On Michelle Rhee and educating children: a call for judgment and analysis

The controversial Michelle Rhee is the subject of Richard Whitmire's biography.

Working at the Choosing to Participate exhibit was one of my favorite parts of my time at Facing History and Ourselves.

The exhibit consisted of spaces that explored Jesus Colon’s Little Things Are Big, the first day of the integration in September 1957 of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas and the town of Billings, Montana bonding together to combat antisemitic acts in Not in Our Town.

Gay Block and Malka Drucker’s photographs of people who rescued Jews during World War II accompanied these interactive exhibits.

I still remember vividly the speech James Carroll, one of Dad’s personal heroes, gave at the Boston Public Library to officially open the exhibit.

“We are gathered under a cloud of witnesses,” Carroll said, referring to the rescuers.

While working with teachers around issues of rescue, we would typically explain why studying about them was important.

Among the key reasons: because their actions show that history is not inevitable, give the lie to the statement, “I couldn’t do anything,” and demonstrate that judgment is possible.

Yet at the same time we would caution against elevating the rescuers, who were ordinary and flawed people, into celestial saint like figures.

As we well documented in the movie bearing his name, Oskar Schindler was a notorious womanizer.  Countess von Maltzan’s actions were motivated in part by her animosity toward her parents, who hated Jews.  Bulgaria, which was one of the two countries to save the highest percentage of its Jewish population, did so largely because it refused to let Hitler’s Nazi regime tell it what to do.

I give these examples not in any way to tarnish or diminish the magnitude of these people’s actions, but rather to call for a combination of judgement based on moral outrage with clear and sober analysis of the issue at hand.

I thought about Carroll’s speech and our discussion with teachers about rescuers this morning while sorting out my feelings about Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about education in America, and The Bee Eater, Richard Whitmire’s respectful but not hagiographic look at former Washington DC schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

The subject of children’s education elicits intense emotional responses precisely because it is about some of our community’s most vulnerable members, who both represent its future and who, while they have rights, are not able to advocate for themselves in most cases.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Waiting for Superman, in the film and accompanying materials, provides a number of examples who are similar to Block and Drucker’s rescuers in that they are showing that judgment is possible when it comes to the education and welfare of the nation’s children.

In different ways, Rhee, Geoffrey Canada and his Harlem Children’s Zone, and the chain of nearly 100 KIPP schools highlight successful instances of poverty and families’ educational history not being acceptable explanations for educational failure.

In his book about Rhee, Whitmire shows her unwavering commitment to children and how she turned the DC system she inherited upside down in an effort to improve its quality.

Her actions consisted among other things the firing of hundreds of teachers, the shuttering of dozens of schools, and the release of many principals, including the one her children attended.

For these actions, and the belief in children’s potential behind them, she received a standing ovation when she entered an appearance with Bill Gates on Oprah, who called her a ‘warrior woman’ for children.

The advances Rhee helped the system make in getting rid of unnecessary layers of bureaucracy and in students’ increased test scores are laudable. To her credit, too, she also advanced a proposal to boost teachers’ salaries by tieing their compensation to performance.

At the same time, many aspects of her administration roused the ire of people who could have been her partners in the project of improving the city’s schools. She alienated the teachers’ union by gutting its contract and created the perception, if not the reality, that she directed more resources to schools in areas that were already doing well.   She also tended to characterize any opponents of her ideas and actions as being against children-a rhetorical device that repelled many.

There is a large literature about how to effectively change organizational culture that Rhee appears not to have consulted.  While her flame throwing methods have led to some results and garnered her a spot on the cover of Time magazine, they also undermined her ability to lead the system through the subsequent work of system reform.

An honest discussion of how best to improve urban school districts must acknowledge the need for meaningful and respectful community participation, not simply the wholesale top-down implementation of reform and the castigating of any who oppose her ideas as not putting children’s first.

Although fueling her relentless push for reform, and arguably necessary for the initial stage of that reform, such attitudes are less well suited for the harder and more ongoing work of bringing together the people who are going to deliver the needed change for all of the city’s children.

Occurring more than 60 years ago, the actions of Block and Drucker’s rescuers allow us to render judgment on those who acquiesced to the murder of millions. Rhee’s ability to move the school of our nation’s capital, which had been the worst in the country, through an initial phase of reform similarly shows that it is possible.  At the same time, comprehensive change requires working with people, rather than simply chucking out those who don’t meet the grade and castigating the intentions of those who have a different viewpoint.


2 responses to “On Michelle Rhee and educating children: a call for judgment and analysis

  1. David Russell

    The Bee Eater is yet another book I want to read. I can’t keep up with all your great suggestions! I was puzzled, though, but your connection in this post between Rhee, Waiting for Superman, etc. and Holocaust rescuers. They would be flattered by the comparison, and while of course there is something to it (impressive work is done in some charters), I don’t think it fits. The image of charters as the beacon of light is misleading at best and perhaps destructive. They are working valiantly as their vision dictates, but their “rescue” belittles and overlooks the deep work and progress that has always gone on in innumerable public schools. Please be a little more selective with your commendations!

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Dave, for this comment, and I hear you about the challenge in comparing Holocaust rescuers with Rhee and others in Waiting for Superman. My bigger point, perhaps not made clearly enough, was that we should critically examine any commendations and be wary of making people who do seemingly noble work beyond reproach. That said, I always appreciate an urging for greater selectivity, especially from someone who I respect as much as you.


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