How To Explain the Michelle Rhee Syndrome: The Big Picture

Michelle Rhee

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Last week, I got a request from a producer of a radio interview show in which a Hollywood celebrity talks to leaders, in this case, Michelle Rhee. He didn’t want to know my opinion of her brief tenure in Washington, D.C. He wanted to see where she fit into the big picture of school reform in the U.S.  Here is what I told the producer.

1.   Historically, when the nation has a cold, schools sneeze. Examples are legion.

  • When the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik in 1957, President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act (1958) aimed at getting better math and science teachers
  • National problems of drug and alcohol abuse and tobacco smoking has led to states mandating courses to teach children and youth about the dangers of all of these substances.
  • The Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960s’s spilled over the schools across the nation.
  • Christian groups have pressured school boards to have prayer in schools, teach creationism, and vouchers (Educational Policy-2004-Lugg-169-87).
  • The U.S. has competed economically with European and Asian countries for markets in the 1890s and since the 1980s. Each time that has occurred, business leaders turned to the schools to produce skilled graduates then for industrial jobs and now for an information-based economy.

Public schools, then, have been historically vulnerable to outside pressures. Why? Because voters determine how much money will be spent on schools. Taxpayers want schools to pursue the right answers to the basic question: What are schools for? Interest groups lobby policymakers for their value-driven answer to the question leading to political maneuvering and, often, conflict. Need I mention what is occurring in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana?

2.  This vulnerability to political stakeholders is very clear now with business and civic leaders pushing schools to be more efficient and effective in competing with China, Japan, and Germany.

These school reformers want results that show students know more and can do more than they did before. Test scores are the bottom line. A string of U.S. Presidents from both political parties since the early 1980s (recall the Nation at Risk report)  have endorsed school reforms–adopt common core standards, expand parental choice of schools through charters to make public schools compete with one another, reduce the power of teacher unions, and focus on teacher and student results–with, of course, test scores as the bottom line. They believe that this reform agenda will produce skilled graduates who will solve problems, innovate, and compete with the best and brightest from other countries.

3.  In big cities where the problem of bad schooling is worst, results-driven reformers want mayors to take over schools and appoint their own superintendents, individuals who will accept no excuses from teachers and principals, will fight union rules, raise test scores, and create more charter schools.

4. In American culture there is a decided historical preference for individual action, technological fixes (“miracle cures,” “silver bullets”) to problems, and heroic leaders.  And here at the intersection of cultural traits and a dominant business-driven school reform agenda stretching back over a quarter-century is where Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Paul Vallas, Arne Duncan, Geoffrey Canada, and similar figures enter the Big Picture.

5. Media savvy individual leaders emerge who promise quick transformations in district behavior that will produce positive results in what teachers do and how students perform through, well, the current technical fixes of—-no need to repeat them again.

My conversation with the radio program producer ended at this point and I stopped sketching out the Big Picture. He didn’t ask me: So what? But I will.

Is there anything wrong with these leaders entering and exiting big city districts? Yes, there is.

The current business-dominated reform agenda is harnessed to heroic, media-wise individuals carrying tool-kits filled with charter schools, union-busting devices, and pay-4-performance schemes. This agenda and bigger-than-life individuals place major attention on  ineffective teachers as the major reason for poor student performance in schools.

In doing so, they have narrowed the role of schools to being an arm of the economy reinforcing the fiction that all U.S. schools, not just urban ones, are lousy and that “effective” teachers and schools can solve poverty, put every kid into college, and end the skills gap with international competitors. Yes, the conflating of urban schools with all U.S. schools is as damaging a fiction as schools being responsible for economic growth and heroic leaders saving urban schools. No one says such things about schools and teachers in LaJolla (CA), Northbrook (IL), and Massepequa (NY).  That is what is wrong about the Michelle Rhee Syndrome.



Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

2 responses to “How To Explain the Michelle Rhee Syndrome: The Big Picture

  1. TA

    What do you think about Andres Alonso in Baltimore? He’s placed in with Rhee and many of the other “leader” reformers, but it seems like a lot of his policies have been more student-centered and less about blaming teachers. At least from afar it seems like he has a better relationship with with the teachers, union, and Baltimore community. In general, it appears that he’s had more success in Baltimore than Rhee had in D.C. Thoughts?

    • larrycuban

      All I know about Andres Alonso is what I have read about him. So I am not in any position to comment intelligently about his tenure in Baltimore. As you say, from afar he has a better relationship with unions and the community–if accurate–these are big achievements in an decade when so many big city superintendents can hardly boast about either.

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