Monday, May 20, 2013

The Myth of Michelle Rhee

We're seeing the unravelling of the myths that unwittingly placed Michelle Rhee in the national spotlight as "reformer in chief" for public education, myths created initially and largely at the expense of DC school children and their teachers. They were myths promulgated by the media, particularly those catering to the right-wing, anti-public education crowd.

In my State of Michigan, Rhee was afforded an unusual platform in front of the legislature as reported by Mlive.com in the following post:

Michelle Rhee: Michigan lawmakers need to focus on reforms to help students, not the adults  
Rhee, a 'rock star' of the reform movement, has appeared on magazine covers and in the documentary "Waiting for Superman," and is criticized by union leaders who say her reforms are too dependent on firing teachers and principals.
 
With an overflow crowd in the state Capitol, Rhee was asked about her experiences with issues including merit pay, evaluations, parental involvement and rules the require the most recently hired teachers to be the first laid off.

Yes, he did actually use the term, "rock star." 

And as the next article demonstrates, Rhee was afforded access to the point she actually wrote or at least contributed to the spate of anti-teacher laws that recently passed the state legislature:

Probe shows union-busting Michelle Rhee wrote Michigan anti-teacher law The document from Rhee's group specifically says that it worked on the package of four Michigan education bills. One abolishes "reasonable and just cause" as the only reason for firing teachers and replaces it with any reason that "is not arbitrary and capricious." Another bill axes collective bargaining. A third makes tenure tough and lets school districts easily throw teachers back on probation. 

But as of late (and it does come pretty late), NPR's highly respected and longtime education reporter John Merrow has torn down the facade and revealed, "The empress has no clothes!" But who created Rhee?

Who Created "Michelle Rhee"?  We, the mainstream media, created "Michelle Rhee." Good argument there. Rhee blew into Washington like a whirlwind, where she was a great story and an overdo gust of fresh air. DC schools were pretty bad, and she was candid, accessible, energetic, young, and attractive–everything reporters love. While I don't think my reporting for the NewsHour was puffery, we did produce twelve (!) pieces about her efforts over the 40 months — about two hours of primetime coverage. That's an awful lot of attention.

Did anyone else get that much air time from us? Well, yes, we also produced twelve reports about Paul Vallas in New Orleans. But Vallas never received the positive treatment (or even the coverage) from the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Charlie Rose, et alia, that Rhee did back in 2007-2009.

Were we skeptical enough about the 'miracle' gains in her first year? Unfortunately not. So we certainly helped create the public phenomenon that is "Michelle Rhee."
 
Michelle Rhee and the Washington Post Why has the Post's editorial page been so uncritical? Some have suggested that it must emanate from the top of the masthead, from Donald Graham, the Chairman of the Washington Post Company. He denies exerting any direct influence, although he did say that it has been the Post's long-standing tradition to support the superintendent, whoever that may be, because, he told me, "The Post wants the schools to improve."

And now the Huffington Post has chimed in with the truth:

Time to Stop Waiting for Superman  There was no DC miracle. Browbeating students and teachers into raising scores on state tests only makes them better at taking state tests, and reforming our schools in hopes of replicating an illusion is a petty crime against humanity.  Even George W. Bush was forced to admit there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and we've long since gotten over the shock that Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire were juiced more than a Florida orange grove. We believe lies at our own peril. It's time to stop waiting for Superman and focus on the hard work of teaching our children the way we know works.

And who is/was Michelle Rhee anyway? Nobody who was made somebody simply by firing a few teachers and wowing the anti-public education movement. 

Rhee attracted a lot of attention before getting the top spot in DC. When Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed her superintendent, she went from managing an education nonprofit with 120 employees to running a school system with 55,000 students, 11,500 employees and a budget of $200 million. She'd never even been a principal before, and her only classroom experience was Teach for America. (Jason Stanford, The Huffington Post)

So when will this come full circle? When Mlive.com and our Michigan legislature admit they were duped by the radiance of Rhee's self-made glow.

Probably never.