Michelle Rhee wins over a critic

In October, a former teacher and education activist named Greg Harris was tapped as director of StudentsFirst Ohio, part of former D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s national anti-union education advocacy organization. But not long before that, he had been decidedly anti-Rhee, publicly attacking her involvement in Ohio school reform. “If students truly did come first, then why is Rhee using her celebrity to coddle the very governors who are ransacking education funding?,”   he asked in the following scathing blogpost that he wrote in 2011. It was called “Smoking Rhee-fer” but has been since been removed from his blog — though it still lives elsewhere online. Following the post is a statement from Harris, sent  in response to a question I asked about the reasons for his conversion to Rhee-style reform. I find that the statement raises more questions than it answers, but see what you think. Harris, a Democrat, has a history of activism; among other things, he was appointed to the Cincinnati City Council but lost the post in an election, and he ran a controversial advocacy group in Delaware.

Here’s the post about Rhee by Greg Harris, dated Monday, Aug. 29, 2011, at 8:30 a.m. ET:

 When Waiting for Superman was released in 2010, it was largely hailed as a documentary that depicted the human costs of children trapped in failing schools. The film helped escalate Michelle Rhee’s rising star as a no-nonsense reform minded superintendent of DC schools. Since resigning that post, Rhee launched a well-funded education advocacy organization called StudentsFirst.

I do not question Michelle Rhee’s sincerity about wanting to see failing urban schools transformed.  Rhee wants to see good teachers rewarded, and is impatient about bureaucratic structures ill-conducive to educating children. Sadly, she has allowed her agenda to become co-opted by conservative politicians and ideologically-driven foundations, possibly to the detriment of the student cause.

In May (2011), for example, Republicans office holders throughout Ohio, in partnership with the US, State and regional Chambers of Commerce, hosted screenings of Superman.  Michelle Rhee actually joined Ohio Governor John Kasich for the post-film discussion at one of the Ohio screenings.

On the same day in Detroit, the Regional Chamber of Commerce hosted a screening, and the regional United Way facilitated a panel discussion following the film.

Paradoxically, Rhee & Co have spent a good deal of time in Ohio and Michigan the past few months working closely with governors that were simultaneously slashing state education funding.  While it’s tempting to blame the recession for education cuts, it must be noted that both Governors also passed major tax breaks for corporations. In Michigan, for example, Governor Rick Snyder passed business tax cuts totaling $1.8 billion while slashing postsecondary education funding 15% across the board, with further cuts in K-12 education.  In Ohio, Governor Kasich slashed business and estate taxes while cutting K-12 funding by over $1 billion (11.5%) this year.

What’s Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst’s response to state policies redirecting resources from education to corporations?  Celebration!   StudentsFirst literally hosted a reception honoring Governor Snyder’s educational achievements, and put out a press release touting “A Win for Students in Michigan.”  Rhee also tweeted to her followers an op-ed defending Kasich’s education platform.

And herein lays my beef with Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst:  If students truly did come first, then why is Rhee using her celebrity to coddle the very governors who are ransacking education funding?  Even worse, Rhee and StudentsFirst are giving them cover.  Indeed, these governors get the best of both worlds:  cutting education while being championed by Rhee & Co. as reformers.

Schools are in need of reform, and I have devoted my professional life as a teacher and now working in education policy to reform and innovations that have produced results.   But the Governors of Ohio and Michigan are not currently redirecting resources to best practices, but, rather, cutting education carte blanche.  Instead of decrying education cuts and teacher layoffs, Rhee & Co are celebrating the fact that these states have changed layoff policy by not making them seniority-based (“LIFO,” or, “last in, first out”).  While this reform has some logic, why aren’t Rhee & Co using their stature to fight the very fact of these layoffs?

Most teachers, like any professional, can see their practices updated and improved.  But Rhee & Co seem more eager to champion changes at the periphery (like communities investing millions to add a handful of Teach for America 2-year interns to participating schools) instead of advocating for dramatic improvement in professional development for existing teachers.  I have friends who work at my hometown corporations Procter & Gamble and GE Aircraft, for example, who have the benefit of constant professional development and training in new tools.  Yet today’s teachers rarely enjoy being trained in areas that improve instructional practice, such as using real-time data to refine instructional strategies, or, integrating learning technologies in the classroom, or, working across disciplines.  They hail from teacher colleges that often seem stale in their methods, not preparing teachers to teach in 21st century contexts.  But NONE of this is the fault of teachers, or an excuse not to invest in teachers.

Rhee & Co are enabled by business voices and powerful ideologically-driven foundations who want education to be run like a business.  This was quite the mantra in Michigan at this year’s Chamber-sponsored Mackinac Policy Conference at Mackinaw Island devoted to education—the conference primer a round of free screenings of Waiting for Superman.  You’d think major cuts to K-12 and postsecondary education would’ve elicited a somber mood.  But to the contrary, a mood of celebration pervaded the primarily business audience that made the rounds between lobster bakes and breakout sessions.

Apparently nobody wanted to throw a wet blanket on the celebratory mood by noting that cuts in higher education would compromise both talent development and the economy.  Indeed, a college education has proven the greatest recession fighter.  During our current “Great Recession,” unemployment rates for college graduates stayed within 5%.  And not to burst any bubbles, but  running schools like a business is not a cure-all, especially when considering that 50% of small businesses fail within 5 years, and that probably 100% would fail if were required to hire every person who applied for a job regardless of skill.  But teachers teach any students who comes through their doors, including students who bring with them the conditions of poverty that can stifle learning.

Politicians and education reformers on the Rhee bandwagon downplay the effects of poverty on student performance.  But consider this:  American students in low poverty schools are still the top performing students in the world.  Indeed, schools with the less than 10% poverty rates had the highest scores internationally on the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams, a test administered as  a global educational benchmark in over 65 countries.

More enlightened education reformers are beginning to incorporate systems of wraparound supports that comprehensively attack barrier to learning for students living in poverty.  An initiative in my hometown called Strive has helped Cincinnati Public Schools—whose student body is mostly impoverished—move up to an “effective” rating by systemically enlisting community partners to deal with conditions beyond school walls (home visitations, health and nutrition) and within school walls (mentoring, tutoring, etc) that hinder student success.  They went about this work not by waging war with teachers and their unions but instead via a tough but dynamic partnership that has yielded tremendous results.  Strive is now expanding into other cities throughout the country.

Today’s reformers, led by Rhee, are outspoken in dismissing poverty as an excuse for poor student performance regardless of barriers to learning that are common in poor districts:  sporadic student attendance, unstable home lives, kids showing up to school overtired and hungry, students transferring from school to school within a single school year as they move from relative to relative or deal with foreclosure.  Teachers go it alone when they shouldn’t have to, and today’s reform voices are making a sport of blaming the teachers and beating them down

As if to add insult to injury, in states like Michigan and Ohio, teachers as a collective have lost much of their voice.  The governors who undermined their collective bargaining rights are being celebrated by Rhee & Co.  Do teacher contracts need to be reformed and made more performance-oriented?  You bet.  As seen in Cincinnati, Montgomery County Maryland, and other places, districts and unions can be partners in reform.  In Ohio and Michigan, however, “education reform” has become a Trojan horse for conservative interests who have an over-arching agenda to do away with collective bargaining and public pensions.  These interests have co-opted Rhee’s agenda to their own advantage.

I would like to see Students First emerge as a national platform for educational transformation, teacher development, parental engagement, and wraparound strategies to attack barriers to learning for impoverished students.  I wish their fundraising strategies was more bottom-up, Joe Trippi-esque “netroots,” and not fueled by huge gifts by foundations like Walton , which devotes itself to the cause of charters and vouchers, and whose philanthropic wealth is built on an empire of cheap goods sold by under-paid American workers whose paychecks are so meager they rely on federal subsidies (food stamps, Medicaid, etc) to get by .

But to date, StudentsFirst has served as a grand enabler of GOP governors who are undermining collective bargaining while slashing education funds, which redounds to mass teacher layoffs and district cut backs.  It’s no mystery why ideological interests are getting high off Rhee-fer.  They are being granted cover as “reformers’ while in fact they are dismantling the ability of teachers to speak as a collective while slashing education funds at a time when we are getting our butts kicked globally in educational achievement.  What is being done to education today will result in schools that are cheaper but not better. Organizations like StudentFirst will arrive at their $1 billion fundraising goals by tapping sources that are using education as a vehicle for achieving broader ideological agendas.   It’s not too late for Rhee & Co to resist being co-opted.  But this requires the discipline to identify and advocate for evidence-based strategies that truly improve education and put students first.

Statement from StudentsFirst Ohio director Greg Harris:

Just like George Parker, who as a career teacher and union president had differing views on how to approach education reform, I too have come to see the critical need for policies that put the interests of students first and which help ensure all kids have access to great schools.

 

My approach to education reform has always been grounded in my work as a classroom teacher and through the eyes of my own children. Like any other parent, I’ve always wanted the very best for my kids and have focused much of my own work on finding ways for every child to get a great education regardless of where they live.

 

As we’re seeing across the country, especially in Washington, a lack of bipartisanship is standing in the way of progress. It’s a problem that is very apparent when it comes to education reform, as I’ve learned firsthand. But StudentsFirst is taking a different approach, one that sets aside adult bickering and encourages policymakers – regardless of their party affiliation – to enact legislation that elevates teaching, empowers parents and uses education dollars wisely and effectively.

As I got to know this organization, I realized that StudentsFirst is in step with the reforms that I want to see take place in my own community and nationally.   

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 7, 2012