Students Need More Than Michelle Rhee's Education Reforms
High school student and author Nikhil Goyal wants teachers to be paid well, given autonomy, and treated like professionals. Is that too much to ask?
This article was originally published on 01.14.13 It has been updated to reflect requested changes from the author.\n
"Principals were scared to death. If their test scores did not go up, they would be fired."
That was perhaps one of the most disturbing lines of Frontline's "The Education of Michelle Rhee," which aired Tuesday night on PBS. As chancellor of D.C. public schools, Rhee created an environment that to put it mildly, was hostile towards hundreds of educators. In the search for innovative ways to reform public education, America's students need more than what Rhee is offering.
Rhee created an uncanny obsession over test scores, and thus massive cheating and manipulation emerged. Campbell's Law, a statement created by the notable social scientist Donald T. Campbell, fits well here: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures, and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."
In one class, according to USA Today, statisticians said that the "odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance." Plenty of cases of teachers erasing and correcting test booklets after school hours were reported, but, not surprisingly, never actually investigated.
In her first year, Rhee closed 23 schools. A recent report found that these careless actions cost the city $40 million alone. Let's fix schools, not close them. Instead of making education some kind of competition like Race to the Top has done, schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods—often the ones who are labeled “failing"—ought to be provided with extra funds to hire the best and brightest teachers or implement breakfast programs. Are we forgetting about Title I?
In her three and a half year tenure, Rhee also fired roughly 1,000 educators, some who faired poorly in the IMPACT teacher evaluation system. There is a massive body of evidence that demonstrates that these value-added measures are inaccurate and misleading. As I wrote, “It's time to acknowledge that test scores are not a correct indicator in determining quality teachers.” If students are producing work that is “worth the time and effort and has lasting value to their lives,” then he or she is a great teacher.
As Daniel Stufflebeam says, “The purpose of evaluation is to improve, not to prove." Of course, every profession has their fair share of bad apples. Instead of threatening teachers, we should be giving more professional development and assistance to those struggling. If it comes to a point where the teacher simply cannot teach or is not willing to do so, then it would be sensible to fire him or her. But again, these are very rare circumstances.
School closings and teacher layoffs have had a tremendous effect on the lives of students across the nation. For many students in these communities, school is their only safe and secure place for a few hours each day. Dislocating them from their neighborhood schools into charters and privately managed ones not hurts them, but also derails the foundation of public education.
What Rhee and so many policymakers don't understand is that the goal of education is not to garner high test scores, but to cultivate lifelong learners and active citizens in our democracy. As I wrote, “As a student, I want to be taught how to think and create and explore. I’m not a number in a spreadsheet; I’m a creative and motivated human being. I want my teachers to be paid well, given autonomy and treated like professionals. I want my school to be adequately funded. Is that too much to ask?”
Let's not forget to mention that Rhee's ethical behavior and style of governing is a serious sign for concern. When she was working in Baltimore as part of Teach for America, she revealed that she once taped the mouths of her students shut because they were acting rowdy. As a result, according to Rhee, skin was peeling off of their lips. They were bleeding. And thirty-five children were crying. Are you serious? Any sane human being would agree that that incident is grounds for dismissal.
Similarly, in her reign as chancellor, Rhee figuratively duct-taped the mouths of students and teachers shut. The last thing policymakers can do is ignore the stakeholders—the people who are in the classroom day in and day out: students and teachers. Once you purposely avoid and fail to value their input, you become a Machiavellian-like figure. Rhee fits that description with ease. When John Merrow called people for sources, he said "the number of people who said 'no comment' or hung up...was unbelievable"—a record number for his career.
Currently, Rhee is running StudentsFirst, or as some like to say "StudentsLast," because there don't seem to be any K-12 students involved in the decision making process. By leaving her position as chancellor and not facing up to the cheating allegations, Rhee floated above the fray and walked away taller. I ask: Where's the public outrage? Any journalist who lets Rhee slide without addressing this scandal is contributing to this high-stakes testing epidemic.
Our students deserve more than this. I say call out her bluff and don't drink the corporate reform Kool-Aid.
This article was updated on 11/20/2021.