The Michelle that Obama Should Avoid
Note: We've been following Michelle Rhee's disastrous career on this site. Hats off to Sam Smith, editor of Progressive Review, one of the longest-running alternative journals going, for reporting the real story. Smith offers political and social analysis never found in the mainstream press. You can get his pithy analysis in your mailbox by subscribing to Undernews. Scroll down the right side of the page and you will find a box in which to enter your e-mail address.
Progressive Review - DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee is getting rave reviews everywhere except in real DC, where our egocentric, bullying, my-way-or-the-highway approach is making new enemies every day. This is no longer just a local concern, however, as there are reports that Obama plans to appoint her to a high position in his administration, encouraged by uninformed articles like one in Newsweek that claimed, "The chancellor of the D.C. system, Michelle Rhee, has proposed an innovative teachers' contract that could allow her to reward the best teachers and dismiss the bad ones. Educators everywhere are watching to see what Obama says and does. If he backs Rhee's proposal, he will send a powerful signal to struggling inner-city schools that reform is possible. If he fudges or says nothing, it will be a signal that little will change for the poor and mostly black children in the capital's nearly dysfunctional apparatus.
"Rhee has made no secret of her determination to break the union. With the support of Mayor Adrian Fenty and the promise of funds from private foundations, she wants to offer teachers a choice of two contracts. Under the first, teachers can make up to $130,000 in merit pay-but they must forgo tenure. Or they can choose to keep tenure, but accept a much more modest pay raise (the average teacher's salary in Washington is $65,902)."
What Newsweek and other media don't tell you is that the increase in salary is being funded by donations from private foundations with absolutely no guarantee the money will still be there a few years down the pike. It short, it amounts to a first class con being perpetrated with the aid of third rate media.
Following are some other things about Rhee you may not know:
Washington Post Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee told the D.C. Council that the District needs to completely rethink its approach to preventing school violence, with a better trained security force but also by teaching students to manage conflicts before they spiral out of control. Rhee spoke to the council a day after fights among rival groups at Anacostia High School left five students injured, including three with stab wounds. . . D.C. State Board of Education member William Lockridge, who represents wards 7 and 8, said the Anacostia situation was triggered by tensions about the enrollment of students from Eastern High School, which is being reorganized under the No Child Left Behind law, and M.M. Washington Career High School, which was closed because of low enrollment.
"I think it was a bad idea from the beginning," Lockridge said. "The community forewarned the administration that this was going to happen, and it's happened. They're not listening." Rhee said the transfers played no role in the disorder.
Washington Post - At Hart [school], where the level of violence and disorder - including assaults on at least three teachers - prompted Rhee to intervene this month with a team of administrators and to dismiss Principal Kisha Webster, about 200 parents and faculty packed the school auditorium to air complaints. . . D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said much of the violence at Hart could have been averted if the school system had planned more carefully for its consolidation with P.R. Harris, another Southeast middle school that was closed in June. Barry said administrators did nothing beforehand to ease the potential for neighborhood tensions and school rivalries that have played out under Hart's roof. "They sent sixth , seventh and eighth-graders to Hart from P.R. Harris without any preparation for the neighborhood beefs," Barry said.
Washington Post - About a third of D.C.'s school principal corps has turned over on Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's 17-month watch, through firings, resignations and retirements. She's replaced at least three since the beginning of the school year, and has put out the word that she is not done.
The writer of the following is a former D.C. Public Schools teacher and was superintendent of schools in Arlington, VA from 1974 to 1981:
Larry Cuban, Washington Post In her second year as the District's schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee looks like a sprinter. In less than two years, with the full support of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, she has already cut central office administrators, fired principals, closed schools and challenged the teachers union on seniority transfer rights and tenure.
By comparison, Atlanta Superintendent Beverly L. Hall and Austin schools chief Pat Forgione each served a decade and showed strong gains in students' academic achievement. They were long-distance runners. Fixing urban school districts takes marathoners, not sprinters.
Look at Alan Bersin, who ran out of gas as San Diego's superintendent in 2005. Determined to lift student learning rather than preserve school officials' status quo, he reorganized the system and fired administrators. He went after collective bargaining rules that protected seniority rights and incompetent teachers. Union leaders fought him by seeking national and state allies and turning to parents. He exited well before fulfilling his reform agenda.
My point is not that union leaders block reform. In some cities they work closely with superintendents. Nor should superintendents play nice with unions to avoid conflict.
But sprinter superintendents err in jumping on unions too early in their long-distance race for better student achievement. They suffer from ideological myopia. They believe low test scores and achievement gaps between whites and minorities result in large part from knuckle-dragging union leaders defending seniority and tenure rights that protect lousy teachers. Such beliefs reflect a serious misreading of why urban students fail to reach proficiency levels and graduate from high school. . .
This error in thinking has occurred often in districts where impatient superintendents have demonized unions, only to discover that they have stumbled into a war as a result. Once union leaders were convinced that they were fighting for their survival, they converted the battle into an "us vs. them" struggle. When that happens, kiss reform goodbye.
Rhee's ideological push against unions comes much too early in her tenure to improve teaching and learning. Such initiatives fail because they can turn the entire D.C. teaching corps -- including first-rate veteran and mid-career teachers -- against any classroom change. Rhee may deceive herself into believing that teacher whispers about forming another union will split a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers that was founded in 1925. It won't.
"Us vs. them" is not predestined. Boston's Tom Payzant and Carl A. Cohn in Long Beach, Calif., served more than a decade in their districts and received national awards for raising student performance. Neither saw teacher unions as foes to be squashed. They convinced union leaders that it was in teachers' best interests to work with them. Trying to destroy the union will not throw 4,000 teachers behind the mayor and chancellor.
Were the untimely face-off with the D.C. teachers union to spiral into an ugly scrum, angry union leaders and teachers would reach out to allies on the D.C. Council and elsewhere to join against a mayor and chancellor viewed as determined to destroy their organization, much like President Ronald Reagan was with the air traffic controllers union in 1981. Such conflict could possibly end in the mayor dumping his talented chancellor. Another round of high hopes for the D.C. schools would be dashed.
Guy Brandenburg, Concerned 4 DCPS - I know that the major media are totally enamored of Michelle Rhee. But those of us who live and work right under her are much less in love with her.
Closing schools? Other school chiefs in DC have been doing that for at least a decade.
Firing lots of DCPS central office workers? Just about every single one of our last 7 or 8 superintendents started out by doing that. Fat lot of good that's done.
Increased test scores? Many of us point out that that's the result of a new curriculum brought about under the former school chief, Clifford Janey, and the public schools wildly outperformed the charter schools. Yes, you read that correctly: the traditional public schools did much, much better on the [test] than all those supposedly wonderful charter schools Rhee has been promoting.
Her three main actual accomplishments to date, it seems to me are:
- bringing about the largest single-year percentage drop in student enrollment in DCPS;
- making union-busting seem like a progressive idea in education; and
- promoting the myth that it doesn't take any experience or training to be a wonderful teacher.
It is an outright lie to say that the reason that the contract that Rhee proposed has not been brought to a vote of the membership is because of a 'meltdown' in the Washington Teachers' Union leadership, and that the WTU leadership is preventing an eager union membership from voting for the contract. . .
When teachers heard some of the details of the outline of the contract that Rhee [and the head of the teacher's union] had been working on - in total isolation from the rest of the bargaining committee - the vast majority of the rank-and-file teachers thought that the central ideas were no good and that our leaders needed to go back to the negotiating table and start over.
Teachers overwhelmingly are rejecting the idea of doubling, tripling, or quadrupling their own salaries. Can you imagine the CEOs of any corporation doing that? In my opinion, teachers are rejecting that idea because they don't trust the leadership of our school system, pretty much at any level.
Most teachers know quite a bit about favoritism, nepotism, and politics, and are quite happy to have unions representing them so that there will be due process when complaints or problems come up. We have seen our often-clueless administrators leave incompetent teachers in classrooms because the administrators didn't care, while harassing teachers they felt to be troublemakers.
Teachers also know how extremely difficult it is to work in what is euphemistically called "inner-city" schools, and how much easier it is for your students to achieve at a high level if they already come with an excellent background. Just about every method I have seen proposed for judging teachers and by student achievement levels will not account for that, and will deem as "successful" the schools where lots of parents have PhDs, LLDs, and MDs, and will give the "failing" label to schools where lots of the parents have jail records, high unemployment, little education, and so on.
Quite a few of my fellow-teachers don't even believe that Rhee actually has the money to pay those huge salaries.
The St Hope connection:
Saint Hope News Release, July 2007 - St. HOPE Public Schools announced that Michelle Rhee has been confirmed as the new Chancellor of Washington D.C. Public Schools. . . Rhee, who has served on the St. HOPE Public Schools Board of Directors for one year, played an instrumental role in the hiring of new staff and professional development. . . Both Rhee and McGoldrick will continue serving on the SHPS Board of Directors
Sacramento Bee, September 2008 - The federal government released findings of its investigation into management of the nonprofit St. HOPE volunteer program founded by Sacramento mayoral candidate Kevin Johnson, citing violations that include having youthful participants run personal errands and wash his car.
The findings from the federal probe followed by a day the government's announcement it was barring Johnson, St. HOPE Academy and a former official from access to federal grants and contracts for up to a year. . .
The federal funding suspension was triggered by a months-long investigation into Hood Corps' use of AmeriCorps funds. The program received $807,000 between 2004 and 2007. Federal funding for the program was not renewed last year. In a notice of suspension sent to Johnson, an official from the AmeriCorps agency said evidence indicates that Johnson, as president and chief executive of St. HOPE Academy, improperly diverted grant money.
Sacramento Bee - While under the management of Sacramento Mayor-elect Kevin Johnson, St. HOPE Public Schools fell more than $1 million behind on required payments to the Sacramento City Unified School District. St. HOPE started paying the money back in October, and the Sacramento City school board Thursday night voted 5-2 in favor of an agreement that would require it to pay off the remaining $729,742 debt with interest by June 30, 2010.
Washington Post - Rhee appeared at a news conference in Sacramento as part of the transition team of Mayor-elect Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star who will take office Nov. 25, replacing two-term incumbent Heather Fargo. According to The Sacramento Bee, she was presented by Johnson as one of the leaders of a transition team that could eventually total as many as 100 people. Rhee is a long-time friend of Johnson's and served as a member of the board of directors of St. Hope Public Schools, the system of charter schools Johnson founded in Sacramento.
Roger Newell notes: Remember, this is the same person who said that she was too busy to appear before the City Council to answer questions from elected officials on how she is spending our tax money and educating our city's future.
DC Examiner - The prevailing attitude in elite education circles these days seems to be: "We've tried everything else and that didn't work, so let's try bribing students to learn." So starting October 3rd, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee will begin doling out up to $100 per month to 3,000 middle school students for doing what other children around the nation are expected to do for free - show up for class, behave, do their homework. . . New York University Professor Pedro Noguera questioned the value of financial incentives after the percentage of New York high school students who earned Advance Placement credits decreased from 35 percent in 2007, when no cash incentives were offered, to 32 percent this year, when students received cash bonuses of as much as $1,000.
DC Wire Washington Post - She's said it before, but Michelle Rhee keeps hammering away at the Democratic Party for being weak on education accountability and reform. Last night, Rhee appeared before the Ward 4 Democrats at Emery Recreation Center and explained that she appeared on an education panel discussion in Denver during the Democratic National Convention to "make a statement to the Democratic Party" about why it needs to get tougher on unions and other "political interests." Rhee stressed that she has been a lifelong Democrat, but then she lit into the party. "Republicans are much better at education policy than Democrats," she said. "Democrats are soft on accountability and they're anti-NCLB [No Child Left Behind], they don't want to test anyone. This attitude in my mind does nothing for the neediest students who need help the most." To Rhee, Democratic leaders pander to unions and other interest groups who are "driving the agenda on school reform. Everyone thinks Republicans are for the rich, white oil guys to whom they give tax breaks and Democrats are for kids and the underclass. I don't think the Democratic Party operates that way. So we were there [in Denver] speaking out and pushing the Party to move in a different direction."
Progressive Review - The school system's brutalist boss, Michelle Rhee, not only feels free to trash the city's teachers but the DC city council as well. In an article in the business mag Fast Company, Jeff Chu writes that she "refuses to play the traditional, subservient role of a D.C. agency chief with the city council, which, despite its limited authority over DCPS, has repeatedly questioned her decision making and management." When Rhee catches a council hearing on late night TV she sees "her own version of a horror movie. . . 'There's this crazy dynamic where every agency head is kowtowing. They sit there and get beat down. . . I'm not going to sit on public TV and take a beating I don't deserve. I don't take that crap.'" Sounds like someone should introduce her to DC law as well as to common sense.
Gary Imhoff DC Watch - At Wilson High School, we have just had a graphic example of how insecure a teaching job can be under the whims of Rhee's administrators, even for a teacher as admired and beloved as Dr. Arthur Siebens . . . Why on earth should teachers give up whatever protection tenure can give them against arbitrary and capricious decisions that they 'fit in with the new' order? What have Rhee and [Mayor] Fenty done to earn the trust of teachers? Why should teachers believe that they won't be treated just as shabbily at Siebens, that they won't be scorned and swept out by young, arrogant, and inexperienced school officials who are convinced that they know it all and that anyone who was in the Washington school system before they took over should be 'excessed' and disposed of?
Progressive Review - We have in the past recommended a saner approach to bureaucratic reform, such as coming up with a plan of where you want to be a few years from now, including the specific jobs that will be available after the reorganization. This not only would allow the public to know what was actually being proposed - something Rhee hasn't let us in on - and would let staff know whether their job would be there or not. If not, the employees would have time to look for another job or apply for one of the jobs under the new plan. Using such an approach is far less disruptive than the slash and burn approach of Rhee.
Sam Smith, editor