Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Where Michelle Rhee lost me



I've made no bones about my respect for Washington D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee, the woman who unions might fear the most in this country.  I've enjoyed the passion that she has for teacher accountability, while at the same time making the idea of paying teachers their worth a reality.  It is a model that seems like the right direction for public education to take in building a good system. 

The problem is that in a recent interview with Time Magazine, Rhee seemed less concerned about educating kids and more concerned with managing a perception of what teaches do in the classroom.  While the good managing is fine, the need for making the kids the priority was lost when a statement (THE statement that has people talking all over the blogsphere) made it out of her mouth and onto the pages of the magazine.

  "The thing that kills me about education is that it's so touchy-feely," she tells me (the Time correspondent) one afternoon in her office. Then she raises her chin and does what I come to recognize as her standard imitation of people she doesn't respect. Sometimes she uses this voice to imitate teachers; other times, politicians or parents. Never students. "People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning,'" she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. "I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job."

Michelle is correct, if kids can't read then teachers are not doing their job.  However, the idea that teachers should ignore the focus on "The Love of Learning" is pretty much dead wrong and equals bad teaching.  Rule number one of getting kids to comprehend and retain information; make the information relevant to the student and get them to buy in to the idea that learning the information has a purpose in there life.  Meaning get them into the frame of mind that learning is actually important and relevant to their lives.  Once you accomplish that, students will take the task of learning as a personal endeavor, not something that is resisted because useless knowledge (including learning to read) is rammed down their throats.  I would argue that without the idea of "The Love of Learning", what we are doing as teachers is pointless.  Without the want to read, the student isn't going to read, period.  Throwing two tests a year at the kid and drilling the teacher on State Standards isn't going to change that.

I also see that the name "The Love of Learning" is probably conjuring the wrong image to the American public, and Michelle Rhee is using it to her advantage to weed out teachers that ignore Standards and focus on "touchy-feely" education.  She does have a point that those teachers that ignore Standards have to either change or go, but she gives off the visual that every teacher that likes the idea of relevant information is some kind of pot-smoking hippy with a tie-dyed t-shirt.  Who finds the "Love of Learning" relevant, according to Rhee?  Well, it's probably a teacher who is some ex-1960's Haight Ashbury reject who couldn't get a job in the dog-eat-dog corporate society and decided to change the world by influencing little children.  The teacher probably doesn't lesson plan very well and gets all their ideas from Democracy Now and snippets from National Public Radio, both of which are listened to at the commune the teacher inhabits. 

While such teachers may exists, it is bad form to grossly generalize teachers in that context.  I don't think the issue is "be creative" or "teach to learn", the issue is getting the kids to learn using creative, relevant, and proven methods to create educated members of society.  I have yet to see Standardized Tests as a proven method to promote an educated populace, by the way.  So, in my opinion, Michelle Rhee did not come off looking like the Jack Welch I was hoping for in managing education.  I still like her ideas in terms of confronting the union and demanding that good teachers get the benefits from hard work and successful students, but her method of dealing with employees seems less like those of a motivating, respectful figurehead, and more like a Bob Nardelli clone; a condescending gas bag with little working knowledge of what needs to be done in the trenches for the overall goals of educating kids to be met.

Pity, I liked a lot of what she had to say.  I'm hoping that she reins in the hyper-aggressiveness and starts acting like a good manager, and a good educator.               

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