Nicholas Lemann has written a powerful review of Michelle Rhee’s memoir, in which she calls herself “radical.” She is indeed radical. She wants to tear down public education, a basic democratic institution. That is very radical.
As Lemann points out, Rhee has reduced all the problems of American education to the very existence of unions. This can’t offer much hope to the many states where unions are weak or nonexistent. Who should those states blame since they don’t have unions to scapegoat?
Lemann notes that Rhee loves to portray herself as a victim, a woman of courage who stands up fearlessly to the rich and powerful. The reality, of course, is that Rhee is a tool of the rich and powerful.
“Rhee is a major self-dramatizer. As naturally appealing to her as is the idea that more order, structure, discipline, and competition is the answer to all problems, even more appealing is the picture of herself as a righteously angry and fearless crusader who has the guts to stand up to entrenched power. She is always the little guy, and whoever she is fighting is always rich, powerful, and elite—and if, as her life progresses, her posse becomes Oprah Winfrey, Theodore Forstmann, and the Gates Foundation lined up against beleaguered school superintendents and presidents of union chapters, the irony of that situation has no tonal effect on her narrative. Again and again she gives us scenes of herself being warned that she cannot do what is plainly the right thing, because it is too risky, too difficult, too threatening to the unions, too likely to bring on horrific and unfair personal attacks—but the way she’s made, there’s nothing she can do but ignore the warnings and plow valiantly.”
Of course, she is ridiculous because she has collected tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, from America’s richest people. Just days ago, she got $8 million from the far-right Walton Family Foundation.
The other point Leman makes is that Rhee has no evidence for her claims. She starts with her conclusions, then looks for “evidence.”
“Rhee simply isn’t interested in reasoning forward from evidence to conclusions: conclusions are where she starts, which means that her book cannot be trusted as an analysis of what is wrong with public schools, when and why it went wrong, and what might improve the situation. The only topics worth discussing for Rhee are abolishing teacher tenure, establishing charter schools, and imposing pay-for-performance regimes based on student test scores. We are asked to understand these measures as the only possible means of addressing a crisis of decline that is existentially threatening the United States as a nation and denying civil rights to poor black people.”