sort of resistance. We need our voices to be heard.

In summary, the event was a complete disappointment. I came in expecting a vibrant and balanced discussion with equal opportunity for both sides to speak. After all, the word “conversation” was on the screen behind the panelists the entire night. By the end of the night, I seriously wondered if they even understood the concept of a conversation at all. 

Here’s a bullet-point breakdown of what happened:

Before

  • In my apartment before the event, I made this poster:

1305486_10201945743791060_1996270154_n

  • I also bought masking tape that I planned to put over my mouth during the event. I meant to allude to the incident where Michelle Rhee taped the mouths of her 1st grade students.
  • When I arrived, I was greeted by members of United Teachers Los Angeles (LA’s teachers’ union) who were passing out flyers and holding up signs outside the library where the event was held. One of them was my friend Noah, who I met a few weeks back and am currently working with on a campaign called Schools LA Students Deserve. I also met the one and only activist teacher Alex Caputo-Pearl, who was recently fired from Crenshaw High for leading an educational program that taught students to *gasp* think for themselves and learn through a social justice/civic engagement lens. His story and the stories of the students who fought to save their school are phenomenal.
  • Once inside, I registered at the table and stood in line waiting to enter the auditorium. Everyone was given a question card that looked like this:
  • 1242034_10201945743311048_742924142_nWhen I asked if the questions would be filtered, the lady told me that the questions would be grouped by topic and they would try to get through as many as they could.
  • As I was in line writing my question, my poster was on the ground next to me. A security guard came by and told me I could not bring it into the event. So I folded it up and stuck it in my backpack.

During

  • There were about 200+ people in the room.
  • I sat in the second row with tape over my mouth. The tape said, “Listen to STUDENTS!”
  • From what I could estimate from the applause after certain talking points, at least 80% of the room was pro-corporate reform.
  • Security guards lined the perimeter. I felt highly policed.

979629_10201945741591005_980661050_n

  • The panelists were welcomed onto the stage. I have my opinions about each… but you can go research them for yourselves.
  • The moderator then laid out the ground rules for the event.
    • She would say the name of the person whose question card she was holding.
    • That person would be given exactly 2 minutes to speak to the panel and ask their question.
    • There was absolutely NO touching the microphone. (again… tons of paranoid policing that sent a clear message of, “Your voice is under our control.”)
    • The panelists then would be given unlimited time to answer.
  • The moderator also gave a very condescending speech about how we needed to “turn down the music of our own radios” and listen to “other people’s music.”
    • Later on, I realized that this only applied to people who disagreed with corporate reform because the music of the reform-opponents was barely even allowed to be played.
  • Only 16 question cards were in the moderator’s hand to be answered.
  • Only 8 questions were answered. My question was not chosen to be answered as I expected.
  • TWO of those 8 questions were considered “controversial” (by their standards).
  • The rest were in the “policy-related” category but for some reason all went back to the matter of teachers unions.
  • Panelists (who were all in general agreement on the issues) spoke for 95% of the time.
  • Those who asked questions were not allowed time for rebuttal.
  • The first “controversial” question asked what the panelists would say to the UTLA members protesting the event outside. Michelle said she wishes they would have come inside to speak, and then proceeded to speak for them by assuming they did not want to engage in a discussion that’s “good for students.”
  • The other controversial question was asked by a Los Angeles teacher who asked about the use of standardized tests in teacher evaluations if poverty is one factor of student performance. The panelists did not answer the question at all and proceeded instead to throw around cute but meaningless slogans about how “poverty is not destiny” or “all kids can learn.”
    • Steve Perry even had the nerve to say that battling child poverty “isn’t even necessary!” and brush off a point about English language learners. I guess the only students that matter are those who can take tests.
  • The rest of the questions basically gave the panelists the opportunity to elaborate on their points of view.
  • Topics covered were: Waiting for Superman (lol), unions, tenure, testing, charters, and vouchers.
    • It was mostly a union-bashing party with little productive or balanced discussion of how we move forward or how we can work together.
  • Every panelist played victim and responded defensively to a question that was actually asked by someone who agreed with them. How did they do that? Three words:
    • Straw
    • Man
    • Arguments
  • The ONLY good point brought up by the panelists was that “bad” charters should be held accountable.
  • Absolutely no thorough discussion of concrete topics like Common Core, NCLB waivers, curriculum, teacher prep/training, student-centered learning, critical pedagogy, or alternatives to testing.
    • Steve Perry even had the nerve to ask “why don’t people who oppose testing ever provide alternatives?” without giving the audience a chance to speak (I have a great answer for that question) OR proposing any alternatives of his own. What a Grade A “educator”.
  • Actually… there was no thorough discussion with substantial data support whatsoever. Everything was vague and shallow (“success”, “all students”, “high expectations”, “accountability”), full of false dichotomies, sweeping generalizations, and logical fallacies. I gave up counting after about an hour of 37 total fallacies.

Now here’s the good part:

  • Near the end of the event, Steve Perry was making his last comment in response to an LAUSD teacher who screamed out earlier during the event in rage as the panelists did not answer the second “controversial” question.
  • When Perry said that “the students’ interests did not line up with the union’s interests”, I drew the line.
  • I pulled the poster out of my backpack and held up high right in the middle of Perry’s speech. It caught all the panelists’ eyes but Perry continued to speak.
  • A security guard came over and told me to give him the sign while simultaneously pulling it away from me.
  • I tugged back and caused a bit of noise that attracted some attention.
  • After Perry finished speaking, the moderator was about to close the event when George Parker interrupted her and insisted that I be given a chance to speak.
  • The moderator insisted that no one else would be given a chance to speak.
  • The woman next to me (who was shouting curses against unions the whole night and was the cause for my gigantic headache) ironically yelled that I should be given the chance to speak.
  • The whole room began to cheer and egg me on, and so the man with the microphone gave me the chance to speak.
  • Completely enraged, totally flustered, and quite honestly a little nervous, I gave my two-minute speech and was cut off before I could get to the good part. (Stay tuned for a post about what I WOULD HAVE said if I got more time.)

After

  • After I spoke, the moderator brought the event to a close, with no public response to my speech from the panelists.
  • Right after the event ended, as I was ready to cure my headache with a nice grilled cheese sandwich from my favorite food truck, Michelle Rhee approached me and wanted to speak to me personally.
  • She gave her response to my speech, only focusing on my point about charters.
  • She mainly talked about funding for charters and claimed that students in public schools are funded more than students in charters.
  • When I brought up the point about charters being funded by private billionaire donors and corporations, she questioned why public schools don’t ask for grants so they can be funded like charters.
  • My response:

  • I was then asked by StudentsFirst to do an interview.
  • In the interview I basically just expanded on the importance of listening to students.
  • The next day, I got an email from Michelle Rhee. Here’s her email and my reply:

reply to michelle rhee

That’s basically it! If you’re planning on the future Teacher Town Halls, I hope I’ve given you enough information so things won’t take you too much by surprise. I now am going to echo what I said in my previous post:

If you are going to the Teacher Town Hall in Birmingham on 9/12 or Philadelphia on 9/16, PLEASE invite students to come and tell their stories. Chants work well. Posters work well. Collective actions and gestures are most powerful. This is not the end; we still have a long way to go before education is put back into the hands of educators and students. This event does not have to be as one-sided and manipulated as it was for me. You can demand your right to have your voice heard. You can turn the discussion around. This is an opportunity for a meaningful action that will shine a national light on the opposition to the corporate education deform movement and could spur a discussion on alternatives to this movement that promote true educational justice and equity. Do not let them speak for your students and children. Do not let them play victim and use straw man arguments to promote their views. LET YOUR VOICE BE HEARD! GO AND SPEAK OUT! 

Thank you for reading!

Love and solidarity,

Hannah Nguyen

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17 Comments

  1. norikol says:

    Hey, Hannah! I was one of those UTLA members outside the event and I’m so glad you wrote about your experience. Thanks for standing up for students and the good of public education. I hope you will continue to speak up about ed policy and share your experiences.

  2. lizmurray08 says:

    It’s people like you who give me strength and the knowledge we will win out. We will defeat profiteers and put education back in the hands of students and educators.

  3. Concerned says:

    I was there and thought you were marvelous. Some points: I think the crowd was maybe half-half pro/anti based on the clapping. When Rhee or Parker or Perry said something and people clapped, I noticed only about half the audience clapping. I agree one of the only points I agreed with was when they mentioned that charters needed to be held accountable. But notice the reformers hardly push for this at all, it makes me wonder why not. Even some of the most famous charters have high attrition rates, low SPED/ELL students, and authoritarian structures that make school feel like prison. Do reformers support this kind of education? I also agreed when Parker said teachers should get involved with their union. He and the speakers seemed to think that if more teachers got involved they would support Students First policies. I kind of doubt it.

    • Hannah says:

      Thank you! Perhaps you are right. Maybe I just felt like it was 80% pro-reform because the woman next to me was muttering really disgusting things as she bashed unions and contributing to my headache.
      And great point about charters. They can surely talk the talk, but I doubt they will take initiative to walk it. I was so shocked when Perry just brushed off one of the questioner’s points about ELL students as if they don’t matter. They most certainly DO and to brush them off like he did with the subject of poverty is incredibly callous and insensitive.

  4. […] Nguyen reports what happened at the “teacher town hall” in Los Angeles that featured Michelle Rhee, George Parker, […]

  5. Fantastic job describing your experiences at this “conversation”.
    Rhee’s attempt to befriend you is a tactic of control.
    She knows how powerful your words are and this is her more civilized method of trying to place tape over your mouth.
    Continue to stay strong!

  6. ira shor says:

    WOW, thank you, Hannah! You have spoken truth to power and done it so well. Brave of you to stand up and display your sign with all those guards nearby and a hostile audience too. This is just what Rhee and her group need, straight talk that unravels their distortions. I teach a grad course “speaking truth to power” and will offer your story to the class for discussion. I’ll also pass on this post to a student high school group here in Montclair, NJ, working for their voice to be heard. Have you followed actions of the Provident Student Union? They too are making a difference.

  7. dolphin says:

    Thank you, Hannah, for standing up to be heard. It was a brave thing you did.

  8. […] student who stood up to be heard at the *cough*  conversation with teachers has a blog up explaining what went on.  What a powerful young woman…this old lady was worried about the […]

  9. SpedTeacher says:

    Hannah, I was an attendee at the Town Hall and came across your blog. I wholeheartedly agree with George Parker when he said that, if teachers have a problem with unions, they shouldn’t fight against them but they should instead seek out leadership opportunities within them. Similarly, if you want to create change, you should have taken that opportunity to talk with Michelle Rhee. After all, don’t you want her to listen to you? The way to accomplish that is through discourse, not divisiveness.

    I am a former educator and administrator who currently works for an apolitical educational nonprofit that builds coalitions of cross-sector schools. A huge tenet of our organization’s mission is that the conversation has become too politicized and thus we spend so much time butting heads that we can’t get anywhere. While I certainly respect your passion, I think it’s also hugely important to operate with some humility, recognizing that we each can speak for only our own experiences. There’s a lot we don’t know. There’s a lot we don’t see.

    • Joe Nashville says:

      Why should Hannah take the “opportunity” to talk to the likes of Michelle Rhee? Rhee doesn’t listen; she talks, pushes her uninformed views, and shamelessly promotes herself while exploiting students with her rhetoric. There’s nothing to be “accomplished” through “discourse” with a self-appointed “expert” who has no credentials in the field of education. The best contribution Rhee could make to education would be to stop harming students by meddling with a profession that she knows nothing about.

  10. Shelley says:

    Hannah, your email response to Rhee was perfect. I’m guessing she saw you as young vocal, and passionate; she was already working to win you over to the dark side so she could use you as a student voice in corporate reform. Had her attempts to befriend you succeeded, she would then have total control over the message you bring. Bravo for holding your ground and for seeing with very clear eyes what is really happening to public education. You represented students all over the country well!

  11. Kim Kaufman says:

    Thank you for writing this. I wish more like you had been able to get in. We have started a petition to investigate the $1 billion purchase of ipads – instead of more teachers: http://k12newsnetwork.com/blog/2013/09/06/lausd-ipad-deal-ipaid-too-much/

  12. […] (a minuscule sliver) of hope that this Teacher Town Hall would be less disastrous than the first that I experienced last week in LA. I was proved terribly […]

  13. Jack says:

    Here’s the video that Terri Rector
    Michal (BELOW) made and just posted
    about Rhee’s appearance
    in Birmingham Alabama yesterday:

    Rhee mocks Hannah Nguyen at about
    02:25 – 02:40 — quoting out of context
    and distorting what Hannah wrote to her
    in her email.

    At 05:05, Terri Michal (MIKE-uhl) attempts to
    voice her opinion—and others followed suit,
    saying, “I did, too,” and watch how she’s
    treated.

    At 06:08, they rip the mic away from
    her (though you can see it because
    she had to hide the camera, because
    cameras were not allowed… resulting
    in a bad camera angle).

    As the caption indicates, forum participant
    Steve “unionized-teachers-are-roaches”
    Perry then does not answer the Terri’s
    question, but instead gives the stock
    answer, or rather, non-answer, which the
    crowd, stacked with corporate reformers,
    applauds.

    The security guards threatens to remove her.

    By this point, the visual portion of the video
    is black, with just audio.

    Rhee brags about firing D.C.’s “ineffective”
    teachers, but the truth is that these teachers
    were the high-paid veterans that were fired
    because of their high pay, and in spite of
    their quality. She had fabricated a budget
    deficit to do so. Shortly afterwards, she
    claimed that the money was there after all.

    A city councilman then said that if that’s
    the case, hire back the teachers.

    Rhee then challenged the city councilman
    and those who agreed with him to enroll
    their own kids in the public schools where
    the fired teachers taught… while Rhee
    herself doesn’t send her own kids to public
    school.

    At 13:15, Terri’s caption talks about Rhee
    trying to stare her down… again, because
    of the hidden camera, again, caused
    by Rhee barring cameras from the event,
    you can’t see Rhee doing so… though
    you can her screaming.

    Rhee then assumes, that because Terri is
    white, she must some elitist who “sends her
    kids to tony private schools”… without any
    proof of this, as it’s not true. Terri tries to set
    her straight, but is silenced by the security
    guards.

    Terri then continues refuting this with her
    caption and a picture showing her actual
    family… the picture speaks for itself.

    Then at 14:38, sell-out George Parker talks
    about how he and Rhee support improving
    public schools side-by-side with charter
    and private schools, but Terri’s caption
    correctly points out that the Alabama
    Accountability Act—that Rhee pumped
    millions of Students First dollars into
    lobbying and political races in order to get
    it passed—drains the public schools of
    funding and puts them into private and
    charter schools.

    Then at 17:14, Steve “unionized-teacher-
    are-roaches” Perry talks about all you
    need to attend his school are “a pulse
    and an address”… and again, Terri’s
    caption puts a lie to this in that the make-up
    of his students are “more affluent than than
    the surrounding public schools, have less
    distance to travel, and are more likely to
    have a bed to sleep in at night.”

    (Bruce Baker, Jon Pelto, and Jersey
    Jazzman have posted all the data backing
    this up.)

    Terri’s captions then back all of this up
    with data from Jon Pelto’s website.

    (NOTE how earlier, the moderator
    rushed Terri, refusing to let her preface
    her question with comments, with the
    reasoning that they were already “in
    overtime” and had to rush… yet shortly
    afterwards, Parker and Perry were allowed
    to run their mouths for minutes on end.)

    Near the end, Terri’s caption reads:

    “Thank you, Ms. Rhee for this ‘teacher
    town hall’.

    “You have now proven that your words
    mean nothing, and you have no interest
    in dialogue.

    “I guarantee that you have won over
    no protestors in Birmingham.

    “Good luck in Philadelphia!
    BAT’s will be flying!”

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