Education Opinion

The Rhee Phenomenon

By Walt Gardner — April 13, 2011 3 min read
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In the entertainment business, anything that swiftly rises to the top of the charts is referred to as “number one with a bullet.” The term doesn’t necessarily denote quality, merely quantity. I thought of Michelle Rhee in this connection after reading an op-ed in the New York Daily News by Richard Whitmire (“Why Michelle Rhee is public enemy number one in education reform debate: She challenged bad teachers,” Apr. 1). He is the author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District.

Whitmire is certainly entitled to his assessment of Rhee as former chancellor of schools in the District of Columbia. It’s also understandable that he is trying to promote sales of his book. But I’m surprised that he presents such a one-sided picture of the controversy at this crucial time in education reform. By reducing the issue to Rhee’s challenging bad teachers, Whitmire leaves readers with the distinct impression that was the sum and substance of the brouhaha.

In fact, it was far more complex.

Rhee became a phenomenon never seen before largely because of her personality. Her combative approach, coupled with her telegenic looks, made her the Ann Coulter of educational administration. It was a combination that the media loved. Rhee knew exactly how to play the publicity game. She made statements that always had a grain of truth but little more, such as: “Better the adults getting screwed than the kids.” Who can argue that the needs of students shouldn’t take precedence over those of teachers?

Pithy slogans like these appeal to taxpayers who are at wit’s end over the snail’s pace of school reform. But all they do is polarize opinion when consensus is needed. Either you were with her or against her. She enjoyed throwing down the gantlet and never retreating. The Time cover story showing her sweeping out the classroom was unambiguous to readers. Bad teachers were trash and had to be removed.

Emboldened by the headlines she was getting, Rhee pointed to the dramatic gains in test scores of students. But a USA Today investigation uncovered a large number of erasures on standardized tests between 2008 and 2010. (Chancellor Kaya Henderson took little time in asking the D.C. inspector general to look into the matter to determine if there was cheating.) In an interview on the Tavis Smiley show on PBS, Rhee flatly denied the charge. She went on the offensive by suggesting that critics didn’t believe poor students could achieve academically.

But these are two separate matters. No one says poor students can’t perform far better than they have. This is different, however, from concern about cheating. By linking the two issues, Rhee attempted to avoid embarrassment. It’s a classic propaganda tactic.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Whitmire questioned whether failing school districts can ever be turned around by what he called “Michelle Lite” (“Can Rhee’s reforms work without Rhee’s toughness?” Jan. 21). He wondered if it can be done “gently, quietly, cooperatively.” I think it can.

Trying to bully a faculty into shape is ultimately counterproductive. That’s because teachers by their very nature are collaborative. The Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story on Apr. 3 about how teachers at the Broadous Elementary School in Pacoima, a working-class suburb in the Los Angeles Unified School District, are working together even after publication of rankings identified stars and stragglers (“Singled-out L.A. Unified teacher shares skills with colleagues”).

I have no doubt that the Rhee story will be included in a textbook. I just hope that college students won’t draw the wrong conclusions about her tactics.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.