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Michelle Rhee, the celebrity, goes national

Valerie Strauss
Monday, December 13, 2010

Michelle Rhee is going national.

Running the D.C. schools didn't give the superstar a big enough platform. So, with the U.S. education secretary's job already filled, she's on to her next act, heading a new organization, created around her, that has as its aim nothing short of transforming public education in America.

Just to make sure nobody missed the launch of Students First, at StudentsFirst.org, Rhee arranged to have it announced by - who else? - Oprah Winfrey, who this year anointed Rhee "a warrior woman." And in what is surely a journalistic coincidence, there was a cover story in Newsweek magazine on Rhee, written by - who else? - Rhee.

When you go to the Students First Web site, the first large image you see is not of Rhee with students, who are supposed to be first, but of Rhee with Oprah, celebrity to celebrity.

What Rhee wants to do is raise $1 billion - yes, BILLION- to lobby for the reforms she started in the District. Considering all of the billionaire philanthropists who love her business-driven style of reform, she could probably raise that with a few phone calls.

It's being called her "comeback," but she didn't really go anywhere after abruptly quitting her D.C. job in October, supposedly because she couldn't get along with the soon-to-be mayor, Vincent Gray. Maybe her ambitions had grown by then.

She has been traveling the country, sitting on panels (at Harvard, no less), being a guest on Stephen Colbert's "The Colbert Report" and agreeing to serve as an unpaid adviser to the governor-elect of Florida, Rick Scott. Not exactly hiding.

Her admirers seem to gloss over the fact that she had mixed results as chancellor. She started a number of things and then left after a little more than three years, just when the work was getting really hard. And she never developed an obvious grasp of budgeting, raising a question of what she will do with $1 billion.

Her agenda is seen by many educators as de-legitimizing the teaching profession; making standardized tests a holy grail of assessing students, teachers and schools; allowing private foundations to set the education agenda; and inviting for-profit companies to come into the public sector with programs that are designed primarily to make money for investors, not help kids. Her program is based on business principles, not proven instruction strategies, not solid research, not what's best for kids.

And that makes it very unfortunate that in this celebrity-driven culture, she has become the No. 1 education celeb.

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