10 Things You Should Know About Michelle Rhee

by Christopher Paslay

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools who was forced to resign because of her lack of expertise regarding instruction, curriculum, management, fiscal matters, and community relations, is back and ready to settle old scores.  She’s launched studentsfirst.org, a so-called “movement to transform public education.”  According to its neatly packaged website, its goal is to cut through politics and adult agendas in order to give America’s children a first-rate education.  Ironically, its policies are driven by politics (privatizing public education to put public tax dollars in the pockets of Rhee’s wealthy backers), adult agendas (union busting to get back at those who had Rhee fired in D.C.), and Rhee’s own misguided and elitist reform ideas (ending teacher tenure and seniority, which will only penalize master teacher who’ve dedicated their lives to their students).

Below are 10 things all students, teachers, and parents should know about Michelle Rhee.  These points were first written about by Rachel Levy, a native of Washington D.C. and a graduate of the city’s public school system; Levy is also a former D.C. teacher.  (To read Levy’s point-by-point assessment of Michelle Rhee’s tenure as chancellor of D.C. schools, which was published online in the Washington Post, click here.)           

1.  The citizens of Washington D.C. voted the mayor out of office to get rid of Michelle Rhee.  In 2010, the unthinkable happened in our nation’s capitol: incumbent mayor Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic primary election.  Political experts interpreted this as a referendum on Rhee’s unpopular and misguided reign as school’s chief.

2.  Rhee is adversarial and undemocratic.  Diane Ravitch, noted education historian and scholar, said about Rhee: “It’s difficult to win a war when you’re firing on your own troops.”  Rhee indeed fires on her own troops, as she did in D.C during her first year as chancellor when she impulsively and unapologetically terminated 36 principals and closed-down 23 schools because of what she perceived as under-enrollment and excess square footage.  Later she would fire 241 teachers and put 737 school employees on notice with limited due process, zero transparency, and no input from D.C. Council members.                     

3.  Rhee doesn’t respect members of urban communities.  As D.C. native and schoolteacher Rachel Levy wrote in the Washington Post piece, “Rhee arrived in Washington D.C. in 2007 with extraordinary power to do what she wanted. In fact, she only had her boss, Fenty, to answer to, and he never challenged her. Shortly after she started as chancellor, she met with the professionals and community leaders who had a long history of working to improve D.C. schools and promptly decided she didn’t have anything to learn from them. . . . Rhee paid no respect to members of the community whose elders had helped to build and fill the school system she was charged with leading.”     

4.  Rhee has turned her back on urban neighborhoods and traditional public schools.  Instead of standing strong with school leaders to revitalize urban communities and traditional public schools, Rhee supports taking public tax dollars out of neighborhoods and putting them in private pockets via charter schools and vouchers.          

5.  Rhee lacks expertise in the field of education.  Interestingly, Rhee has a bachelor’s degree in government from Cornell University and a master’s in public policy from Harvard University.  “Rhee’s ideas about how to fix the ailing school system were largely misinformed,” Levy wrote in her Washington Post piece, “and it’s no wonder: She knew little about instruction, curriculum, management, fiscal matters, and community relations.”  

6.  Rhee is condescending and elitist.  As part of her campaign to end LIFO (Last In, First Out) in states like Pennsylvania, Rhee condescends and belittles hardworking veteran teachers by stereotyping them as low quality and ineffective.  Conversely, she portrays new teachers, particularly those who enter the classroom via alternative teaching programs such as Teach for America (where Rhee is an alumna) and have graduated elite universities such as Harvard (where Rhee is an alumna) as highly effective, regardless of a comprehensive survey of actual job performance data.             

7.  Rhee is dishonest.  During her short stint as a schoolteacher at Harlem Park Elementary School, before she quit and left the classroom like so many Teach for America alumni do, Rhee boasted of test score gains that turned out to be grossly overstated.  Likewise, when Rhee was chancellor of D.C. schools and gains in test scores were tarnished by a cheating scandal, Rhee made excuses, failing to answer questions from the media or explain the testing aberrations and high rate of erasures.                 

8.  Rhee abused her students as an elementary schoolteacher.  Rhee, unable to control her students during her first year on the job, taped her students’ mouths shut with masking tape on the way to the lunchroom.  This belligerent behavior toward those under her authority was a glaring sign of things to come.        

9.  Rhee supports IMPACT, a flawed teacher evaluation tool.  IMPACT is over engineered and impractical, as Valerie Strauss, an education writer for the Washington Post, explains in a blog post (click here to read the post).    

10.  Rhee’s new organization, studentsfirst.org, is about settling old scores.  Unfortunately, studentsfirst.org, despite the intense public relations campaign by Michelle Rhee and her wealthy conservative backers, does not put students first.  Don’t be fooled by the organization’s carefully calculated mission statement and hand-picked testimonies from teachers, parents, and students (and mostly conservative supporters).  Rhee is out to get back at those individuals who cost her her position as chancellor of D.C.’s public schools: supporters of communities and traditional public schools; hardworking veteran teachers who expect to be treated with dignity and respect; and yes, organized labor.

Rhee is an elitist who looks down her nose at traditional schools and educators.  Her deep-seeded dislike of common everyday teachers stems from an Ivy League mentality that only she knows best.  This attitude was evident in the way she governed D.C.’s public schools, and it’s evident now.

Rhee is angry and she wants revenge.  Don’t be fooled by her new “student-centered” organization.  She’s hardly putting students first.  She’s using them to get even.

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