I HAD to run to the drugstore last night to get some more Cobra Venom for my Poor Wife's ailing foot (not really, but doesn't the whole OTC section being taken over by actual snake oil give anyone pause? Remarkable thing, really, how much the Invisible hand busies itself with updating the labels of one generation's nostrums for the next). I cut down the magazine aisle. And Michelle Rhee was staring at me (from Newsweek. Tina Brown, du bist eine Genie!).
So, first, someone needs to explain to me how it is that, in the late 1970s some time, we decided that the real problem with this country is that the privileged didn't have enough privilege. I don't recall being asked. And why thirty years of results don't seem to budge the idea. Thirty years of tax cuts somehow has not led to the conclusion that wealthy individuals keep the windfall, and wealthy corporations use it to ship jobs to wherever's cheapest. Because, I guess, iPhones.
Then at various way stations on the route we've restated the original problem which, of course, our "efforts" have done nothing to alter, in order to justify doing some more.
If we really want to condemn American education as a failure, why do we look any farther than that? Why don't we point to our politicians? Our issues? Our public forums and private Twitterings? It's just one man's opinion, but you're welcome to it: Shelf Life. I've not exactly made a study of it, but from the various sounds of shit raining down on me over the years I've convinced myself that the 60s was when we stopped making things and started figuring out how to sell the things we didn't make anymore; the 70s was when this began to turn a profit. The 60s, then, would be the time when "cutting edge" multi-megacorporations began shaping our brave new world, when Coca-Cola went from selling the unspeakable concoction which for an earlier, saner world had merely camouflaged the taste of cocaine, to plastering the Coca-Cola name on everything, on the grounds that the high level of quality the name conveyed to the swilling public would allow it to produce even cheaper versions of the product and make more money.
And the point, of course, is not that someone discovered the idea--GM had been marketing cars that way for decades, and if George Westinghouse didn't invent Planned Obsolescence it's because someone else already had. It's that this is the point where we reach critical mass, where post-War economic hegemony begins to lose some steam, where we speed the process along trying to keep some sorry-assed mandarins in power in Southeast Asia, where little brown people fuck with our right to cheap and limitless gasoline, and where the technological wizardry that will have us all in videophones, robot sex, and up to eight channels on your satellite teevee by 1980 raises the happy dream that someday, someday, corporations will be able to actually market the Fascist Soul-Death they can, at that point, only practice on their employees.
And Lo, it came to pass.
And no small part of this, of course, is the way people began to internalize feel-good fraudulence for themselves (again, we may have invented snake oil, and it's not like our history books were models of dispassionate scholarship prior to Reagan; it's just that before his time a portion of the populace actually frowned on mendacity). It's but a half-step from there to believing that the most honest-seeming liars are the most trustworthy, rather than the ones who ought to get the first-run tar and virgin feathers.
And then there was Michelle Rhee staring at me.
Two years teaching experience parlayed into the post of superintendent of DC schools. That's not a tribute to her "ideas" mind you, but a mile marker on the off-ramp to Hell. Three years as superintendent, spent in stereotypical union bashing and all-too-familiar resumé padding. Injected herself into this year's DC mayoral race in support of her boss--who was running way ahead--then griped that the voters didn't understand all she'd done for them when he lost. Refused to resign after the general election until cornered, apparently sensing there's good money in martyrdom, but not realizing that voters who tossed her man out on his graft-padded keister wouldn't consider her one. Tried to parlay Waiting for Superman into a job she insisted she was refusing to look for. Now has "her own" lobbying group, StudentsFirst, hoping to prove that a plucky little Mom&Pop startup can compete with the big boys in the rough-and-tumble world of funneling cash to crooked politicians.
All of which makes her the perfect person to write about Education reform for the new Newsweek. Or, rather, to write about herself writing about Education reform:
After my boss, Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty, lost his primary in September, I was stunned. I had never imagined he wouldn’t win the contest, given the progress that was visible throughout the city—the new recreation centers, the turnaround of once struggling neighborhoods, and, yes, the improvements in the schools. Three and a half years ago, when I first met with Fenty about becoming chancellor of the D.C. public-school system, I had warned him that he wouldn’t want to hire me. If we did the job right for the city’s children, I told him, it would upset the status quo—I was sure I would be a political problem. But Fenty was adamant. He said he would back me—and my changes—100 percent. He never wavered, and I convinced myself the public would see the progress and want it to continue. But now I have no doubt this cost him the election.
The timing couldn’t have been more ironic. The new movie Waiting for Superman—which aimed to generate public passion for school reform the way An Inconvenient Truth had for climate change—premiered in Washington the night after the election. The film championed the progress Fenty and I had been making in the District, and lamented the roadblocks we’d faced from the teachers’ union. In the pro-reform crowd, you could feel the shock that voters had just rejected this mayor and, to some extent, the reforms in their schools.
When I started as chancellor in 2007, I never had any illusions about how tough it would be to turn around a failing system like D.C.’s; the city had gone through seven chancellors in the 10 years before me. While I had to make many structural changes—overhauling the system for evaluating teachers and principals, adopting new reading and math programs, making sure textbooks got delivered on time—I believed the hardest thing would be changing the culture. We had to raise the expectations that people had about what was possible for our kids.
I quickly announced a plan to close almost two dozen schools, which provoked community outrage. We cut the central office administration in half. And I also proposed a new contract for teachers that would increase their salaries dramatically if they abandoned the tenure system and agreed to be paid based on their effectiveness.
Though all of these actions caused turmoil in the district, they were long overdue and reaped benefits quickly. In my first two years in office, the D.C. schools went from being the worst performing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress examination, the national test, to leading the nation in gains at both the fourth and eighth grade in reading as well as math. By this school year we reversed a trend of declining enrollment and increased the number of families choosing District schools for the first time in 41 years.
Y'know, it's funny. Decades of blather about education reform, and school accountability, and such, and the NAEP is the only test we have that can be used for those sorts of comparisons. But it's not comprehensive; the test is given to a representative sample of schools. And the results are on the state level, which means it's an accident of geography that DC is the only single school district competing against other state's averages.
As such it's not really designed for, or intended to be used as, a comparison of the ring records of All-Star Superintendents. Even so, DC could crow about its achievements, excepting that little matter of Rhee comparing ordinal rank ("worst performing") with "leading the nation in gains", which might send the cynic off to check the actual NAEP figures, assuming he wasn't already familiar with Rhee's creative relationship with the truth.
Maybe the NAEP has a page which compares such things, or gives out awards for Most Improved, or whatnot. I didn't find it. I did find the state-by-state results which--sitting down, are we?--show that the improvement in DC schools has been going on for the last decade, long before Rhee's Three Year Miracle began, and following closely the improvement in African-American test scores nationwide over that period.
Oh, she manages to lie about the PISA results, too, though she's altered her numbers somewhat (apparently there've been new results since her appearance on Colbert. This was also her MO with her miracle two-year stint in Balamer; the numbers fly high and then disappear altogether, just after independent observers train on 'em.)
Mea, meet culpa:
Still, I could have done a better job of communicating. I did a particularly bad job letting the many good teachers know that I considered them to be the most important part of the equation. I should have said to the effective teachers, “You don’t have anything to worry about. My job is to make your life better, offer you more support, and pay you more.” I totally fell down on doing that. As a result, my comments about ineffective teachers were often perceived as an attack on all teachers. I also underestimated how much teachers would be relying on the blogs, random rumors, and innuendo. Over the last 18 to 24 months, I held teacher-listening sessions a couple of times a week. But fear was already locked in. In the end, the changes that we needed to make meant that some teachers and principals would lose their jobs in a punishing economy. I don’t know if there was any good way to do that.
Some people believed I had disdain for the public. I read a quote where a woman said it seemed like I was listening, but I didn’t do what she told me to do. There’s a big difference there. It’s not that I wasn’t listening; I just didn’t agree and went in a different direction. There’s no way you can please everyone.
Or fool them, as a wise man, who really did listen, once noted.
I'm destroying your union protections to help you! Why, oh why, must you listen to the internet? Once I get rid of all those bad teachers--it's not you, of course--why, everyone left will share in a King's ransom, which the legislature will keep turned on full forever! I mean, just take a walk down any charter school hallway, and note all the highly experience, well-paid, proven performers on the staff.
I'll say this for Rhee. She's right about how we can't keep politics out of school reform. Because doing what that requires would land you in the Big House for life.