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Michelle Rhee, celebrity, goes national

Ohanian Comment: Ha. Yesterday I proclaimed I wouldn't post anything more about Michelle Rhee until she did something. And today she went on Oprah to announce herself as a national celebrity. Valerie Strauss captures how I feel about this event.

Note: Rob Reich, political sci prof at Stanford, says Rhee's new effort is a 501c4. "She wants to be politically active, tilt elections, etc." Unlike 501c3 organizations, "4's" may lobby for legislation; they may also participate in political campaigns and elections, as long as campaigning is not the organization's primary purpose.

Rhee is hawking $5 bumper stickers at her new website but maybe her real pitch will be to back Bloomberg for President.

Today is the first time I'd seen Oprah in years--maybe a decade or more. She truly has become a parody of herself.

By Valerie Strauss

Michelle Rhee is going national.

Running the Washington, D.C., schools wasn't a big enough platform for the superstar Rhee. So, with the secretary of education's job already filled, she's on to her next act, heading a new organization, created around her, that has as its aim nothing short of transforming public education in America.

Just to make sure nobody misses the launch of Students First, at http://www.studentfirst.org, Rhee has arranged to have the launch announced by that great educator Oprah Winfrey, who earlier this year anointed Rhee "a warrior woman." And in what is surely a journalistic coincidence, there is a cover story in Newsweek magazine on Rhee.

When you go to the Students First Web site, the first large image is not of Rhee with students, who are supposed to be first, but of Rhee, when she was on the Oprah show this year, sitting with Winfrey, Bill Gates and Davis Guggenheim, who made Rhee the star of his skewed “Waiting for Superman” film.

And, to round out the launch of the new organization, there is the press release, complete with quotes from folks testifying about Rhee’s greatness:

"Michelle Rhee is back -- bolder and even more committed and determined than ever,” said Gloria Romero, former California Senator and Director of California Office of Democrats for Education Reform.

I didn't actually know Rhee went away to stage a big comeback. She's been traveling the country, sitting on panels, being a guest on Steven Colbert's The Colbert Report, and agreeing to serve as an unpaid adviser to the governor elect of Florida, Rick Scott. Not exactly hiding.

Another press release quote:

"Michelle Rhee will bring demonstrated excellence backed by enormous energy and commitment to the national discussion on school reform," said Joel I. Klein, outgoing New York City Schools chancellor.

It is no surprise Klein would laud Rhee; they were not only each other's biggest fans but also advanced the same sort of business-driven school reforms that see high-stakes standardized tests, the expansion of charter schools and alternative teacher certification -- especially Teach for America. Klein was Rhee's mentor.

And here's the rub: What Rhee wants to do is continue to push the reforms she started in the District, with mixed results. Her record hardly is one of a very successful superintendent who took the time to really turn around a school system. She started a number of things, and then, she left after three years.

Rhee is promoting an agenda that many educators see as de-legitimizing the teaching profession; making standardized tests a holy grail of assessing students, teachers and schools, allowing private foundations to set the education agenda; and inviting for-profit companies to come into the public sector with programs that are designed primarily to make money for investors, not help kids.

The goals of Rhee's new organization are: getting great teacher into classrooms, making sure every kid has a great school, making such public dollars go to good programs, and getting parents and communities involved in education.

Let's put aside the irony in the fact that Rhee completely ignored parents and the community when she was running D.C. schools, and, in fact, that management pattern was seen as so arrogant that her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, who displayed the same sort of I know everything attitude, was thrown out of office.

Instead of trying to hammer out a working arrangement with his successor, D.C. Council member Vincent Gray, so she could keep working for the kids, Rhee abruptly resigned.

It is useful to look at the things she has been saying she left the chancellorship. Just last week, she appeared on a panel at Harvard University for newly elected members of Congress -- 16 Republicans and eight Democrats -- who were there to discuss key topics on which they will soon legislate.

Rhee was on an education policy panel led by Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean Kathleen McCartney and also included former education secretary Margaret Spellings and New York University Professor Professor Pedro Noguera.

Spellings set the stage for the discussion by talking about No Child Left Behind, which may come up for re-authorization in Congress. Spellings helped craft and implement the law, so it is not a real surprise that she thinks the law worked just fine and should be left alone.

She rejects the tremendous amount of criticism about the law's pernicious consequences -- such as narrowed curriculum and an obsession with high-stakes standardized tests -- that have come from lawmakers in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

In fact, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), who will become head of the House Education and Labor Committee, was quoted as saying that No Child Left Behind is "a very large intrusion into education, into areas of education that the federal government shouldn't be involved.

"This isn’t just Republican dissatisfaction. When I talk to teachers, parents, superintendents, my colleagues, everyone wants to fix No Child Left behind. There is great dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind," he told Dropout Nation.

Spellings stated that NCLB "works," according to witnesses, and later, apparently after seeing the reaction of many of the people in the audience, said later, "It may not be perfect, but it works."

What was more important was that Rhee, the new face of school reform today, agreed, saying that NCLB works thought "clearly is not perfect." She cautioned the soon-to-be
members of Congress that the more the United States spends on education, the worse the outcome.

She said "putting more money into the system will not produce a better outcome for kids. I wouldn't do that if I were you."

She discussed laying off teachers, and said that it should not be done by LIFO (last in first out), an effective dismissal of seniority. In fact, she said that newly hired teachers would "probably be" better teachers -- more "innovative and creative" -- than teachers who have devoted their careers to the profession.

Rhee talked about teachers who were rude to her and who were lousy at their jobs, and then advised that teacher effectiveness -- which is code for linking teacher pay to standardized test scores -- should rule the day. Experience and degrees in teaching should mean little.

She said that there were studies -- though they were never identified -- that that said that teacher's effectiveness and performance in the classroom had nothing to do with their degrees or certification. She made no mention of the strong new studies that show that using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers is a bad idea because there is too much room for error, including one issued by the Education Department itself.

And she repeated this bromide: "If we were to fire the bottom 5% -- 10% of teachers annually education will vastly improve in our nation."

Unfortunately, no panelist disputed that nor questioned its impracticality. The numbers tell the story: The United States loses about 300,000 teachers every year through attrition, retirement, etc. You can double that if somewhere between 5 percent and 10 percent of teachers are fired every year.

That's a lot of brand new teachers, who aren't burdened with degrees and experience, to hire.

Rhee is promoting an aggressive reform program that is based on business principles, not proven instruction strategies, not solid research, not what we know is best for kids.

And that makes it very unfortunate that in this celebrity-driven culture, she has become the No. 1 education celeb.

— Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Answer Sheet





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