Teaching Profession Opinion

Who Created Excuses for Michelle Rhee?

By Anthony Cody — April 19, 2013 4 min read
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Educators are living an absolute nightmare of absurd accountability. Guided by the misguided notion that teachers are capable of singlehandedly overcoming the blight of poverty, “reformers” have created systems that have them evaluated based on test score growth, sometimes even for students they have never even taught. Yet when it comes for taking accountability for their own actions, some people are willing to give the reformers all sorts of excuses. It seems as if we have the soft bigotry of low expectations all over again.

The latest example of this is John Merrow’s blog post, “Who Created Michelle Rhee?” He starts out well enough. Clearly, Michelle Rhee herself is a prime candidate. Nobody forced her to misrepresent her own students’ achievement until she was called on it. She alone is responsible for her ambitious drive to dominate first a large urban district, and now an entire nation’s schools, with her draconian policies.

Then he takes a bit of responsibility himself, for doing twelve segments on her - more than two hours of primetime coverage on PBS Newshour. While he deserves a lot of credit for his most recent report revealing the missing memo, he is correct that he should have been far more skeptical about her “miracle gains” the first year. This calls for more than a passing mention. Why was he willing to accept this without real question? It suggests a willingness to believe the driving reform narrative - that teachers can work miracles if properly motivated (or terrified!).

Next comes the part that I am having some trouble with. Merrow writes:

They" created her. "They," according to conspiracy theorists, are the Walton Foundation and other right-leaning organizations; ALEC; the Koch brothers, Eli Broad and other wealthy individuals; and influential power-brokers like Joel Klein. Without them, this explanation has it, she would be nothing.
But we don't know for certain where the money behind Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst comes from. Moreover, it's an insult to her to assume that she would fall in line and parrot whatever her wealthy backers want her to say. Seems more likely they liked what she was saying and decided to bankroll her efforts. So I guess one could say that "They" helped create her, just as the mainstream media did.

Why is it a “conspiracy theory” to believe that Rhee has become so powerful because of financial backing and friendly media promotion sponsored by wealthy individuals and corporate philanthropies?

Do you notice the corporate entity missing from Merrow’s list? The Gates Foundation, which spent $2 million to promote “Waiting for Superman,” which portrayed Rhee as a savior of public education. And the Gates Foundation also funds John Merrow’s operation, which likewise provided extensive coverage of Rhee. We may not have a paper trail on who has funded StudentsFirst but it is not a mystery worthy of Woodward and Bernstein. It is clearly these same corporate sponsors of education reform, and the fact that she is sincere in her beliefs is really not relevant to the discussion. She is a sponsored figure, visible nationally not because of any great popular following, or any great wisdom in her vision, or any real accomplishments -- but because media power brokers are willing to give her a platform on which to speak, and billionaires are willing to give her large donations to fund political contributions and lobbying efforts that align with their goals regarding the elimination of tenure, slashing of teacher pensions, and breaking of unions. That is no “conspiracy theory.” It is as plain as day.

And there is no mention of the Department of Education. As John Thompson points out here, Secretary Duncan embraced Rhee when she needed him most. And while Duncan gave speeches about the need for greater test security, he has done nothing to spur any investigation of widespread cheating that occurred under his nose in Washington, DC.

The last attempt to find someone else to blame is the most egregious of all. The unions! Of course! Teachers brought this on ourselves because of our union’s “intransigence.” To support this, Merrow goes back almost twenty years to a video clip showing a local union leader saying teachers cannot be held accountable. Let me state for the record, as about 99% of teachers and their leaders have always said, teachers should be accountable for teaching their students. We should NOT, however, be the ONLY ones accountable. Furthermore, we must be very careful about the means by which we are held accountable, because standardized tests are a crude measure of learning, and when high stakes are attached, the learning process is often distorted, and students lose out.

Teacher unions have not been the dynamic organizations they could or should have been. But to make them responsible for the reactionary tidal wave of phony reform upon which Michelle Rhee has surfed like one of the Beach Boys is absurd. It is like blaming climate scientists for the backlash against global warming. There are significant motivations powering corporate education reform, and its sponsors have poured billions into their project. They own this, and they own Michelle Rhee. They bought her, and now Merrow has helped to break her. Rhee and her billionaire sponsors, and the media who promoted her, they are the ones responsible for her rise to power way beyond that which she could have achieved without such support.

I appreciate John Merrow’s determination in ultimately uncovering the missing memo, and his willingness to tell the bald truth about Rhee’s utter lack of accomplishment in DC. That is a huge testament to the power of journalism, and to his own integrity. But this casting about for people other than Rhee and her sponsors to blame is a bit hard to take.

Update: John Merrow sent me the following via email message:

I once had Gates funding but no longer. I left off Gates because it is my understanding (not confirmed) that Gates declined to support her. Do you know otherwise?
I once had Broad support too, but no longer. Mentioned Broad because his support is public record Last night the president of a prominent AFT local told me my analysis was correct: union intransigence helped create "Michelle Rhee."
Re Arne, I have asked for an interview. Stay tuned


What do you think? Is John Merrow right when he casts blame all around?

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