Controversial education maven Michelle Rhee riles up Minnesota

Controversial education expert Michelle Rhee, founder of Students First and former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system, brought her combative education reform rhetoric to Minnesota last week, drawing a vocal protest from opponents and challenging state educators to alter teacher seniority systems that Rhee said contribute to the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Rhee headlined the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce 2014 Education Summit at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in St. Paul, calling for Minnesota to re-do teacher seniority rules she characterized as “last in, first out” in the hiring and firing of teachers. The conference, which included a panel moderated by Alice Seagren, former Minnesota education commissioner (appointed by former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty) and another featuring former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a DFLer who is now executive director of <strongGeneration Next, prompted a protest by the group Minnesotans Against Common Core.

(The protesters braved temperatures of 10-below zero; some of them talking to The UpTake’s camera with just their fogged-up glasses open to the elements. Watch the video, above!)

Rhee, who started her educational career as a Teach for America teacher after a five-week training program, founded the nonprofit The New Teacher Project before becoming head of Washington’s public schools in 2007, a job she held through 2010. During her controversial tenure, Rhee became a polarizing figure who closed schools, fired 600 teachers and principals, and implemented performance-based and test-driven policies. At last week’s conference, Rhee responded to critics who alluded to a cheating scandal under her administration, saying six different investigations have “shown no evidence of widespread cheating.” She said that while the district still has as an achievement gap, “students have made significant progress.”

Meanwhile, prominent educator and Rhee critic Diane Ravitch claimed that Rhee had agreed to “debate” her on the same day that Rhee appeared in St. Paul. Rhee may have had good reasons to stand up Ravitch: Thirty-five thousand of them. According to The Washington Post, Rhee gets as much as $35,000, plus expenses, to speak.

Rhee now runs Students First, an organization that each year gives report cards to states based on their teacher hiring and firing policies, their engagement with parents and their fiscal responsibility, but does not measure student achievement.

In her opening address, Rhee outlined three things that she felt schools need to be doing to change the trajectory for the better. First, she said, teachers need to be honored and respected for the “unbelievably difficult jobs they do every day” but argued that the quality of teachers “makes a huge difference” in educating kids and poverty can’t be an excuse “why we aren’t educating our children.”

Rhee told how, during her time in Washington, she visited a school where in one classroom, a teacher engaged with her students a critical thinking dialogue about Greek mythology while, in another classroom a teacher was screaming at her kids and turning the lights one and off while counting down from 10. “These are two groups of children,” she said. “They both came from the same community, in the same dilapidated building, but the classrooms were wildly different. You cannot tell me teachers don’t matter. They absolutely matter.”

Rhee said schools need to try “recapturing the American competitive spirit.” Citing the number of soccer trophies her two daughters have despite the fact they are not good at soccer, Rhee said that too often, children are rewarded regardless of their achievement.”

“If you want to become good, you have to put the time in,” Rhee said. “You’re not doing anybody any favors by celebrating mediocrity.”

Finally, Rhee said, “we have to find a way to take politics out of education.” According to Rhee, “so many decisions are made based on politics instead of what is good and right for kids — it’s really detrimental for the health of this country.”

Rhee went on to describe how detrimental she felt “last in, first out” policies are, and that in Washington, D.C., they made the decision to lay off teachers based on quality, rather than seniority. When they made that decision, “people went ballistic,” she said.

Rhee is perhaps the most public face of the education reform movement, but seemed to suggest during a question-and-answer session that she agrees with critics who argue that schools have become over-reliant on testing, which has become one of the main tenants of education reform.

“We do have a problem in this country,” Rhee said. “Many schools have an over emphasis on testing. It’s become an end-all, be-all instead of a means to an end… Research shows that teachers who teach to the test don’t do as well as teachers with robust curriculum. Overemphasizing testing is not going to help.”
Other panelists, however, spent quite a lot of time stressing the importance of testing and data, including Rybak, who joined Generation Next after leaving the Minneapolis mayor’s post last month.

Rybak talked about needing a “relentless analysis of data,” going forward in fixing the education system.

Generation Next’s priority right now, Rybak said, was on third-grade reading scores. Currently, his organization is looking at what classrooms and schools are doing right and “getting those up to scale.”

When asked in an interview about “last in, first out” policies, Rybak said the debate focuses too much on a “magic bullet” answer. Rather, he said teacher quality is an on-going training issue, and requires a need to analyze what’s working.

Rybak also called the lack of diversity in the teaching profession shocking. “We have to come up with an alternative way to get teachers of color in the classroom,” he said.

Refuting the points promoted by the Chamber’s conference, Denise Specht, president of the teachers’ union Education Minnesota, called the event “a very siloed approach, as far as solving the problems of Minnesota Schools.”

The conference, which had a $75 admission fee, was “one-sided,” Specht said, noting that it took place during the day when most educators and families with working parents couldn’t attend and be a part of the discussion.

Specht contrasted the Chamber of Commerce conference with Education Minnesota’s own community discussions that have been held around the state in the evening so working families and educators can attend. “It’s not a lecture — it’s centering conversations around community members talking together.”

In Education Minnesota’s discussions, Specht said, “last in, first out policies “have not come up once.”

Rather, the community discussions have focused on “bringing respect back to the profession” and being intentional about recruitment and teacher prep programs in order to bring in a more diverse work force. She said programs designed to get people from diverse communities into the teaching profession are often underfunded. “We’d love those things to be more sustainable,” she said.

According to Specht, Rhee’s ideas didn’t work in Washington. “We didn’t see results then and we don’t see them now,” Specht said.

Further, Specht said that Rhee is pushing a national agenda that doesn’t fit Minnesota. “Our seniority laws are very different than other places in the country,” Specht said, adding that 40 percent of Minnesota school districts already have a layoff policy in their contracts, in addition to having a law about affirmative action.

On testing, Specht said that educators in Minnesota “are not against accountability,” but that all of the tests students are taking are taking away time that teachers could be teaching.

Finally, Specht said that pay-for-performance won’t work in Minnesota. “Teaching is such a team sport,” she said. “It’s not an individual event. The performance-based model hasn’t brought the results people thought they would. Educators are not enticed by the pay. People are looking for more support, lower class sizes and better resources.”

Related stories:

  • She's not a "maven." She's not controversial. She's a failed teacher and a corporate tool. - by Stephanie Brown on Tue, 02/18/2014 - 6:06pm
  • Great coverage of a very serious issue, the downsizing of public education. - by Joe Musich on Fri, 02/14/2014 - 10:22pm
  • Our citizens are waking up to the education takeover, just as I knew they would. - by Linda Mele Johnson on Fri, 02/14/2014 - 5:36pm

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Sheila Regan's picture
Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan (sheila [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.

Bill Sorem's picture
Bill Sorem