U.S. | Books & Ideas

Michelle Rhee’s Costly Agenda

Does Sacrificing Teachers Help Struggling Kids?

March 05, 2013
Michelle Rhee speaks to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration student award ceremony. (June 2008) / Iris Harris, U.S. Department of Commerce


Michelle Rhee’s new book, Radical: Fighting To Put Students First, is a captivating memoir. She tells the story of her childhood struggles with her Korean and American heritage, her education triumphs and frustrations from early grade school through college, and her experiences as a new Teach For America recruit in a struggling Baltimore school. Eventually, she rises as chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools and a crusader for education reform. Together these experiences are grist for a successful narrative that reveals her motivations and disposes the reader favorably towards Rhee.

Equally interesting and moving are Rhee’s many anecdotes about admirable teachers who have made considerable, positive differences in the lives of low-income and disadvantaged children. The stories not only provide a valuable testament to these hard-working professionals but also demonstrate Rhee’s passion for the gifted teacher, as well as her philosophy of education, which rests squarely on the effects of such teachers on student outcomes. A student who learns from one, two, or three such individuals over the course of his or her school years has a far better chance, Rhee believes, of positive life outcomes than a student who has lacked for all of them, and that is true up and down the income ladder. Nothing matters more to Rhee than high-quality teaching: low student-teacher ratios in the classroom; gleaming school buildings; state-of-the-art technology; high-nutrition lunches; on-campus delivery of social services to students’ families, across-the-board raises for teachers; and an attractive array of music, art, and physical education offerings are as nothing compared to the great teacher.

But Radical is more than just a memoir studded with encomia to brilliant instructors. It is also an argument for her thesis that truly excellent teaching is not only necessary but may even be sufficient for students’ academic success. Once Rhee’s book turns to more contentious matters and her opponents take flesh and blood form, it becomes a manifesto for her approach to school reform. Readers are invited to take sides, and we should. Whether her agenda should be followed depends in part on the strength of her argument in its favor, and not only on her personal story, the tales of superstar teachers, or on the results she may or may not have achieved as a public official for a brief time.

Read as a defense of the claim that we should not only put students first, but that doing so requires a steady focus on ensuring excellent teaching and little else, the book disappoints. The argument for an aggressive anti-union program that will require firing teachers and closing schools and potentially result in losses for union-backed Democratic politicians will almost assuredly not satisfy Rhee’s critics, both in the teachers’ unions and more generally.

The fault for this does not lie solely with the critics’ self interest, as Rhee has protested in multiple interviews. It is not only the wrath of tenured mediocre teachers that is feeding the backlash against her reforms. It is also, I suspect, a far more justifiable sense that those reforms may not be so radical or so effectively put students first. Even for those who accept Rhee’s premise—that access to good teaching is paramount and that a recalcitrant educational bureaucracy stands in its way—there is too much that is missing from her prescription and not nearly enough engagement with that prescription’s costs.

• • •

Since kids don’t vote, Rhee contends, it is difficult to ensure the priority of children’s interests in public institutions. This is especially true of education. Instead of protecting the needs of children, the political environment of education is captured by adults’ interests: status, money, election prospects, and job security for teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, and elected officials.

The children’s overriding interest in receiving an excellent education from motivated, smart, and well-compensated teachers consistently loses out. The child’s educational needs will be served, when served at all, by accident, when the occasional gifted teacher, public-spirited administrator, or the extraordinary bureaucrat or mayor intercedes. Too many children, however, are left “waiting for superman,” to borrow from the title of a documentary film depicting this tragedy, and in which Rhee has a central role.

Rhee argues plausibly that for at least two generations, this country’s public education establishment has developed practices and policies that fail to promote, and indeed harm, the interests of children. In Radical she holds that the school system is afflicted by powerful unions and a tenure system that protects poor teachers and fails to reward excellence, as measured by student performance on standardized tests. This accounts for the deterioration in U.S. school children’s math and reading skills when compared to their counterparts in other developed and not-so-developed democracies and to earlier generations of students educated when these practices and policies were not so entrenched. The remedy, Rhee believes, is to empower school authorities to test children’s skills, identify and ultimately fire teachers who don’t produce measurable gains in student performance, close schools that are failing, and reward teachers and principals whose excellence is confirmed by students’ test results.

To do all, or indeed any, of this, however, requires confronting the teachers’ unions directly and driving hard bargains. Any mayor, governor, or school administrator who tries this strategy is sure to run up against not only the teachers’ unions, but also the recipient of their campaign dollars, to wit, the Democratic Party. One consequence of fighting to put students first, then, will almost surely be electoral defeat for some Democratic candidates, particularly at the local and state level. As this outcome is unacceptable to virtually all elected officials affiliated with the only major party that maintains a consistent commitment to public education, education reform is a difficult political row to hoe.

Fixated on teachers, Rhee’s argument ignores other possible explanations for the inferior educational outcomes of American children.

The consequence of this style of reform may be, in part, a more competitive, less secure, and less comfortable work environment for teachers, as well as more intensive testing of students. Those consequences have costs, particularly for adult interests. The payoff, though, Rhee urges her readers, is a system that will deliver to every student what should be her birthright: an excellent education that will in turn deliver her the real opportunity to enjoy a good and successful life, regardless of the economic conditions of her upbringing.

As Rhee’s many critics have noted, it is not at all clear that her attempt to prove all of this, so to speak, during her turn as D.C. chancellor met with much success. Charges of cheating have badly marred her oft-repeated claims that the rewards and incentives she created yielded significantly higher student test scores. Allegedly, teachers in a number of schools changed test results when they found their jobs suddenly on the line. These charges were not laid to rest after a somewhat perfunctory internal investigation found no evidence of cheating. Her critics further argue that Rhee created in the D.C. public schools an atmosphere of fear, unhealthy competition, and intimidation in which test results mattered above all else. Opponents believe the stakes were so high for teachers that genuine teaching, whether excellent or not, was corrupted.

This story is still unfolding, so it isn’t clear whether the charges of cheating have been adequately answered. And it isn’t clear as a consequence whether Rhee’s policies—close failing schools; empower officials to fire poor teachers; and incentivize good teaching, as measured by student performance, with high salaries and merit bonuses—have yet been tested on their own terms.

The ongoing controversy follows a three-year term that was itself hardly free of strife. In D.C., Rhee’s anti-union position certainly was met with relief and even joy from a sizeable number of dismayed parents and frustrated administrators, all of whom were happy to have, for the first time, a modicum of control over a system that protected incompetent (and worse) teachers doing real damage in their classrooms. And it was met, too, with widespread anger from teachers who claim they were unfairly and unjustly challenged and in some cases dismissed, from the unions who represented them, from some parents who felt their children’s teachers were wrongly targeted, and from principals who were equally under the gun and did not appreciate the scrutiny or the sudden loss of job security.

The tensions between Rhee and some teachers, union leadership, and the Democratic Party doomed the re-election campaign of Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had supported her, and eventually sparked a nationwide “education war,” with reformers on one side and unionists, traditionalists, and the Democratic establishment on the other. In Rhee’s telling, the reformers, whatever their political alignment, are “putting students first,” while the unionists, traditionalists, and Democratic leadership are defending the status quo, which in turn protects the interests of various groups of adults at the expense of children. And that is where things now rest.

• • •

When we consider Rhee’s book not as a memoir but as an extended argument for her reform proposals, we find striking gaps. What is missing? Most important, I believe, is appreciation of other possible explanations for the inferior educational outcomes experienced in this country, particularly by poor children. These explanations are not necessarily inconsistent with Rhee’s own focus on the importance of good teaching, but they might point our policies in different directions.

Let me give just one example. The Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman has presented a massive body of research based on data culled over half a century, which shows vividly that our goal of bettering the educational attainment of poor children, and eventually their adult quality of life as well, would be best served by early-childhood interventions. The strongest predictor of poor performance in school, Heckman argues, is the quality of home life in the pre-school years, and the most profound and effective intervention begins with babies and toddlers. A young child needs not only to be nurtured but also educated, Heckman emphasizes, through constant interaction with verbalizing and caregiving adults or older siblings. These caregivers must focus solely and squarely on the baby for hours at a time, on a daily basis.

If that sort of interaction doesn’t happen easily and naturally in the first few years of life—whether because of distracted or absent parents, a stressed and impoverished home environment, the low linguistic interest or abilities of caregivers, or those caregivers’ simple lack of awareness of children’s needs—the child’s later school performance will suffer profoundly and, likely, irreversibly. If we care about educational attainment and adult outcomes, we should be willing to move heaven and earth to see that children receive engaging, verbally challenging, and nurturing care from birth to school age.

Rhee and her allies assume, sensibly enough, that the way to improve class performance is by doing something in the classroom rather than outside of it. But if there’s anything to Heckman’s hypothesis, then we should focus resources and attention intensively on the early childhood years. Our emerging science of early-childhood development shows that educators, even more than the rest of us, should have a deep interest in investing at least some of our collective resources in the years before school rather than in anything that happens in school, whether teaching, school lunches, social services, or afterschool programs.

Rhee also glosses over the need to provide better support for good-enough teachers, to borrow from Donald Winnicott’s concept of the good-enough mother. Instead, she wants to shower merit pay upon spectacular teachers.

By definition, not all teachers will be spectacular. And only a few teachers are worse than mediocre. But all teachers—the spectacular, the very good, the good, and the good enough—need far more support than they now have. It is, after all, the good, very good, and the good-enough teachers, not only the spectacular teachers of Rhee’s focus and imaginings, who struggle on behalf of their students.

Rhee’s near complete denial of poverty’s role in educational and vocational attainment is indefensible.

All of these teachers pay for school supplies out of their own pockets and work against their own schools’ bureaucracies to devote extra time to difficult or troubled students. All of these teachers try to find the learning potential inside every student, a potential that is too often hidden or obscured by tests and test results. All of these teachers suffer through the day with too many students, too little pay, no prestige, and little or no support from parents and communities. There is, oddly, little recognition of this in Rhee’s book. Putting students first requires putting teachers first as well. They need the backing of their communities and substantially higher incomes. They don’t need to be punished or rewarded on the basis of their students’ test scores.

These support problems are most common in schools where students’ insecure, impoverished, or dangerous home neighborhoods put good education out of reach, no matter how spectacular the teachers. Rhee worries, with good reason, that this straightforward fact too often has the effect of letting schools off the hook—that the impediments poverty and class pose to educational attainment become an excuse for schools and teachers to avoid responsibility for outcomes over which they have more control than they sometimes care to admit. Indeed, even teaching in upper-middle-class suburban neighborhoods is often of low quality, Rhee notes.

Yet Rhee’s near complete denial of the role played by poverty, and policies that perpetuate it, in educational and vocational attainment is indefensible. A child’s economic class is today a better predictor of adult prospects than it ever was in the past, and it is a better predictor in this country than in most of our peers. Teach for America, Rhee, and likeminded educators are right that academic achievement can still serve as a means of improving adult quality of life for poor children. But this is clearly a two-way street: educators should recognize that improving the economic prospects of parents will improve the educational attainment of poor students. The educators and reformers bent on denying this are unwittingly contributing to their own scapegoating. We cannot ask our K–12 teachers to bear the entire burden of extricating this country from deepening income and life-quality gaps between rich and poor people.

Alongside early-childhood education, good-enough teachers, and the real effects of poverty, Rhee expresses no interest, at least in Radical, in curricula. This is just odd. Especially in math, there is a vast difference between the curricula employed by schools in educationally successful countries, such as Singapore and Japan, and those used in the United States. The math curricula in those countries, as well as in American afterschool math centers that are roughly inspired by them, use considerably more, well, math. There is plenty of rote repetition, whereas U.S. curricula are heavier on creativity, pictures, brainteasers, and problem solving and seem to abhor repetition with an intensity that borders on fetishism. The result is that basic skills are neglected. Some of the achievement gap between the United States and other countries could likely be closed simply by adopting more rigorous curricula.

Lastly, Rhee is surely right that higher-quality teaching is essential to improving education outcomes. Her vision of teaching as a highly regarded, well compensated profession, with lifelong teachers enjoying careers of challenge, prestige, and intrinsic reward, and of students thriving under their professional care, is powerful and moving in part because there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to achieve it. It truly is a tragedy that we haven’t.

But how to get there? The answer can’t be solely through a combination of firings and merit pay. We need to do much more than rid schools of terrible teachers and shower rewards on superstars. With or without union busting, the quality of all teaching could be improved with increased entry standards for educators, along with increases in compensation and the standing of the profession in the community generally.

The increase in pay, I believe, would not have to be huge. Teachers already enjoy rewarding work, a relaxed summer schedule, and considerable job security, in spite of the school reform movement’s interventions. But particularly now, with labor markets depleted in much of the private and professional sector, at least modest increases in pay and substantial increases in prestige might bring talented people into the profession. College graduates contemplating law school, for example, would be well advised to take a hard look at the teaching professions instead: as bad as the teaching market is, the law market is worse. Average starting salaries for lawyers are dropping, along with prospects for employment, such that it is now questionable whether a legal degree, with the six-figure debt it requires, is a sound investment. Legal work is also less secure and, for many people, likely most, less interesting and less intrinsically rewarding than teaching.

So why don’t we tighten standards and increase pay? It’s not because the unions or mediocre teachers put this solution beyond reach. Rather, it’s because we lack the political will. Citizens, parents, adults who vote: we don’t seem to want high-quality teaching very badly. You get what you pay for, as they say.

• • •

The saddest and least defensible part of Rhee’s reform movement is not her insistence on firing poor teachers. It is not her reliance on testing; on merit pay; or on privatization measures, such as vouchers and charter schools, intended to satiate parents’ desires for choice. Those are controversial measures, all of which may or may not succeed in particular communities. They should not be viewed as silver bullets, but nor should they be taken off the table. They are not unreasonable or badly intended, and their supporters have students’ interests at heart. Equally reasonable and well-intended people might sensibly doubt these measures’ efficacy. There’s nothing unhealthy about the debate.

No, the saddest part of Rhee’s reform movement, and of Radical, is just how limited it is. Rhee envisions a world in which all else might remain unchanged, but every student will have the benefit of one, two, or three truly gifted teachers.

Okay—but is that the best we can come up with, even in our dreams? Surely we should demand much more of our education system and our education dollars than that. We should demand—and work to achieve—an education system with excellent teachers, yes, but also one with good and very good and good-enough teachers who enjoy decent salaries, assistance in their first years, a modicum of hard-earned job security once they hit their stride, and social prestige the equal of that enjoyed by other professionals. We should demand for teachers the admiration, even the awe, of their neighbors, for the wisdom they daily bestow on their students.

We should demand that those teachers and students work in buildings that are safe, warm, and attractive, employing technology that is helpful but that does not overshadow the content of what’s being taught. We should demand that those good teachers work side by side with talented artists, musicians, and athletes who will train and inspire students drawn to those fields of endeavor. All of these people should benefit from the support and leadership of skilled administrators who are committed to the goals of their schools.

We should demand safety in the neighborhoods where students live and a home environment for every student that is both nurturing and educative, assisted by social services where necessary. We should demand a rigorous curriculum that straightforwardly asks the most of our children and develops their abilities in ways that lead to real educational attainment and accomplishment. We should not coddle students with undue regard for their aversion to repetition or create in them a need for constant reaffirmation of their self-esteem, which does little but interfere with learning.

Were we to broaden our reform agenda to include these goals, we might feel less need for vouchers, charter schools, standardized testing, merit pay, and mass firings. All of us adults, not just teachers and parents with school-age children, might also have more of an impetus to contribute votes, tax dollars, and time to high-quality public education for all our children. Along the way, we might collectively figure out how to put our children first, as Rhee rightly implores us to do. At the same time we might attend to, rather than jettison, the interests, health, well-being, and safety of the adults, especially teachers, on whom those children depend.

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