Michelle Rhee’s memoir: What you can learn from reading it

Michelle Rhee’s memoir, “Radical,” is coming out Tuesday and you may be wondering what, if anything, you could learn from reading the book. Plenty of things — like, for example, how the first time she fired someone was as a college sophomore while she managed a deli named Grumpy’s, how she got “huge, crazy red welts” on her body from stress when she was a young teacher, and how she watched Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp dance “without much success at rhythm” at a TFA event.

Interestingly, in this review, titled “What’s Missing From Michelle Rhee’s Memoir,”  Bill Turque, my Washington Post colleague who covered her tenure as D.C. Public Schools chancellor, says:

But aside from some cringe-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.

Rhee has been doing the television circuit, telling everybody who will listen about the book, and she even is hawking it on the Web site of StudentsFirst, the school reform advocacy organization she created after quitting as D.C. chancellor when her mentor, then-mayor Adrian Fenty, lost his bid for reelection in a primary in 2010.

Some questions have been raised about how much of the book Rhee actually wrote. Washington City Paper notes that in the book’s acknowledgements, Rhee thanks a Washingtonian magazine writer: “Harry Jaffe’s writing guidance was essential.” And in a Jaffe-authored article in the magazine on D.C. public schools last October, it says at the end, “re reads: ‘Harry Jaffe is collaborating on a memoir with former DCPS chancellor Michelle Rhee.’ ” Neither has detailed the extent of his role.

I read Rhee’s book a little while ago when review copies were made available, and published a review  titled “Michelle Rhee writes a ‘zealot’s manifesto,’ er, memoir:” Here it is again, with some additions:

In her new memoir, Michelle Rhee  gives us her version of reality about her short career as a Baltimore teacher (missing the famous episode when she taped students’ mouths shut); about how she introduced corporate-based school reform to D.C. schools (failing to mention that the achievement gap remains the largest of any urban school district); and about her current stint as head of the advocacy group StudentsFirst and her efforts to be bipartisan (without mentioning that in the November elections, most of the candidates she funded were Republican).

In the book,  “Radical: Fighting to Put Students First,” she writes early in her narrative about her 2007-2010 tenure as chancellor of D.C. public schools under then-mayor Adrian Fenty:

Most people blamed poverty for the low academic achievement levels of the children in D.C. They were wrong.  … There is no doubt that poverty and home environment have an impact on students and schools, but clearly there was something terribly wrong with the D.C. schools.

Anybody who knows anything about the history of D.C. public schools knows that everybody knows — and has known for decades — that the schools have been in terrible shape. Nobody has blamed poverty as “the reason” for academic failure in the city; what people did note was that many of the schools were abysmal and neither the schools nor the city nor parents were addressing the social and emotional needs of many at-risk children. Still, this misinformed notion became the heart of her “no-excuses” brand of school reform which targets unions, promotes standardized-test based accountability and other corporate reforms — and which she rode to national prominence as a school reform leader.

Publicity for the book includes laudatory quotes from supporters such as Condoleezza Rice and Geoffrey Canada, who calls her “a national treasure.” Less flattering is the judgment of the Washington City Paper’s Loose Lips column under the headline “Rhee-visionist History,” which says the book  is “like a zealot’s manifesto on the rightness of her cause.”

Rhee settles scores (bashing D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who is a favorite target of the Rhee crowd). If you pick up the book looking for any real reflection, you will be disappointed. Loose Lips’ column points out that:

… There’s hardly any introspection on Rhee’s part as to why she was so widely unpopular with the District’s African-American parents, the ones whose support was crucial to her success in turning around the city’s schools. Instead, Rhee presents her time as chancellor as a battle between good (herself and Fenty) and evil (unions, other D.C. politicians), in which the evil side won.

She explains how she was under so much stress when she was a young Teach for America teacher that she developed “huge, crazy red welts” that a doctor attributed to stress. She thought about quitting — at her mother’s urging — but her dad forced her to return.

Why were things so hard for her in her first year? She was young and inexperienced and had no idea how to handle a roomful of needy children. In fact, she took desperate measures, including smacking the life out of a bee that landed on her desk and popping it into her mouth so kids would stop talking, and also taping students’ mouths shut (which is not in the book). Such behavior would of course get a teacher fired and perhaps charged today, but never mind.

It took time and help from veteran teachers for her learn how to maintain order and create a teaching/learning environment, she wrote. You might think that this would lead her to question the Teach For America program, which recruits new college graduates from good schools, gives them five weeks of training in the summer and then sends them into difficult classrooms. But she doesn’t.

In fact, it is Teach For America’s Wendy Kopp who comes to Rhee to help form an organization to recruit and train teachers, she writes. Kopp tells her, according to Rhee: “Why don’t you start an organization” that would help school districts recruit and train teachers? With Kopp’s help, Rhee writes, she forms the New Teacher Project.

In a scene that perhaps serves only to underscore Rhee’s judgmental personal side, she describes a Teach for America event in which Kopp is “unbelievably uncomfortable” on the dance floor,  “without much success at rhythm,” when “her bra strap slipped off her shoulder” and Kopp “tried to push it up before going behind a large speaker to fix it.” Rhee writes:

“Really?” I thought. “That’s our leader?”

But this anecdote has a happy ending: Rhee decided that her “tentative moves on the dance floor were no reflection of her tenacity as a leader.” Charitable of her.

There are numerous omissions in the book, like the fact that the resume she gave to Fenty described her record at Harlem Park Elementary School this way: “Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.” That turned out to be an exaggeration. She details her decision to close 23 schools to save money, but never mentions that the effort actually cost the school district millions of dollars. She downplays serious concerns about cheating on standardized tests, which became her primary tool for evaluating teachers in a ground-breaking union contract.

One thing we learn from the memoir is that Rhee takes copious notes of her many conversations or has a remarkable memory, given all the direct quotes from years past. We are also treated to repeated anecdotes about her daring in telling truth to power, such as this one at Ted Forstmann’s “annual visionary conference for the smart, the wealthy, and the well connected.” (She notes that she isn’t wealthy or well connected — never mind that she was invited there by Forstmann — and wasn’t feeling particularly smart after Fenty’s loss, which she mostly blames on herself. She wrote that she said to the fancy people gathered there:

People like you like to think big thoughts and come up with great ideas but we’re not playing to win. We need something different to happen. We need to connect ideas with action. Something has to change.”

Something has to change, all right.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | February 4, 2013