Ramblings About Michelle Rhee*

Just finished watching Jon Stewart’s interview with Michelle Rhee. She mostly focused on specific policies she highlights in her new book — teacher evaluation, “accountability,” school closings, etc. — that many of us progressive educators can agree are anti-student as well as anti-teacher. But beyond all of that, there are two things I haven’t heard much discussion about that I’d like to bring up about Rhee and the premise from which she functions.

1. Michelle Rhee wasn’t an effective teacher, by her own definition of the word. 

So, I just wikipedia’ed her (I know, not the most reliable, but I did check the sources) and it turns out that in her first year of teaching, her students’ test scores — as meaningless as those may be — diminished significantly. Then, in her second two years, she looped with the same students and had a co-teacher, and her students’ scores increased. So… if what Michelle Rhee needed to be a successful teacher by her standards (aka – your students pass one test) was to loop with the same students for three years and to have two teachers in the room, why doesn’t she afford those same luxuries to other teachers?

Put Michelle Rhee in one of today’s classroom and see if she’s effective, if she moves her students test scores while at the same time earning their respect, their confidences, while at the same time dealing with over-protective and absent parents, while at the same time making real-world connections to all of the state-mandated curriculum. I give my students a survey to take at the end of every six weeks to let them evaluate how I’m doing as a teacher —  I’d love to see how Michelle Rhee’s over-tested students rate her on things like, “My teacher is interested in finding out about my life outside of school,” or “My teacher respects me,” or “My teacher notices when something is wrong.”

2. Michelle Rhee tells teachers they have no control over anything wrong in the world other than their classrooms.

I’m sick of being told that, as a teacher, I only have control over what happens in my classroom. At first, I thought it was just something that veteran teachers told new teachers as a coping mechanism to deal with all of the horrible stuff our kids bring into the classrooms with them. But I think this concept is much more insidious.

Citizens have been told this for years to discourage them from political action. No, you can’t control what happens in your neighborhood — so just make sure you take care of your kids inside your house. No, you can’t control what’s happening to the environment — so don’t even bother recycling or trying to drive less. No, you can’t control what’s happening in Washington — so don’t even bother voting. This defeatist attitude about politics and social change has been stymieing progress for decades.

As a teacher, I absolutely have control over my students’ situations beyond the classroom walls. I can vote. I can get involved in the community. I can organize around issues of poverty, healthcare, access to mental health, the privatization of prisons. Being involved in my school has certainly made me feel like I have more control around my students’ social situation. For example, I recently organized a group of students who’ve been writing about their parents in prison into a weekly meeting. Being involved politically in my community has made me feel that much more empowered.

I’m no conspiracy theorist (okay, that’s a like, I kind of am…) but the fact that the powers-that-be in education seem hell bent on convincing teachers that they shouldn’t try to fix the underlying systems of racism, capitalism, and sexism that continue to undermine all of the work we’re doing in education… Well, that’s pretty telling.


*Originally published on February 10, 2013 at Cooperative Catalyst.


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