Michelle Rhee left town more than two years ago, but the debate about her stint as D.C. schools chancellor shows no signs of cooling. It remains a hot button for the education commentariat and is the subject of a “Frontline” documentary that airs Tuesday evening. And now Rhee has produced “Radical, Fighting to Put Students First,” a memoir/manifesto to to be published next month.
She offers some interesting coming-of-age detail, especially about life with her staunchly traditional Korean immigrant parents who expected her to wash the dishes after every meal and clean up after her brothers. We learn that she was a college sophomore the first time she fired someone, while managing a deli called Grumpy’s. As a lefty Cornell undergrad in the early nineties, she registered her opposition to President George H.W. Bush’s policies on reproductive rights with a button on her backpack that read “Bush, Stay Out of Mine.”
But aside from some gringe-inducing prose (“His head shined. His eyes burned,” is how she described her first meeting with then-mayor and political patron Adrian Fenty) what’s most striking about Rhee’s narrative is what’s missing.
Gone are some of the signature stories that were challenged as misleading or untrue, such as the claim that her students at Baltimore’s Harlem Park Elementary moved from the 13th to 90th percentile on standardized tests over a two-year period–an assertion she attributed to her principal.
There are also holes in the account of her centerpiece accomplishment: the groundbreaking 2010 labor contract. Negotiations were a rancorous, politically charged two-and-a-year marathon that featured American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and the services of a mediator — former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke — to complete. In the end, pact dramatically expanded the city’s ability to remove under performing teachers and established classroom results, not seniority, as the standard for personnel decisions.
Rhee blames Weingarten for prolonging the bargaining “because she did not want to give an inch. She often showed up late to bargaining sessions and left early.” Schmoke recalls it a little differently. He told me in a 2010 interview that bargaining was all but complete in the summer 2009 when Rhee’s “human capital” czar, Jason Kamras, reopened a long list of items thought to be settled.
“It was Jason’s take on language that Kaya [Henderson, then deputy chancellor and chief D.C. Public Schools negotiator] had agreed to,” Schmoke said. “It was using flowery language where you didn’t need it.” It took until April 2010 to get a deal. (Kamras said he was trying to clarify contract language that had been rewritten by the union)
Rhee also writes that the union became more malleable after October 2009 firings of more than 200 teachers for what she described as a budget shortfall. Schmoke said anger over the dismissals effectively froze the talks for weeks.
Rhee was gone before the other watershed event of her tenure unfolded: the March 2011 USA Today story revealing high rates of answer sheet erasures on standardized tests. Here also are some nips and tucks. It’s no surprise that she glosses over 2009 stories in the Post about two attempts by then- D.C. State Superintendent of Education Deborah Gist to convince DCPS to investigate schools with high erasure rates. Her requests languished in the chancellor’s office until Gist resigned to become Rhode Island education commissioner. Rhee said she never resisted or quashed any probe. She didn’t have to. Fenty’s hand-picked replacement, Kerri Briggs, promptly announced that the investigation was no longer necessary. DCPS ultimately hired Caveon, a private test security firm, to look into selected instances of suspected cheating, but the scope and rigor of the firm’s work has been questioned.
Toward the end of “Radical,” however, are some new notes of humility struck by the educator who blew through the school system from 2007 to 2010 like a derecho with a Blackberry, hellbent in her conviction that she knew how to lift DCPS. Now head of StudentsFirst, a lobbying group, Rhee seems to acknowledge that fixing public education will be a far more complex undertaking than raising test scores or toughening teacher evaluations. She vents her frustration at a political system that has Democrats in thrall to teachers unions and Republicans devoted to market solutions that aren’t always in the best interests of students.
And in one of the book’s few revealing passages, she recounts an attempt to enlist the support of former President Bill Clinton, which culminated in a meeting with top aide Doug Band, who bluntly explained that bringing drinking water to a Nigerian village would always be easier — and more demonstrably successful — than wading into the murk and muck of education reform.
Mustering the political will to make real and sustainable progress will always be difficult, she concludes, because “neither the solutions nor the payoffs will be easy to describe and quantify. The journey will be long, the route circuitous, the finish line forever ahead.”
That sounds like a radical humbled by a dose of realism.