Learning from Rhee

On the evening of February 7, Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of DC public schools and the public face of the opaquely funded StudentsFirst, addressed an audience of some four thousand people at the Paramount Theater in Oakland.  The lecture was divided in three parts.  First, Rhee introduced herself and described her leadership of the DC public schools; next, she outlined her fundamental principles about education; finally, she answered questions from the audience.

In the first part, Rhee established her persona: an unassuming but feisty “Korean lady,” finding herself unaccountably charged with the management of DC public schools and concerned only for the good of the children.  Her narrative of her three years as DC chancellor, a position for which she had no qualifications or experience, framed her dictatorial and disruptive tenure as the story of a plain-speaking firebrand who sliced through every piece of red tape and obstruction to transform institutional corruption into a working school system.  Rich in anecdote and short on facts, the main point of the story was to set up Rhee as a concerned citizen who was out of patience with a dysfunctional system.  Her arbitrary and devastating actions (performed under the aegis of Mayoral control) were not a violation of the democratic rights of parents and teachers and children, but the necessary and heroic actions of a woman more concerned with the good of the children than with the interest of other “adults” involved in the educational system.  Someone listening closely might have wondered why schools were failing quite so badly since they had been following the drill-and-kill “No-Child-Left-Behind” model favored by Rhee for close to a generation.  Listeners might have also wondered about her assertions as to how much money is being lavished on these failing schools.  But facts are little things, and Rhee’s aim to tell a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” story largely succeeded.  According to this story, her lack of expertise and experience prove that she is not one of the education insiders responsible for the education crisis.  (Predictably, Rhee thundered about the education crisis, neglecting to mention that the poor standing of the U.S. in the world reflects only the plight of our poorer students, and that comparing the right demographic groups yields results that are much different and far more complimentary to U.S. public education.)

Having established herself as just one of the regular folk with a passion for education, representing her lack of experience as the necessary foundation for a radical critique of the current state of education, Rhee went on to describe the three factors in the shaping of education: the importance of teachers, global competition, and bipartisanship.

First, Rhee acknowledged the importance of teachers.  She told a very moving story of a great teacher in action, implicitly appealing to the memory of every great teacher that everyone has had at one time or another.

One would have had to be listening very closely and aware of the effect of “No Child Left Behind” on schools and the teaching profession to understand that something was amiss.  How does one reconcile her admiration for teachers with her open contempt for the few benefits teachers enjoy: some measure of autonomy in their teaching practice, due process and stability in their profession, the prospect of retirement after a lifetime of dedicated and selfless work?  How does one reconcile her belief in the importance of teaching with her curt dismissal of the importance of professional training for teachers?  How does one reconcile her appreciation of teachers with her promotion of ineffective and divisive merit pay, or with her utter disregard for class size?  How does one reconcile her beautiful words with her capricious and destructive actions in DC?

In fact there is no way to reconcile these things.  At bottom, her professed belief in the “importance of teachers” achieves two things: first, it makes the audience trust her (who could possibly believe in an educational system that did not depend on the quality of teaching?); second, to stress the importance of teaching is to minimize the much greater effect of poverty on educational outcomes.  A great teacher, Rhee tells us again and again, can make all the difference.  So if students are failing it cannot be that they are hungry or ill or stressed by homelessness or their parents’ despair or violence.  No — if students are failing, it is because a teacher has failed to teach them.

A constant refrain — explicit or implicit — in all of Rhee’s talk of education turns on the notion that the interests of children and those of adults are diametrically opposed and that educational policy is needed to reconcile them.  According to this view, teachers care about benefits, retirement, and protection against their own incompetence, and therefore they do not care about children.  As a corollary, teachers’ unions exist specifically to protect teachers’ interests and therefore, necessarily, to undermine the education of children.  This is why high-stakes testing and merit pay are needed: a stick and a carrot for teachers who would otherwise neglect or underserve their charges.  The notion that a teacher’s working environment is a student’s learning environment would be incomprehensible to Rhee.  Or, rather, it would be comprehensible only to the extent that keeping the teacher in a state of constant terror would be the most effective way of making sure that the job is done right.

Next, under the rubric of global competition, Rhee remonstrated with the audience about how we coddle our children, praising mediocre performance and rendering them unfit to compete with the well-drilled and properly-humbled children of Singapore, Korea, Japan, etc.  To support this thesis, Rhee described the trophies adorning the rooms of her two daughters, admittedly lousy soccer players.  I tried to figure out how unearned soccer trophies relate to the current drill-and-kill regime in the public schools, but I failed.  I guess the subtext is that some measure of pain is necessary to make students “competitive,” though what exactly the parents would be signing up for under this rubric was not clear.  No doubt, the larger aim was to present education as something that is inextricably tied to competition and to providing exactly the kind of labor that corporations need.  Education not as a project of enlightenment, not as a foundation for democracy, not as a second chance in a grotesquely skewed economy — but as a form of mortification that might render one employable.

Finally, while acknowledging herself to be a diehard Democrat, Rhee made a point of emphasizing that her educational program transcends party boundaries, appealing to Republicans and Democrats alike.  Of course, the neo-liberal educational agenda, which would essentially place education under private control, is already completely bipartisan.  Obama’s “Race to the Top” follows smoothly from Bush’s “No Child Left Behind”; the actual goal of both programs is to justify the privatization of all “failing” schools and the transmutation of public funds into guaranteed profits.  So why belabor the bipartisan issue?  One answer might be the voucher story: At this point Rhee told the story of a woman who had failed to get her child into a good school and was petitioning for a voucher.  Rhee, unable to betray the needs of the child for a more abstract good, crossed party lines and produced the voucher.  Thus, under the cover of an anecdote that shows her warm humanitarian concerns, Rhee signals her implicit support for the next step in the privatization process: from charter to voucher, a step not yet taken by Democrats as a whole.  The anecdote also conveniently allows her to disavow any personal political interest (unlike those Democratic teachers’ unions) even while fishing for money whether in Democratic or Republican pockets.

Here’s what I learned from Rhee that might be useful to those who support public education:

1. Rhee is an outstanding public speaker, who manages to turn her inexperience as an educator into the virtue of being the objective outsider.  Within this frame, questioning her motives is simply evidence of one’s entrenched devotion to the status quo.  It is also important to understand the extent to which her vitality is an expression of her cruelty.  The smirk that never left her face for the hour of her lecture would disgust most.  Yet what attracts and satisfies the audiences she plays to is her willingness to be cruel and to rebrand viciousness as common sense.

2. Rhee is the public face of a counter-revolution in education that promises better outcomes without additional resources.  She insists that we are already spending lots of money on education without getting results and that therefore money does not matter.  Her insistence that we must work within current economic constraints makes her argument appear hard-headed and realistic.

3. The heart of her argument is that the interests of children and teachers (adults) are opposed.  Therefore, limiting the pay of most teachers, taking away tenure or collective bargaining rights, or firing teachers when they become too expensive can only benefit children.

4. She has no notion of anything greater than the self-interested individual.  Education is something that happens as a result of a system of punishments and rewards for both teachers and students.  The notion that children are naturally interested in learning, that teachers care about children, and that education depends upon relationships — the relationship of student to teacher, and the relationship of teachers to one another — has no place in her narrative.  Her advocacy of merit pay reinforces the view that we are all profit-seeking individuals best governed by market discipline.  It is only by pushing the levers of greed and fear that teachers can be motivated to serve the interests of their students.

5. Her overt message is framed in such a way that it is impossible not to applaud: Who would deny that education is important?  Who would deny that children need good teachers?  Who would deny that we live in a competitive world?  Her claim that StudentsFirst has over a million followers is very likely a lie.  The tallied numbers represent eyeballs rather than active, engaged members.  But it’s very clear that her framing is aimed at winning over multitudes and claiming wide popular support for what is essentially a privatization scheme that is backed by a billionaires’ club.

How to Fight Back

It is tempting to try and fight Rhee in a rational way, using actual data.  She is a liar and that ought to matter.  Her tenure in DC led to chaos and, ultimately, a great loss to the school district.  Unfortunately, the counter-revolution in public education and its success so far should convince us that facts do not matter in the least bit.  Or, at least, they have not mattered so far.  What matters far more is the framing of this debate and our ability to reclaim the basic concepts and language we need to expose the destruction of public education for what it is.  Let me offer some examples.

We can offer facts and figures about the invention of an educational crisis.  But this still begs the question about how the poorest students, those who are doing badly relative to their counterparts in other countries, can be helped.

We can offer facts and figures about the decline of education as a result of neo-liberal education policies and economic collapse.  But this data would need to be mined from standardized test results and therefore would validate the administration of these tests.

We can offer facts and figures about Rhee’s backers and their interests in privatization.  But Rhee herself is not shy about acknowledging lunching with Warren Buffet.  She uses it as proof of her importance and of the validity of her ideas.  And, unfortunately, a great many people still believe that private donations are acts of charity, not the loss leaders (a mere rounding error actually for billionaire donors) designed to lure people into buying a scheme — privatization — that costs them democratic control over education.

We can offer facts and figures about Rhee herself and her failure in DC (re-hired teachers, cheating, destruction of community schools).  But this would still not defeat the framing itself — discrediting Rhee is trivial in the bigger game, since there are plenty of others ready to replace her.

No, the way forward is to reframe the debate, insisting upon the following principles:

a. The interests of students and teachers are not opposed.
b. Learning results from the relationship of student to teacher.
c. Education is not a race; it is the foundation of the common good.
d. Experience matters.
e. Education is not a scarce good.

Let us be conscious of the fact that the rhetoric of “Students First” evokes the moral imperative of “women and children first,” an honored protocol during a time of disaster.  But, StudentsFirst fails to ask how that disaster came about.  Its promoters refuse to look at the social, economic, and historical forces that have placed war and bank bailouts first, and children last.  Instead, StudentsFirst demands that we choose the interests of students over those of teachers, implying that their interests are in conflict, that a gain for one must be a loss for the other.  Viewed in this light, teachers unwilling to work yet more hours, teachers who are concerned about job security, and teachers who care about working conditions are traitors to student interests.  Let us be very clear about the origins of our current disaster.

We have all sat through flight safety instructions, where, counter to our protective impulses, we are urged to put on the oxygen mask before tending to our children.  A moment’s thought proves the wisdom of this recommendation: we cannot help our children unless we ourselves can breathe.  But StudentsFirst would have us believe that the more tenuous, the more stressed the position of the teacher, the more benefit accrues to their students.  Apparently, for StudentsFirst, there are never enough oxygen masks.  This is the most important frame for us to use in teaching people and teachers how to think about the current situation.

The only way forward is to create a more compelling story that shifts the terms of the debate.  It is not enough to claim that public education is for the 99%.  In fact, that 99% has been sliced and diced in so many ways that we are left with the contending special interests of suburban schools, urban schools, charters, vouchers . . . and the very mistaken notion that a good education is of necessity a scarce good.

The core of our story must be that a good education is the result of an enduring relationship of student to teacher, and that the commitment of the educational system to the teacher — to her training, evaluation, and job satisfaction — will translate into her effective commitment to the education of her students.  It is because this relationship is so essential to education that education cannot be industrialized.  Neither the teacher nor the students are interchangeable parts.

We must absolutely reject high-stakes testing, which devours the energy, resources, and morale of teachers; which strips the autonomy and authority of educators; and which serves no other purpose than to justify the destruction of unions and eventual privatization.

We must insist that training and experience are key to good teaching . . . with parallels drawn to every other profession known to man.

A public education system is not based on what is good for your kid, but on what is good for your neighbor’s kid.  To fight public education is to fight the idea that other people matter and that our collective wellbeing matters.  When you make education into a scarce good, you break the ability of people to stand together, to fight together, and to want to understand one another.  Choice is only an option for you; it is not an option for your neighbor.  To introduce the principle of choice in education is to forbid our caring for the good of others.  It is to posit private gain as a sufficient foundation for an educational system.  It is not.  It is only the foundation for the justification of privilege.

As opposed to an educational system based on the worship of success, we must remind people that learning is essentially selfless, while paradoxically creating the best self we can be.  If learning is not about a concern for the truth, even when truth contradicts private interest, than what is it?  We can look at learning as the action of those who seek to know truth and to help one another, or we can define education as the journey of our children selling themselves for the highest price.  What will it be?

Joanna A. Bujes is an Oakland public school parent and supporter of public education.  She has taught at U.C. Berkeley, University of Santa Clara, and SUNY Plattsburgh, and she has been a volunteer teacher and tutor in the Oakland public schools (poetry, drama, math) whenever she could find the time.

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