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The Two Faces of American Education

Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee; drawing by James Ferguson

1.

In 1898, the Boston writer and editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson published a memoir entitled Cheerful Yesterdays. One of the memories that cheered him was of lying before the hearth while his mother read aloud. As for “the children of to-day who have no such privilege,” he wrote, one must regard them with “pity.” Here we have the keynote of much that has been written about education before and since: praise for a bygone age when children were well served by their elders, and pity for the ill-served children of today.

When Higginson was a child, public or “common” schools were just emerging, so education remained largely the province of families and churches. Today, when the state of teaching and learning is bemoaned, it is usually the public schools that get the blame. Politicians and pundits hold them accountable for how students perform on standardized tests. Principals are fired and schools closed for poor results. Teachers feel besieged. The American Federation of Teachers has become a popular target for anti-union sentiment. The tide of anger has been rising ever since a national commission released a report in 1983 called “A Nation at Risk,” which opened with these often-quoted lines:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.

In the thirty years since, the public mood about schools has only darkened, so it is striking that Diane Ravitch, arguably our leading historian of primary and secondary education, strongly dissents. “The public schools,” she says in her new book about education policy, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, “are working very well for most students.” She points out that over the last few decades high school drop-out rates have declined. Average test scores have risen, if modestly. Nor is it clear, as often assumed, that American children lag significantly behind their foreign counterparts in science proficiency.

But if Ravitch disputes prevailing assumptions, she does not gloss over the fact that school performance by the large minority of American children who grow up poor or in segregated neighborhoods is disproportionately weak. On the contrary, she thinks that their plight is a national scandal, that today’s school reformers are misguided in their efforts to redress it, and that, along with the persistence of poverty and residential segregation, we should be alarmed by the current reform movement itself.

2.

The public face of that movement is Michelle Rhee. Among young educators who have come lately to prominence, Rhee is the best known. Her closest rivals for celebrity are Wendy Kopp, who, as a Princeton senior in 1990, founded Teach for America (TFA), an organization that deploys graduates from elite colleges to teach in public schools; and Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which oversees several charter schools as well as health and social services for poor children and their families. Canada was the star of the widely praised (and criticized for its sensational claims) 2010 film Waiting for “Superman.”

The title of Rhee’s new book, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, suggests, accurately, that her main subject is herself. The child of Korean immigrants, she briefly attended public school in Toledo, Ohio, before her parents moved her to a private school. When she was nine, they dispatched her to live with relatives for a year in their native country, where she admired—at least retrospectively—a culture in which teachers rank their students and families prod their children to raise their ranking. “Rather than damaging the souls of the less accomplished,” she writes with an intimated sneer at those who would coddle rather than challenge children, “the rankings focused every family on moving their children up the ladder.”

After returning to private school in the United States, Rhee spent a year at Wellesley before transferring to Cornell. Upon completing college, she joined TFA and was assigned to an inner-city charter school in Baltimore where her second-graders were, at first, uncontrollable, and called her “Chinese bitch.” As she tells it, after a frustrating start, her classroom went from restless and noisy to calm and orderly—a change she attributes in part to advice from an experienced teacher, and to a reward system of her own devising whereby points for good behavior were converted to prizes such as toys and candy. She also rearranged the seating from separate tables into a single semicircle, visited the parents of disruptive children, and grouped her students according to how they were doing, with the promise of advancement to a higher group if their work improved. According to Rhee, her stint in Baltimore was a big success.1

She tells the rest of her story as an alternating series of victories on behalf of children grateful for her gifts and setbacks at the hands of adults threatened by her smarts. At a presentation about her accomplishments in Baltimore, for example, she was jeered by veteran teachers whose invective, she says, exceeded that of the students who had called her a bitch. Now she was called a whore.

Rhee went on to the Kennedy School at Harvard with the idea in mind that “public policy had to change: how we run schools and select our teachers, how we train them, how they relate to the students.” There she launched an organization called the New Teacher Project, which began as a consulting service for school districts seeking new teachers, and evolved into an advocacy group for the reform of hiring, promotion, and severance practices throughout the public school system.

In 2005, Rhee came to the attention of Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City’s schools, who later commended her to the mayor of Washington, D.C., Adrian Fenty. In the summer of 2007, after she had “knocked his socks off” at her job interview, Fenty appointed her, at age thirty-seven, chancellor of the Washington schools. Upon taking the job, she knew immediately that she would have to get over “trying to be warm and friendly.” She got over it in a flash. Perhaps in emulation of Donald Trump on The Apprentice, she invited the camera crew of a PBS documentary to film her in the act of firing a principal. Time magazine put her on its cover looking fierce and holding a broom.

By the spring of 2008, she had dismissed thirty-six principals, twenty-two assistant principals, and, before she was done, nearly three hundred teachers. In the fall of 2010, after Fenty was defeated for reelection in the Democratic primary (which was at least partly a referendum on Rhee), she resigned, blaming her perennial enemy, the teachers’ union. She now heads a lobbying organization called StudentsFirst, which opposes tenure for teachers and has raised over $1 billion for political candidates whom it finds congenial.

Whether Rhee’s time in Washington had positive or negative effects on schoolchildren depends on who tells the tale. Her own book is remarkably self-praising and untroubled by doubt. Its cast of characters is divided between those who adulate her and those who despise her—in both cases, apparently, for her determination to do good. As soon as she became chancellor, she discovered deplorable conditions in the schools: broken air conditioners, warehouses stacked high with piles of undelivered textbooks. Even her detractors agree that she improved building maintenance and delivery of supplies—not trivial achievements, since the physical condition of schools makes a real difference to children as well as to teachers. She boasts of soaring test scores in her first year and continued success in the second, “though the increases were not as dramatic.”

When budget cuts became imperative after the financial crash of 2008, she attempted to make rational decisions about which schools to close or consolidate, and how to make the necessary layoffs on a better basis than the “last in, first out” triage favored by the union. But critics found her rash and abrasive, and distrusted her decisions about which teachers should stay and which should go.

Diane Ravitch not only sides with Rhee’s critics; she surpasses them in her condemnation, which borders on contempt. Here is her summary of Rhee’s legacy to the Washington schools: “cheating, teaching to bad tests, institutionalized fraud, dumbing down of tests, and a narrowed curriculum.”2 The reference to cheating is to an improbable rise in passing rates on reading tests during Rhee’s first two years (in the case of one school, the rates almost doubled). Although an investigation by the D.C. inspector general did not determine exactly what happened, it found that teachers in at least one school, under intense pressure to show good test results, erased wrong answers and substituted correct ones.

This should not have been surprising. During Rhee’s regime, teachers’ pay, their jobs, even the survival of their schools, could depend on a couple of years of test scores. In this respect, her intervention was representative of an approach to education that has been gathering force under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Beginning with the “No Child Left Behind” initiative of President George W. Bush and continuing with President Obama’s “Race to the Top,” it is likely to accelerate with the adoption of the “Common Core State Standards” (endorsed so far by forty-five states) as testable benchmarks on which federal funding depends.3

Ravitch describes that approach, aptly, as “testing mania.” Tests, she thinks, can be useful diagnostic instruments, but as a high-stakes method for evaluating teachers and schools, they create more problems than they solve. She quotes Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond (who was Arne Duncan’s chief rival to become President Obama’s secretary of education) that teacher ratings based on tests “largely reflect whom a teacher teaches, not how well they teach.” Conflating test scores with teacher quality has the effect, Ravitch writes, of punishing “teachers for choosing to teach the students with the greatest needs,” while encouraging them to “spend more time with the students who will respond to their coaching and to spend less time with those who will not.” The emphasis on test scores exacerbates rivalry, discourages teamwork, and undermines morale. It also tends to drive out of the curriculum subjects that are not amenable to testing, such as art and music. Most important to Ravitch, “the tests do not measure the many dimensions of intelligence, judgment, creativity, and character that may be even more consequential for the student’s future than his or her test score.”

As for Rhee’s view of such concerns, she is dismissive. “There will always be doubters,” she writes, and comments on the cheating scandal with a conditional sentence: “If audits and investigations expose cheating on tests, we are cheating our kids.”

3.

What links Michelle Rhee’s personal story to her professional practice is her almost fanatical faith in the power of competition. Recalling her revelatory experience in Korea, she remarks, with wistful admiration, that “children in other nations are fiercely competitive.” Her fervor for competition exemplifies what is fast becoming the national education dogma, which boils down to a few variations on a single theme: (1) Students should compete for test scores and their teachers’ approval. (2) Teachers should compete for “merit” rewards from their principal. (3) Schools should compete for funding within their district. (4) School districts should compete for budgetary allocations within their state. (5) States should compete for federal funds.

For one who grew up, as I did, in the 1960s and 1970s, it is strange to hear such faith in the salutary power of competition from someone who calls herself “radical.” That word once implied deep discontent with the basic structure of society and a revolutionary zeal to overturn it, beginning with the distribution of wealth. Now it apparently means the determination to remake public institutions on the model of private corporations.

In this respect, too, Rhee’s book is a representative document of our time. She wants to bring financial incentives, rewards, and penalties into a bureaucratic system that she regards as dysfunctional and complacent. She wants to save it from itself by the infusion of entrepreneurial energy. In this sense, too, her approach to school reform is part of a trend that has been building since the 1980s to introduce private competition (in police, military, and postal services, for example) where government was once the only provider.

  1. 1

    Ravitch, however, cites a University of Maryland report that questions Rhee’s claims of greatly improved test scores by her students (pp. 152–153). 

  2. 2

    “Shame on Michelle Rhee,” The Daily Beast, March 29, 2011. 

  3. 3

    See Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, “Who’s Minding the Schools?,” The New York Times, June 9, 2013. 

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