GOOD Education: Students Need More Than Michelle Rhee’s Education Reforms

This originally appeared on GOOD Education: Students Need More Than Michelle Rhee’s Education Reforms.


“Principals were scared to death. If their test scores did not go up, they would be fired.” 

That was perhaps one of the most disturbing lines of Frontline’s “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” which aired Tuesday night on PBS. As chancellor of D.C. public schools, Rhee created an environment that to put it mildly, was hostile towards hundreds of educators. In the search for innovative ways to reform public education, America’s students need more than what Rhee is offering.

Rhee created an uncanny obsession over test scores, and thus massive cheating and manipulation emerged. Campbell’s Law, a statement created by the notable social scientist Donald T. Campbell, fits well here: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures, and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

In one class, according to USA Today, statisticians said that the “odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance.” Plenty of cases of teachers erasing and correcting test booklets after school hours were reported, but, not surprisingly,never actually investigated

In her first year alone, Rhee closed 23 schools. A recent report found that these careless actions cost the city $40 million alone. Let’s fix schools, not close them. Instead of making education some kind of competition like Race to the Top has done, schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods—often the ones who are labeled “failing”—ought to be provided with extra funds to hire the best and brightest teachers or implement breakfast programs. Are we forgetting about Title I? 

In her three and a half year tenure, Rhee also fired roughly 1,000 educators, because many of them faired poorly in the IMPACT teacher evaluation system. There is an massive body of evidence that demonstrates that these value-added measures are inaccurate and misleading. One commentator wrote that “the odds of this system are more akin to flipping a coin.” It’s time to acknowledge that test scores are not a correct indicator in determining quality teachers. If students are producing work that is worth time and effort and has lasting value to their lives, then he or she is a great teacher. 

As Daniel Stufflebeam says, “The purpose of evaluation is to improve, not to prove.” Of course, every profession has their fair share of bad apples. Instead of threatening teachers, we should be giving more professional development and assistance to those struggling. If it comes to a point where the teacher simply cannot teach or is not willing to do so, then it would be sensible to fire him or her. But again, these are very rare circumstances.

School closings and teacher layoffs have had a tremendous effect on the lives of students across the nation. For many students in these communities, school is their only safe and secure place for a few hours each day. Dislocating them from their neighborhood schools into charters and privately managed ones not hurts them, but also derails the foundation of public education. 

What Rhee and so many policymakers don’t understand is that the goal of education is not to garner high test scores, but to cultivate lifelong learners and active citizens in our democracy. As a high school student and author, I want to be taught how to think and create and explore. I’m not a number in a spreadsheet; I’m a creative and motivated human being. I want my teachers to be paid well, given autonomy, and treated like professionals. I want my school to be adequately funded. Is that too much to ask? 

Let’s not forget to mention that Rhee’s ethical behavior and style of governing is a serious sign for concern. When she was working in Baltimore as part of Teach for America, she revealed that she once taped the mouths of her students shut because they were acting rowdy. As a result, according to Rhee, skin was peeling off of their lips. They were bleeding. And thirty-five children were crying. Are you serious? Any sane human being would agree that that incident is grounds for dismissal. 

Similarly, in her reign as chancellor, Rhee figuratively duct-taped the mouths of students and teachers shut. The last thing policymakers can do is ignore the stakeholders—the people who are in the classroom day in and day out: students and teachers. Once you purposely avoid and fail to value their input, you become a Machiavellian-like figure. Rhee fits that description with ease. When John Merrow called people for sources, he said “the number of people who said ‘no comment’ or hung up…was unbelievable”—a record number for his career.  

Currently, Rhee is running StudentsFirst, or as some like to say “StudentsLast,” because there don’t seem to be any K-12 students involved in the decision making process. By leaving her position as chancellor and not facing up to the cheating allegations, Rhee floated above the fray and walked away taller. I ask: Where’s the public outrage? Any journalist who lets Rhee slide without addressing this scandal is contributing to this high-stakes testing epidemic. 

Our students deserve more than this. I say call out her bluff and don’t drink the corporate reform Kool-Aid.


4 Comments on “GOOD Education: Students Need More Than Michelle Rhee’s Education Reforms”

  1. Dave Greene says:

    Nikhil… This is so true.

    Education’s job is “to cultivate lifelong learners and active citizens in our democracy.” You and your fellow students deserve “to be taught how to think and create and explore.” Every student can be a “creative and motivated human being.” All teachers [should] “be paid well, given autonomy, and treated like professionals.”

    None of it is too much to ask.

    The real question we need to ask is HOW we can do that. As you know real teachers know how to motivate and engage students. Real programs like WISE (Wise Individualized Senior Experience) developed in schools by teachers allow students to be both creative and motivated while learning real skills in areas they wish to pursue.

    The money you speak of should be doing more than paying for testing and data collection. It should be used to accomplish the goals you so eloquently describe.

    I look forward to Occupy DOEDC when we will speak together on how to do that!

    • Yonda Ashley says:

      I have been an educator for more than 30 years which has provided me with hands on experiences with the school system and its decline in educating our youth to be creative, imaginative and informed lifelong solution inventors, living a life of purpose. I have also been a family law activist for the past 20 years which has given me insight into the fact that the decline and breakdown of the family shows up in poor academics and in poor behaviors in our youth. The use of medication on our children to ‘manage’ problems is rampant and primarily used on our boys. Studies have show that children on medication are 90%-95% boys. The use of a label such as ADHD conveniently brings in more money for the school district. I personally have attended many conferences in which professionals from the educational, medical and psychological communities have addressed the crisis of our educational system, yet for the most part, it all remains the same and continues to decay. This is why I work outside the system. How we educate our youth is evolving because there are so many passionate professionals working on updating our approaches. My primary focus is the imagination using all disciplines within a creative project. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” There was a very good reason for him to say this and that is because it is true.

  2. […] This is a blog which is from America and how the schools are changing… […]

  3. Sujaykumar Bhad says:

    IF you really mean it – “As a high school student and author, I want to be taught how to think and create and explore. I’m not a number in a spreadsheet; I’m a creative and motivated human being.” then read book titled “On Education” by J.V. Krishnamurthy.

    Also, the Michelle Rhee Pattern or let’s face it – “Chinese autocracy In your face” pattern has a lot to do with her own “cultural conditioning” and “RAT RACE” that exists in Asian Countries.

    The entire education system in India, China and elsewhere in these countries is based on philosophy of “sustaining the rat race”.

    Unfortunately, considering dominance of Indian’s and Chinese in every aspect of US life more or less acts as a proof that “RAT RACE Education System” works.

    Michelle Rhee is NOT the problem. The ideology is. The thinking that My child “will be” left behind IF he or she is not as “smart” (Smart – A.K.A. good in math and science. And Good is one with advanced cognition skills – And cognition is limited to “re-producing by memory”).

    Taking that “intrinsic fear” out of a mind of a parent is not easy and to certain extent their fear as practical significance.

    A future secretary of education(i.e YOU) should not be “another idealist” OR the one who focuses on person and her actions instead of understanding limitations of WHY it is not possible to build “ceative” education system focussed on making us more “Humane”

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