Sunday, June 22, 2008

CEAFU: Chancellor Michelle Rhee, DC Public Schools

One of the most interesting (and there was stiff competition) speakers at the Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism conference was the new chancellor of the DC Public Schools and the New Teacher Project founder Michelle Rhee.

I have to admit, my first impression of her was not positive. She seemed unimpressive, petite, plainly dressed.

But once she started talking, wow! She spoke about the challenges faced by the DC schools, how she intends to implement radical reforms to address those challenges, and how various obstacles (including unions and elected ward officials) attempt to block her and maintain the status quo. She spoke of her admiration for DC's mayor, who told everyone that works for him that "no one tells Michelle Rhee 'no' except me", and that he hasn't yet told her no.

She's an excellent speaker with great ideas, very entertaining, tough, well-spoken. Actually, she's a riot! Very bright, sharp--in other words, she and I agree on a lot. One of my favorite of her anecdotes was trying to get rid of an incompetent teacher. A union zealot asked, don't you think this teacher could and should be improved through professional development and not just fired? Her answer was, why should more children have to suffer an incompetent teacher before that teacher gets developed?

One of her main points was that so much of what goes on in the education bureaucracy happens for the benefit of adults, not for children.

She stated that she believes public education should be the great equalizer, but the reality is that it isn't so. There are so many obstacles, but she's having an impact in removing some of them.

One discouraging point she made was that she couldn't make the progress she has without a strong mayor to back her up. In other words, it takes her and a mayor to make progress, sometimes against other elected officials (like the ward bosses). I guess it's good that what she's doing is right and good (because I believe in it), but someone doing exactly the opposite could also be in charge and I'd be complaining about walking over the democratically-elected local officials. I don't yet know how to resolve that inconsistency.

I had a very pointed question to ask her, but when it came time, I just chucked my question and asked her if she'd consider working in the suburban Sacramento area, as my district is looking for a new superintendent. She remarked that such a job is very difficult because there isn't one strong elected official (like her mayor), usually only a squishy schoolboard intent on not rocking the boat and trying to get reelected, to help make things happen. She pretty much shot down my job offer.

But she knows Kevin Johnson, and hopes he wins this November's election for mayor of Sacramento.


Ryan said...

John Merrow of PBS and NPR has done a great series on Michelle Rhee, including some great podcasts. They're well worth looking in to if you want to know more about the struggles in DC.

Getyourfactsstraight said...

Michelle Rhee did no found Teach for America, she just participated in the program. She founded The New Teacher Project, a much lesser known non-profit. Wendy Kopp was the founder of TFA.

Darren said...

Thanks for the correction.

Anonymous said...

Michelle Rhee's ex-husband is a big part of TFA. She founded New Teacher Project but it sure does provide her with a monopoly of consulting opportunities. And trust me, she is not the greatest in DC, just the latest.

Darren said...

Anonymous, you've said nothing of value here. You throw out a vague hint of graft and a witty rhyme, but nothing of value or substance.

My guess is you are a union hack.

Anonymous said...

Darren- Do you have any idea how much her speaker fees are? is she hard to get?

Darren said...

I don't know the answer to either of those questions. If you contact her office and find out, please post the information here!

Jesse said...

Pat Buchanan is right, he is very right, but even he is to the LEFT of Michelle Rhee

I am a veteran teacher in Houston seeking a dialogue with Teach for America teachers nationally regarding policy positions taken by former Teach for American staffers who have become education leaders across this country. These neoliberal elites from privileged universities are seeking to wage cultural and class war on our public school traditions and on our middle-class corps of teachers.

Having won school board elections in several cities, and securing the Washington D.C Superintendent's job for Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, and her allies claim that teachers are to blame for student failure. They imply student habits do not matter, family commitment does not matter, social inequality does not matter, and family dysfunction does not matter--or at least that these can all be overcome if we did not have these frightful teachers from the lower middle class.

By suggesting that our public-school teachers and community schools cause student failure, Teach For American, and their offshoot groups, KIPP Academy and Yes Preparatory Schools, ensure that corporations wanting to undermine confidence in any common government efforts will provide them with generous contributions.

The marriage between corporate American and Wendy Kopp began when Union Carbide initially sponsored Kopp's efforts to create Teach for America. A few years before, Union Carbide's negligence had caused the worst industrial accident in history, in Bhopal, India. The number of casualties was as large as 100,000, and Union Carbide did everything possible to minimize its responsibility for this horrific catastrophe. Union Carbide's CEO, Warren Anderson, indicted on "culpable homicide" became a fugitive from justice, and a moral leper, when he refused to return for his trial as he had promised and went into hiding.

When TFA encountered a financial crisis, Ms. Kopp joined forces with the Edison Project, which sought to get rid of public schools governed by elected school boards and replace them with Tennessee-based corporation. Richard Barth, was an Edison executive before taking over as CEO of KIPP's national foundation, where he has sought to eliminate teacher organizations from KIPP schools.

D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee's school reform recipe includes three ingredients: close schools rather than improve them; fire teachers rather than inspire them; and sprinkle on a lot of hype. On the cover of Time, she sternly gripped a broom, which she presumably was using to sweep away the trash, which presumably represented my urban teacher colleagues. MY URBAN SCHOOL COLLEAGUES ARE NOT TRASH MS. RHEE. They are American heroes.

TFA teachers provide a public service, but when this group of ambitious TFA organizers imply that schools, and not inequality, family dysfunction and bad habits are the cause of the achievement gap, they are wrong, and they may be lying for purposes of self interest.

Our society has failed the neighborhood public schools by not defending the middle class with national health insurance, pro-American trade policy and pro-family behaviors. It's not the other way around. Economic inequality and insecurity produces ineffective public schools. It's not the other way around.

Manhattan Wendy Kopp claims TFA carries the civil rights torch for today, but Martin Luther King was a voice for empowering the average citizen, not the elites. His last book, Where do we go from here?, argued for some measure of wealth distribution, because opportunity alone would lift only a few from the underclass to the middle class.

TFA teachers, your hard work and struggles every day gives TFA executives credibility. It's not the other way around. They have rode your backs into the American elite. I would like a dialogue about what I have written here with TFA teachers. My e-mail is

Darren said...

You make a lot of broad accusations but don't back any of them up with evidence or even logic. You string events together without showing that they are, in fact, related.

If you disagree with Chancellor Rhee, tell me where she's wrong.