Monday, September 06, 2010

Sue Hemberger on Michelle Rhee's Educational Mediocritization Policy

Someone I know sent me this post from our local listserv about DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. I thought it expressed the issues at stake in DC rather well. In addition to appealing to local readers, it might be of interest to those in the country (and perhaps around the world) who don't understand why Michelle Rhee's school policies may cost DC Mayor Fenty his job on Election Day.
Rhee's approach to public education

Re mediocritization:

Often, the attempt to idiot-proof a process involves imposing a formula designed to produce a consistent result. When this approach is successful, that result is reliably better than incompetence but generally falls far short of excellence. And the task has become sufficiently de-skilled that no one who aspires to excellence wants any part of it.

This seems to be Rhee's approach to public education. There's one right way to teach (albeit multiple learning styles), anybody can do it (take a few- week course over the summer and you're good to go – for anything from special ed to AP), if you can't (or won't) get with the program, we'll find someone who will.

I grew up the daughter of a special ed teacher, became an academic myself (seeking out a dissertation advisor who actually cared about teaching his grad students to teach and then following in his footsteps), and have spent the last 10 years shuttling between teaching teachers (fellowship award winners from every state) and spending time guest lecturing in the 8th grade (keeps me honest, LOL!).

Everything I know about teaching tells me that a regime like the one Rhee has instituted will drive good teachers away. These days, teaching isn't that prestigious and it isn't that lucrative and, thanks to the civil rights movement, the profession can no longer rely on a captive labor force to offer up its best and brightest because they have nowhere else to go. Which means that, if anyone wants to attract and retain talented people, they have to give them the space and the support to do something great.

In recent history, DCPS has been dysfunctional enough people who were in teaching for all the right reasons could find contexts where they could do their thing, do it well, and be greatly appreciated for it. Over the years, I've heard friends sing the praises of the AP program at Wilson. Yet in the past two years, three of its most effective AP teachers – Art Siebens (biology), Joe Riener (English), and Erich Martel (US History), have been pushed out, having been told in various ways that they don't fit or belong in this new regime. And, even to my limited knowledge, these aren't the only casualties. If anyone wants a window on why good people are leaving DCPS, see Guy Brandenburg (formerly of Deal) is another example. When I've checked in with the friends whose kids went to Wilson and Deal (because, hey, as I pointed out earlier, I'm not on the inside), the consistent reaction was that these people were among their kids' most inspirational teachers (usually accompanied by a colorful anecdote).

I don't think it's "perverse" to acknowledge that a mediocre system is better than an abysmal one. Frankly, to me, that's the only public policy logic that could justify Rhee's approach. But such a justification would not be persuasive unless (a) someone can demonstrate that mediocrity was actually wiping out failure and (b) that such an outcome cannot be achieved without stamping out excellence as well. Neither A nor B rings true in this context.

The bottom line here is what kind of education do we want for our kids? Do we want inexperienced teachers applying a template and focused on maximizing standardized test scores, motivated by fear of job loss or hopes of big payoffs if student scores go up? Or do we want an environment in which people who love learning and think critically are engaging with our kids and held up as role models rather than driven out as troublemakers?

Not a hard choice for me, which is why I can't see how Rhee is a selling point for Fenty. But also why I asked whether people who are inside the schools in one capacity or another see something different and better going on than what I'm hearing/noticing. Thus far, the claims I've heard re progress have focused facilities (real, but not at risk in this election) and test scores (the data leaves me skeptical). Is there something else going on inside the classroom that looks like progress to anyone?

I'm delighted to see more hope and investment in DC's public schools. And, as I said, I think that we can consolidate our successes (modernizations and right-sizing, a sense that things can and must improve) if we move on to a rebuilding phase under new leadership with a different orientation and set of skills. But if we don't recognize and start cutting our losses (endless churn, demoralization, a hostile environment for good teachers, misplaced emphasis on test scores), we're headed for disaster.

Sue Hemberger
Friendship Heights