Michelle Rhee

Making A Difference?

One of my “pet” topics has been education. Usually I’m absurdly negative and (for me, uncharacteristically) pessimistic about the prospects of anyone in this country, at any level, getting a decent education and that flies in the face of almost everyone’s experience.  Indeed, almost everyone has had more than one good teacher (or two, or ten) and there are many, many people who have gotten good educations right here.  I’ll admit my pessimism flies in the face of my own experience.

Perhaps my negative attitude comes about because I can’t think of one level of education – not primary, secondary, graduate or professional, that’s succeeding in their mission right now. They don’t even have, or they don’t know, their mission.

Right now, primary education is babysitting so that both parents can work full time. Weren’t grammar schools supposed to be teaching the basics, you know, reading, writing, ‘rithmetic and, um… helping parents turn those darling little creatures into little human beings?

The high schools are, of course, forced then to teach those basics, when they’re not simply warehousing teens and young adults (who will, in large numbers, be warehoused by the state shortly, it appears). Weren’t they to help prepare a workforce?

That’s what the colleges are doing now; trying, remedially, to prepare a workforce. Their goal at one time was to prepare the elite, I recall.

Those elite are now expected to become so in the graduate schools and professional schools. Instead, too many times, they become – competent, and I fear that it’s what we’ve come to expect.

But all that is just me spouting off meaninglessly in a dark moment. Michelle Rhee is not so empty.

Check out what Fast Company’s Jeff Chu has to say about Michelle Rhee, the newly appointed chancellor of D.C. public schools.

Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School in Washington, D.C., is one of the worst schools in one of the worst school districts in America.

“The mentality of excellence? We wish we could have that,” said principal Harriett Kargbo, as we toured the school one morning in May. “But this,” she said, pointing at the metal detector guarding the entrance, “is the reality.”

This, too: Dozens of kids wandering the halls during second period. Corridors littered with fliers, candy wrappers, potato-chip bags. One second-floor foyer reeking of marijuana. (“I smell pot smoke,” I said. “Really? I don’t,” Kargbo replied.) In the five-year history of No Child Left Behind, the school has never met the law’s benchmarks; in 2007, just 24% of its sophomores tested “proficient” in reading and only 20% made the grade in math.

As we walked from one teaching area to another — Dunbar is one of D.C.’s last open-plan schools, with dividers and old filing cabinets separating the “class-rooms” — it became clear why the students weren’t learning. Of the dozen classes we visited, only in one history session were all of the students doing something approximating work. “Why isn’t anyone teaching?” I asked Kargbo as I watched one student do a meticulous inventory of the contents of her wallet. “It’s the end of the period,” she said. Half an hour later, second period ended.

That afternoon, Kargbo was fired.

Ummm…. Yeah.

Rhee is fearless, determined, inventive, and utterly unique. Her approach combines tough-minded handling of resources, unwavering accountability for teachers and administrators, and sincere, personal investment in local urban communities, grounded in the area’s black churches.

Michelle Rhee has been on a tear, firing at will through the DC School District with the (strong) backing of DC’s new mayor, Adrian Fenty. Considering the years – decades – of corruption and incompetence we’ve seen both in the mayor’s office and in the (AFT affilliated) Washington Teacher’s Union, it’s more than surprising to see this happening. It’s welcomed.

Explore posts in the same categories: Education

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