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The following was written by Joanna Bujes:
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. This lecture was one of a number of lectures
purchased as a series, and did not imply any particular interest in Rhee
or in education by the older and relatively affluent crowd attending, the
sort of crowd one finds at similar series, whether theater, ballet, or
As I have never heard Rhee speak before, I cannot say that she tailored
her talk to this particular audience, but given her consummate skills as
a public speaker, I would be very surprised if she had not.
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: a mix of unprepossessing
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 and
whose 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, in fact, they had been following the drill and kill NCLB model 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. In this story, her lack of
expertise and experience prove that she is not part of the education
insiders responsible for the education crisis. (Predictably, Rhee,
thundered about the education crisis, forgetting to mention that the U.S.
poor standing 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
Having established herself as 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.
The importance of teaching: 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 to have known
something about the effect of NCLB on schools and the teaching profession
to understand that something was wrong with the picture. How does one
reconcile an 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 life-time 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 her abject disregard for class
size? How does one reconcile her belief in the importance of teaching
with her capricious and destructive actions in DC?
In fact there is no way to reconcile these things. At bottom, her belief
in the importance of teachers achieves two things: one, it makes the
audience trust her because who could possibly believe in the
effectiveness of an educational system that did not depend on the quality
of teaching; two, 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. 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 that 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; 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 under serve 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
Global competition: Second, 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. One would have to think hard to figure out how unearned soccer
trophies are an analogue to the current drill and kill regime in the
public schools. I would think that they were opposites. I guess the
subtext was 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. I guess the larger aim was to present
education as something that was 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.
Bipartisan agenda: Third, while acknowledging herself to be a die-hard
Democrat, Rhee asserted that her educational program transcends political
boundaries and could include Democrats as well as Republicans. 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 NCLB; 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 she 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 the Democrats as a whole. I’m guessing too that
rhetorically the first goal is to disavow any personal political interest
(unlike those Democratic teachers’ unions) and second to fish for money
wherever it could be found, Democrat or Republican pockets.
Here’s what I took away from the lecture that might be useful going
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 or her motives is simply
evidence of one’s entrenched devotion to the status quo.
2. Rhee is the public face of a counter-revolution in education that
promises better outcomes without additional resources. She insists that
we spend lots of money on education without getting results; therefore
money does not matter. Except for merit pay. That’s not consistent? Oh
well. However her insistence that we must work within current economic
constraints makes her argument appear more realistic.
3. The core 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.
5. Her overt message is framed in such a way that it is impossible not to
applaud (unless one looks under the covers): 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 billionaire’s club.
There are a number of ways to fight Rhee. …
It is hard not to attempt to fight Rhee in a rational way, using actual data. She is a liar and that ought to matter. Unfortunately, if this counter-revolution in public education 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. So here are our choices.
- Facts and figures about the invention of an educational crisis. I don’t think this works because while it’s clear there is a crisis; fewer know that it is mainly the result of policies like NCLB and overall economic collapse.
–Facts and figures about Rhee’s backers. I don’t think this works
because a lot of people think it’s good that the billionaires are
donating to public ed. Rhee herself is not shy about acknowledging
lunching with Warren Buffett. She uses it as proof of her importance and
of the validity of her ideas.
[She reported that Buffett had the solution to improving public
education: Make private schools illegal and send all kids to public
schools using a lottery system. That, he insists, would improve the
schools pronto. I applauded this idea wildly, but she had trotted it out
simply to underline the fact that it was an impossible solution.]
–Facts and figures about Rhee herself and her failure in DC (re-hired
teachers, cheating, destruction of community schools). This would not
defeat the larger framing issues.
–Re-framing the debate: insisting upon the following principles:
a. The interests of students and teachers are not opposed.
b. Education 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 Students First recalls the
moral imperative of women and children first,” an honored protocol
during a time of disaster. But, the promoters of this strategy fail to
ask how that disaster came about. They refuse to look at the social,
economic, and historical forces that have placed war first, bank bailouts
first, and children last. Rather, StudentsFirst demands that we choose
the interests of students over that 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 moments 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 student are interchangeable parts.
The absolute rejection of 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.
The insistence that training and experience are key to good teaching…with numerous parallels drawn to every other profession known
Joanna A. Bujes is a 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.