Requiem for a school reformer
It is instructive and infuriating that one of the country's top education reformers is out of a job.
America's public schools have room for teachers who don't believe that every child can learn and who are ready with an encyclopedia full of excuses when they don't. They blame "the parents when kids struggle in class; and yet, when students succeed, teachers are the first ones to step forward and claim credit.
And there is also plenty of room for highly paid administrators who have been conditioned to accept mediocrity from adults and children alike and who spend their time finding new and creative ways to avoid conflict with teachers and the powerful unions that represent them.
Yet, there is no room for people such as Michelle A. Rhee, the 40-year-old national rock star of the education reform movement. Rhee recently stepped down from what Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty aptly described as "the thankless job of serving as chancellor of the District of Columbia schools.
You could say the writing was on the blackboard. Rhee's departure had been anticipated since Vincent C. Gray, the D.C. council chairman, defeated Fenty in the Sept. 14 Democratic mayoral primary. Rhee had campaigned on Fenty's behalf and publicly questioned whether Gray had the courage to make the unpopular decisions necessary to sustain improvements of the public schools. It was one of the worst kept secrets in Washington that if Gray defeated Fenty, Rhee would leave.
During the time she ran the D.C. schools, Rhee made a lot of changes and a good amount of progress and more than her share of enemies. Test scores went up. But so did the blood pressure of those who like the system the way it is.
Rhee became the face of the education reform movement. She landed on magazine covers, inspired countless newspaper articles, and won praise from elected officials including President Obama. She is featured in the important new documentary, "Waiting for Superman, which spells out what's wrong with the public schools.
From the point of view of the Academy Award-winning filmmaker, Davis Guggenheim who describes himself as a liberal Democrat two of the main things that are wrong are restrictive contracts worked out by teachers unions that tie the hands of administrators while protecting bad teachers, and rules that come down from a centralized office far removed from the classroom.
As someone who taught in the classroom for nearly five years, and did graduate work in education but, frankly, learned more from listening to what gets said in the teachers' lounge I have my own list of what is wrong in our public schools. The top three items are: a culture of low expectations; a resistance by teachers to accountability and criticism; and the fact that the system is centered on adults rather than children.
Rhee understood this reality, and she was passionate and outspoken about changing it and creating a new one. Rather than just collect a paycheck, she helped shape the national debate over how our schools should perform.
One of her major accomplishments was to get the teachers union to accept a contract giving the chancellor sweeping authority to fire low-performing educators. Rhee fired hundreds of teachers, closed more than two dozen schools and, not surprisingly, ruffled plenty of feathers. Her critics were giddy over her departure.
However, Rhee's supporters were more reserved and conflicted. She remains a divisive figure in Washington. Many parents say they support her goals, and applaud her efforts. And they certainly can't argue with her results. They just wish she had a softer style and that she wasn't so confrontational.
That is, they like the taste of the omelet. They just don't want to break the eggs. That's not how education reform works or, for that matter, how life works.
Don't worry about Michelle Rhee. She'll have plenty of job offers.
Save your concern for the students. They always seem to get trampled when adults play politics with education. Now they've lost a brave champion who was in their corner and who wasn't afraid to fight for their interests. Sadly, they don't have many champions to spare.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2010, The Washington Post Writers Group
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