There is no doubt in my mind that Michelle Rhee is an important figure in the history of American education, especially in the Washington D.C. area where I grew up. I remember reading the Post when Adrian Fenty was elected mayor, when he brought Rhee in to "clean up the schools," as Fenty and Rhee struggled with the teachers' union, were criticized for their harsh policies: firing hundreds of teachers and tying teachers' salaries to students' test scores. I remember when Fenty lost his next election, and when Rhee very publicly resigned.
I also know the results of some of what they struggled to achieve. Teachers' salaries in D.C. are the highest in the area, among the highest in the nation. Students' test scores are improving. Parents in D.C. no longer fear to send their children to local elementary schools (middle and high schools are a different matter). Rhee's right hand woman, Kaya Henderson, is still Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, directly under the control of the mayor, a position that Fenty created and Rhee originated.
In her memoir, Rhee comes across as incredibly genuine, passionate, and driven. These are her strengths and her weaknesses. From her experiences as the daughter of Korean immigrants, as a waitress, as a feminist of color, and as an educator in an inner-city school in Baltimore, Rhee's life has coalesced around one theme. "Fighting to Put Students First," the subtitle of her book, encapsulates this single-minded mission. "Students First" is the name of the organization she created in 2011, and from which she stepped down in 2014. Her main vehicle for this goal is hiring inspirational teachers. As her critics might and have said, Rhee focuses single-mindedly on education, and more single-mindedly on teachers as THE way to educate students and improve their lives.
Rhee responds to ample criticism in a very necessary section toward the end of her book: "Honoring Teachers." She, perhaps understandably hurt and confused, writes:
It is with utter dismay that I find some people portraying me as anti-teacher...how can I be anti-teacher when I believe, and research has repeatedly shown, that it's teachers--high-quality teachers--who hold the key to improving student achievement? (203-4)
Yet, from her critics' point of view, it's not surprising that she is seen as anti-teacher. Rhee fired hundreds of teachers and principals. She closed down several schools. She repeatedly went head-to-head with the teachers' union. As Rhee herself admits, she and Fenty took a "top-down" approach that was not politically smart. She expected pushback from the unions, but it seems the pushback from teachers, and especially from parents, surprised her. In terms of the research that Rhee lays out in her book, and the urgency that she feels, her decisions make sense. She is eminently practical in some ways (if not politically), and knows she needs to close schools that are not full, fire teachers and principals and central staff that are not performing, and hire new teachers that will inspire students. Her efforts got results, but they also created ire and anger, and upended communities. Rhee is so (rightfully) obsessed with thinking of the students' educational needs, that she ignores the needs of the adults and communities from whom these students come.
On a similar note, Rhee expresses surprise that she was viewed as "anti-African-American":
It was an insane argument, in my mind, to say that we were against blacks, given that our primary focus and deep-seated goals were to ensure that African-American students in the city were finally getting a decent education (168).
And, yet, Rhee realizes, that's the way that she and Fenty were seen, because of their disregard for communities in support of educational decisions that made sense in a vacuum.
Nobody can reasonably argue that Michelle Rhee doesn't care about the students in DC public schools, or that she didn't make decisions she thought were in their best interest. It's clear, in fact, that some of her decisions yielded positive results in terms of students' improved success on test scores at least (the debate on how well test scores measure success is a debate we'll leave for another day). Rhee's focus on teachers as the vehicle for that success, and her emphasis that inspiring teachers can change students' lives, is an admirable one. Its single-mindedness and near refusal to consider other factors is where it falls short.
Rhee's focus on teachers is supported by extensive research, some of which her own previous organization, The New Teachers Project, conducted, and by her own experiences in Teach for America. It's hard to quibble with the idea that a teacher who makes learning interesting, with "one surprise planned for class [every day]" (from one of Rhee's mentor teachers), can change a student's life, even, Rhee is quick to point out, that of a student whose life is otherwise bogged down in poverty (42). We all know, from our own experiences, that teachers make the class. But what it takes to be that inspiring teacher is the reason so many young teachers burn out early and so many others stop trying.
What Rhee is espousing, what Rhee is expecting, is the kind of work she herself describes putting in. She tries method after method. She visits students' homes. She's there in the morning before the principal, and after the principal leaves. After listening to her fellow teacher's wisdom on surprises, she goes home and makes "thirty-six individual pizzas" out of paper for her students to learn fractions (43). The summer after her first year, she "spent all summer preparing to teach again," and has her aunts visiting from Korea cutting out shapes all day long for her students to use the coming year (46). Note, Rhee was not paid for the work she did after hours or during the summer. Visiting homes and coming up with surprises is not generally expected of doctors, engineers, or scientists. I realize these careers are vastly different, but the point is, being an "inspiring teacher" means putting in hours and work that would not be expected of other jobs in the workforce, and yet teachers in our nation are paid and supported significantly less.
I'm not saying it doesn't work. I'm saying it's vastly unfair and unreasonable. This is way too much of a burden for the nations' teachers. In fairness to Rhee, she does wish to compensate teachers highly above the present level, and to award bonuses for high performance. She also, at least in her vision, aspires to grant teachers the kind of support that might someday make these expectations reasonable and possible. My favorite part of the book is when she imagines a "third grade teacher whose class is working on fractions. She opens up her laptop...up pop links to lesson plans that various teachers in the district have used" (274). It's a compelling image, and I would have liked to see more of it. But, overall, what Rhee's vision is missing is consideration for adults, especially teachers and other school employees, for communities and cities, and for factors beyond education that tie our young people down to lives of poverty.
Rhee disagrees with this idea. At one point, she does acknowledge, "I don't believe that educators and schools can fix all of society's ills" (209). Keep in mind, this is toward the end of the book, after I received the distinct impression that she thought nothing but teachers did make a difference. More characteristically, then, she writes:
One of the most common critiques you hear when you talk to union leaders is that teachers can't be held solely responsible for the achievement of their students. According to them, poverty and parental engagement are the key factors in whether a student can succeed in school...this argument presupposes that we should have no accountability to teach poor children (242).
Rhee sets up a straw man here. Just because teachers cannot be held solely responsible for students' achievement does NOT mean that poverty and parental engagement are the only key factors, nor does this argument have to presuppose that there's no accountability when teaching poor children. Of course, teachers bear some responsibility; of course teachers should be held accountable for their performance. But not acknowledging that poverty and parents and all the messy factors that come with that affect students' performance in school and their ability to rise above the poverty level as adults is just as blind as not holding teachers accountable. For the record, I don't think that either side, either Rhee or her detractors, truly believe that only teachers or poverty are factors, but both have to acknowledge that the other factor plays more of a role than they would like to present.
Ultimately, Rhee's philosophy is inspiring in its vision, but flawed in its reality, because it fails to take into account the adult factor. Students deserve a certain standard of education, Rhee and her detractors agree. But what about when those students grow up? Do they suddenly deserve no job stability, no community stability, no mercy, simply because they are products also of schools that failed them? This problem is bigger than just the students. Put people first too.