Michelle Rhee: Students First?

Michelle Rhee

Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington DC public school system famous for news coverage and firing teachers, has decided that her next job will be to raise a billion — yes One Billion dollars — for an organization she’ll head called “Students First.” She announced the news on Oprah today.

Rhee is known to be part of the education reform group that’s all about charter schools, teacher assessments and closing low performing schools. She was famously pictured on the cover of Time magazine holding a broom in her hand.  When it comes to waiting for superman, Rhee isn’t. No. She’s putting on the cape.

Call me cynical, but I can’t help thinking that raising a billion dollars in order to advocate for all children everywhere across the whole country isn’t the best use of a billion dollars. Creating more bureaucracy isn’t necessarily the best way to get something done.

Granted, children are woefully under-represented in the halls of power, and if the AARP and senior citizen voters has anything to say about it, they’ll stay that way.  (It’s a limited pie.) But is Rhee, a person with a very particular point of view, the person who should represent all students?

In a Fast Company story on Rhee’s announcement she says:

“If you look at how things get done in this country, it’s influence and how much you can exert influence,” she says. “That’s how things happen, even in education. So you have textbook manufacturers, you have the teachers’ unions, you even have food-service people. The problem is that there is no organized interest group solely for kids. Because you don’t have that, policy-making is happening in a lopsided way. What we need to do is to create a positive, balancing force for change for kids that has a lot of clout and a lot of influence.”

So, I think a couple of things.

First: There are already organizations dedicated to both the needs of children and to education that are in place. They are well represented and well funded.  Children’s Defense Fund and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are two that spring to mind. Never mind that these are private organizations and The Gates Foundation in particular wields great influence and no one voted them into office and they don’t always get everything right (I’m thinking of Gates here): They exist. Why wouldn’t Rhee partner with an existing organization?

Second:  For Rhee, charter schools are crucial.  But charter schools have not been shown to be, on average, any more effective than the public schools they replace. This summer I read Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How testing and choice are undermining education. In it she picks apart the case for charter schools and test-based assessments (and other things, too). She reports on the millions of dollars the Gates Foundation and others have spent on charter schools and small schools other thought experiments that didn’t work out.  Ravitch used to be for charter schools and testing, then she started looking at the results and thought again. I’m not saying that all charter schools are bad. Some are AMAZING.  But charter schools aren’t the only answer. Will Rhee, sitting on top of a billion dollars she raised for her “movement” consider its failures? I don’t doubt that Rhee is committed to improving education but I wonder how much she’ll consider the inconvenient news if her approach isn’t great for all kids. (All kids!  That’s a lot of kids.)

Finally: This just feels like a gambit for publicity.  A national organization just feels too broad and too dramatic. There have been some amazing success stories of teachers across the nation taking over individual schools and doing amazing work.  Change can happens from the inside out, not just from the top down as Rhee proposes.

There are a lot of problems in the world of American education, but there are also a lot of success stories.  Rhee lost her  job in Washington DC because the mayor she worked for lost his. That’s how democracies work.  School systems are run by districts in cities and towns everywhere where elected officials appoint leaders.  Systems don’t always work well, but sometimes they work pretty well. Sometimes schools do a pretty good job. Real change happens locally and locally is where the work needs to be done.  That work is tiring and it doesn’t get you on the cover of magazines.  But just think of what all those schools and all those teachers could do with a billion dollars. All I can say is I hope Rhee surprises me.

What do you think about Rhee’s new organization?

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