Monday, April 15, 2013

Good Teachers Are A Flaw In The System

I've written about Michelle Rhee before, one of the faces of the corporate education "reform" movement. For the uninitiated, this is the woman who was chancellor of the Washington, DC public schools when they saw dramatic increases in standardized test scores, became the toast of the factory-style reform movement, hanging with US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and landing on the cover of Time Magazine, only to have it then revealed that those vaunted scores were based upon widespread cheating, not by students but by teachers and administrators.

When I wrote about her, I kind of let her off the hook for the cheating, assuming she didn't know, even though her draconian policies made it all but inevitable, but memos have now been released and sources have come forward that demonstrate that she was fully aware of the problems, discussed them with her staff, and decided to try to sweep it all under the rug. The truth is that she has lied and cheated, her actions have prevented children who needed remedial help from getting that help, she has destroyed the careers dozen of dedicated teachers and principals, and she has used her falsified track record as a way to persuade 25 states to adopt her high-stakes, produce-or-else approach to education. Michelle Rhee is a fraud and possibly a criminal. The Washington, DC school district, already one of the nation's most challenged, was left the worse by almost every measure for her self-serving efforts.

If you're wondering, I've illustrated this distasteful post with photos of children watering the garden simply because I can think of nothing more hopeful than children in the springtime. And despite all of this, I remain hopeful -- and I hope you do too!

If you're after the details on these latest revelations, and the full Michelle Rhee story, I urge you to have a look John Merrow's excellent piece, Michelle Rhee's Reign of Error, on his Taking Note blog. John is a veteran education reporter for PBS, NPR, and dozens of other publications and a leading proponent of quality public education.

What follows is what I wrote about a year ago, and which is still relevant. I included lots of links, which I hope you will use to educate yourself on the dangers and mistakes of the corporate education reform movement. These new revelations about Rhee, what she knew, and when she knew it, are an opportunity for those of us in opposition to push back. I hate that this is how it must be, but this is politics and the emperor is without clothes.


"It is a pleasure to visit a classroom in which the elements of sound teaching, motivated students and a positive learning environment are so effectively combined."

The head of the school's PTA (and a parent with a child in her class) said of her: 

"One of the best teachers I've ever come in contact with. Every time I saw her, she was attentive to the children, went over their schoolwork . . . she took time with them and made sure."

Naturally, this second year 5th grade teacher with glowing classroom evaluations was fired. Not "let go" as part of a last-in, first-out cost cutting measure, but fired for incompetence based exclusively on standardized test scores. That would be outrageous enough all by itself, but it appears that a large percentage of her students had come from another school in the district that is suspected of cheating on the prior year's tests.  She had even expressed concern earlier in the year that many of her students who had arrived with high reading scores where, in her opinion, barely able to read. So when these students who had been passed along to her with artificially inflated scores were tested in her class, "the machine" found that they had regressed and she was gone. Appeal denied. They even claim they "treated her fairly." It's the Blueberry Story writ large.

How does anyone expect teachers to work under these conditions? 

This happened in the District of Columbia Public Schools, one of many districts scandalized by what appears to be widespread cheating on these unproven, mathematically invalid high stakes standardized tests. What makes this particularly infuriating is that much of the cheating in this case happened between 2007-2010 under the watch of union-busting, corporate education reform poster child Michelle Rhee, who has risen to prominence based on her supposed turn-around of the DC public schools, when it appears she did it all based on lies and cheating. No, I don't think she personally engaged in the cheating, but as chancellor she certainly jumped at the chance to claim credit for those ill-gotten test scores and did everything she could to slow-walk any investigations on her watch. And she's still doing it.

Despite this, Rhee continues to hang out with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, receive $50,000 a pop speaking fees, and generally enjoy being feted as a leading light in American education.

You would think that, at a minimum, everyone with any kind of sense of responsibility about public education in our country would be keeping their distance from this deeply flawed champion of high-stakes testing, charter schools, and the de-professionalization of teaching, but no, they seem to be doubling down.

What's wrong with these people? I'm serious. Everyone from Bill Gates to President Obama to Arne Duncan to Michelle Rhee seem to be victims of some sort of brainwashing. No matter the actual evidence in front of them, they stay the course. No matter how many mathematicians and professional educators demonstrate that their tests are bunk, they stay the course. No matter how many studies show that charters and vouchers, on average, produce worse results that regular public schools, they stay the course. No matter how much their own "research" proves to be simply data that has been "fixed" around a pre-determined result (e.g., We prove that high stakes test scores help children learn by using high stakes test scores to show that children are learning), they stay the course. No matter what, they seem simply incapable of seeing or hearing anything beyond their dogma of corporate education reform, a project that seems specifically designed to enrich corporations, while totally ignoring the educational requirements of children and our democracy.

I used to think we were just dealing with misguided crusaders and dilettantes, well-intended folks striving to give back, but no longer. There are powerful, wealthy people who want our children to be less well-educated, more obedient, and less likely to question; they are looking to our schools to create a citizenry that is so hard at work keeping their heads above water that they don't have the time, let alone the ability or knowledge, to speak for themselves. And they seem to have managed to create these legions of brainwashed followers, who can see nothing but what they've been fed by lobbyists in smokey back rooms. It's hard to know which ones are the zombies and which their cynical masters.

Good teachers stand in the way of this agenda; teachers who think for themselves, who have a genuine interest in education, who understand that the corporate reform movement is not about education at all, but rather manufacturing methods designed to produce unquestioning worker bees. 

How does anyone expect teachers to work under this system? They don't. No, good teachers are actually a flaw in the system. They must be fired because the machine says so.

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Jahaira said...

well said. that is precisely why, after only 8 months teaching in a charter school, I walked away. there was no place for me there...there is no place for teachers who genuinely care deeply about children, who respect children as human beings. I was expected to act like a prison guard and I was not willing to do that. While other teachers look to work in public schools because of tenure and health benefits, I'm running as far away from government schooling as possible.

Anonymous said...

You are my hero in so many ways, Tom. Speaking truth to power and keeping it real in the classroom.