Thursday, October 21, 2010

Giving Michelle Rhee Credit Where It's Due (And Only Where It's Due)

I've been thinking about some of the post-mortems on Michelle Rhee's tenure at the D.C. Schools, now that she has decided to quit instead of trying to find a way to work with the incoming mayor. At Tapped, Monica Potts wonders if Michelle Rhee's abrasive style would have been tolerated had she been a man. I don't think the problem was her abrasiveness; I think the problem was that she had a tin ear for politics and didn't know when to soften her approach or bite her tongue. Given that Mayor Adrian Fenty, not Rhee, was the one voted out of office, and that he shared some of the same problematic personality traits, I don't think it's a gender thing. Politicians can have their tempers and their abrasive moments, but they must nonetheless smile for the cameras and kiss the (figurative) babies.

Potts endorses the view that was Rhee's disdain of collaborating with teachers and getting the community on board with school reforms that helped contribute to her abrasive reputation. But on the merits, Rhee's probably right. There's something odd about the idea that parents who aren't trained in education should have equal input in how their children's schools are run. And that's where the divide between Rhee and everyone else really lies. Rhee viewed her job as a technician would, as a CEO might, someone who is charged with getting results, even if doing so is hard.
Yet Rhee's abrasiveness was not contextual. Potts links to an article that recounts an example,
Yet one of her less-famous moments sticks with me. It was tucked inside an Atlantic profile by writer Clay Risen. In the piece, Risen was trying to make the point that Rhee does "not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise." Here's how he supported that contention: "When I asked her how she would characterize her ideal relationship with parents, she replied, 'That’s a great question. So often reporters ask me stupid questions. I had one interview yesterday, and I was like, ‘Okay, you are not smart.’"
Her general attitude appeared Manichean. If you didn't understand what she was doing, you were stupid. Disagreement, no matter how well-placed, seemed to be interpreted as malice.

Further, it's the height of arrogance to suggest that parents are not positioned to question, let alone have a say in, how their schools are run. We're supposed to simultaneously praise parents for being concerned about their children, wanting better schools, involving themselves with their children's schools, etc., but they are to be dismissed as know-nothings the second they question the goals of the system's top bureaucrat? In a sense, that's an extension of the "sit down, shut up, do as your told" model that school administrators often seem to view as perfect classroom management, but it's presumptuous and rude when directed at concerned parents.

Further, parents had valid cause to question some of Rhee's methods and priorities. She carelessly fired hundreds of teachers then claimed, "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school." How would you feel if your child's teacher was fired, a teacher you liked, and you knew none of that was true about the teacher? How would you feel about the disappearing, reappearing money trick that was used to justify the firings? How would you feel if your school continued to crumble, but huge amounts of money appeard to be directed at schools that you perceived to be Rhee's pet projects? How would you feel if your school district's funding were so dependent upon corporate contributions, with an associated threat to withdraw money if they didn't approve of the district's management or performance, that you had to ask, "How 'public' is it when Wal-Mart can blackmail D.C. voters?"

Potts argues that it wasn't Rhee's job to "nurture":
It was Rhee's job to hire and fire teachers, to ensure the curriculum would teach students, and to revive D.C.'s beleaguered school system.
If Rhee found being respectful and accountable to parents and others inconsistent with managing D.C.'s schools, perhaps she belongs in the charter movement in which school administrators can insulate themselves from accountability to parents, let alone voters. Or perhaps she can move back to an advocacy group. Because last I checked, public schools are supposed to be accountable to parents and voters.

The aforementioned article lists what it describes as Rhee's accomplishments, and some of them are very real. She made the first day of school (and no doubt, many of the days that followed) much less dramatic and much more efficient. She negotiated a contract with the teacher's union that allows for greater teacher accountability. She took a modest stand on nutrition by banning flavored milk from schools.

The article also praises her for raising "standards, expectations, and test scores", but I think she can be better praised for her effort than for her accomplishment. As the article linked to document a rise in test scores indicates, this past year test scores went down.
Researchers in the field say that it is the nature of standardized tests that they rise from year to year when the same design of a test is given in the same schools. And they go down when a new design is given, or when a different demographic of students takes the test, or a bunch of kids in a class had a cold, or... well, you get the idea.

There are too many variables that can affect the scores of a single test to make the result completely reliable, which is why scores should never be used as a sole measure for any high-stakes decision.
By quitting now, Rhee puts herself in the position of claiming credit for a return to rising scores and blaming her successors if the scores continue to drop, although I would hope she would show more grace than to try to do either.

It's also reasonable to note that at their peak, the test scores remain deeply troubling.
Rhee said she and her team would “dig into the data” to find out why the elementary reading proficiency rate, which had risen 11 percentage points from 2007 to 2009, fell 4.4 points, to 44.4 percent, and why, after rising 20 percentage points from 2007 to 2009, the elementary math proficiency rate dipped 4.6 points this year, to 43.4.

The proficiency rate is essentially a measure of the portion of students who pass the tests.
Those scores indicate how much work remains to be done. They also highlight a problem I have with Rhee's "blame the teachers" approach to school reform. A more mature perspective would be, "Homes and communities make a huge difference in student performance, but we can't control those. All we can control are the schools and classrooms, so we have to proceed as if homes and communities don't matter." Instead she attempted to write children's lives outside of school out of the equation.

When done correctly, raising standards and expectations can be a very good thing. If you can convince a student that she needs to take ownership of her education, that her home life may make it difficult to study and succeed but she can succeed and even excel despite those obstacles, you've taken a strong first step toward making it happen. You then have to provide the necessary resources and support within the school environment (and outside, when possible) to make it happen. In an inner city environment's easy for teachers to become jaded or cynical - it's probably hard not to - and to let kids slide through the system without challenging them to reconsider their expectations for themselves and their understanding of their own capacity. When all you do is blame teachers, you shift the onus away from the students and effectively depict learning as a passive activity.

The article also argues that "Rhee stopped the skid in enrollment", pointing to a 1.6% rise in enrollment following two years of decline. That would be more compelling if the rise weren't associated with a severe recession that appears to have brought about similar rises in many other communities. This argument also seems inconsistent with the conception that it was parents' anger at Rhee that caused them to vote Mayor Fenty out of office.

Finally, the article credits Rhee for her new teacher rating system,
Rhee piloted IMPACT, a new method for evaluating teachers. Some say it's unfair and impossible to implement. But who's going to stand up and applaud the old system, whatever it was? Let's call this a start.
Fair enough, it's a start. But recall, if we're going to be judging teachers by a single year's test scores, why can't we judge Rhee's performance last year by the same measure?

But school administrators aren't to be judged by the same standards as teachers, are they. They negotiate the terms of a contract with the teacher's union, sign on the dotted line, then blame the union for seeking to enforce the terms they agreed to. They fail to monitor newly hired teachers such that issues of performance and classroom management aren't noticed before the teacher gets tenure, and then blame the teachers and their union for it's being difficult to fire teachers for their poor performance. Typically when they contractually agree to give teachers a raise, they happily give themselves the same or a larger raise. When they contractually provide teachers with generous benefits, insurance, sick time, personal days, etc., they typically reward themselves with the same or greater benefits. But how often are they willing to look into the mirror? The problems of our nation's inner city schools did not arise in a vacuum.

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