I was invited by Frontline to offer reactions to the documentary about Michelle Rhee. I was disappointed that the documentary did not mention that Rhee is now working on behalf of a far-right agenda of privatization; that Washington Teachers Union President George Parker now works for StudentsFirst; that Rhee’s “miraculous gains” as a teacher in Baltimore have been discredited. But I had space limitations. So this was my commentary:
I watched John Merrow’s documentary on “The Education of Michelle Rhee” with high anticipation. I wanted to see what she had learned from her experience, and what lessons there might be for the nation.
The documentary emphasizes her steely determination to do whatever she thought necessary to turn around the Washington, D.C. school system. She fired principals; she fired teachers; she closed schools. She told every principal that he or she must set a target for raising test scores. If they met it, their schools would win thousands of dollars; if they didn’t, they risked termination. She tied teachers’ evaluation to student test scores.
Rhee assumes that better test scores equal better education. She never once mentions literature or history or science or civics or foreign languages; she doesn’t talk about curriculum or instruction. She never calls out a teacher for poor instruction or a principal for a weak curriculum; she is interested only in the bottom line, and that is the scores.
The problem, of course, is that focusing obsessively on test scores has predictable results: narrowing the curriculum (some districts and schools have dropped the arts and other subjects to make more time for testing); cheating; teaching to the tests; and distorting the whole education system for the sake of scores. Our best public and private schools would never dream of making test scores their goal. They know that a real education includes the arts, history, science, literature, foreign languages and physical education. Their parents expect nothing less.
Unfortunately, Rhee cared only about test scores, not a balanced curriculum. By the end of the documentary we learn that the public schools in D.C. improved “slightly” on national tests but “are still among the worst in the nation,” and its high school graduation rate is dead last. We learn that her relentless focus on test scores produced allegations of widespread cheating, not better education. Her policy of firing teachers and principals did not turn around the schools; it created turmoil. Every year, about 20% of the teachers (including those she hired) leave, and most of the principals she hired have moved on.
The only logical conclusion from this documentary is that states and districts should not do what Michelle Rhee did. It didn’t work. It failed. Rhee, however, remains unfazed. She’s taken her reform agenda to the national stage and is now urging states to follow her lead.
True educational leadership involves a commitment to children and to education (not just test scores), a dedication to improving curriculum and instruction, and the ability to recruit and develop a strongstaff. That is the kind of leadership I saw when I visited Finland, a nation whose students never take standardized tests yet do very well on international assessments.
Thankfully, such leadership is hardly absent in the U.S. In schools all across the nation, I have come across countless unsung educators who build teamwork and a culture of professionalism. They create a climate of respect built on wisdom and judgment, not carrots and sticks.