Now comes before us Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. schools and current CEO of StudentsFirst, a rather Orwellian name for an organization designed to make Michelle Rhee rich by playing off the experience of Michelle Rhee.
Ms. Rhee is one of those rather rare educational reformers who actually have some experience as an educator. Even though her degrees are in government and public policy, she entered the classroom through the Teach for America program, eventually earning a teacher certification. After receiving her certification Rhee returned to teaching and oversaw a significant drop in her students’ test scores, but by the time she left the classroom she boasted of raising scores to the 90th percentile. Later analysis showed those numbers to be somewhat overblown, but by then Rhee had stopped being a teacher and had become an educational entrepreneur, starting The New Teacher Project which, picking up on the Teach for America vibe, recruited teachers for urban schools.
Because of The New Teacher Project’s involvement in Washington D.C. schools, then Mayor Adrian Fenty offered Rhee the Chancellorship of the whole system. This was a new position created when the elected school board was stripped of its power. Even though she had no experience in any educational administrative position, Rhee took the job and a mayoral carte blanche to do pretty much whatever she wanted.
And pretty much whatever she wanted was what she did, firing the principal of a high performing school and replacing her with a friend who was later the target of a federal investigation regarding discrimination against minority children, closing schools without community input and failing to completely report budget figures.
In spite of her stormy tenure though, test scores in the district rose, sometimes dramatically and even though there were rumblings that all wasn’t right, no real investigation was done until recently . Now it seems that the improvement of scores in the DC schools may be more the result of test tampering than improved curriculum. As Professor Emeritus Thomas Haladyna, a Statistician familiar with the investigation said, "the odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance."
As for Rhee, repeating her earlier experience when she was a teacher, she left DC schools in 2010 to start StudentsFirst, blaming the reports of cheating and score manipulation on “enemies.” Now, before you get the idea that we’re just out to bash Michelle Rhee, let us set the record straight, we are not (well, maybe just a little). What we’d like to suggest is that Rhee represents the new face of school reform.
When education became a commodity it changed the whole dynamic between teachers and students, schools and their communities. Education was no longer about relationships, nurturing growth, or dealing with human complexities, it was about inputs, end results, the products that get us there and the way they are marketed.
When you buy a toaster, you don’t take it apart first, examine how the connections are soldered, how strong the filaments are. You don’t talk to the people who built it. You take it home and try it out. If it works to your satisfaction you keep it, if not you take it back and get another.
It’s the same with education. We assume the process works if the results are satisfactory, so we create a class of reformers who attempt to sell us on the idea that their particular product will produce the results we are looking for. We try one out, if it doesn’t work we move on to the next one. A market is created.
It should be no surprise that the Michelle Rhees, the Jeb Bushes, the people who brought us DIBELS, the whole new class of educational entrepreneurs created when schools became profit centers and children became input units play fast and loose with the facts in an attempt to create buzz around their products because the relationship between educational reformers and education has become a commercial one, a relationship about things rather than people, about profit and loss. So the Michelle Rhees of the world profit, but the loss belongs to the children.