It all starts with Literacy.

PBS profiles Michelle Rhee: The good and bad of school reform


360_wrhee_1208Want a quick understanding of the school reform movement?

Public Broadcasting ran a terrific documentary last night on Michelle Rhee and her controversial reign as the head of Washington, D.C.’s public schools. You can catch it online here — and if you’re at all interested  in the state of public-school education, you should.

PBS is following up with a live online chat tomorrow [Thursday, Jan. 10] at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time, featuring the film’s correspondent, veteran PBS NewsHour education reporter John Merrow, two reporters from USA today who extensively covered standardized testing during Rhee’s tenure and others.

Cameras from the show “Frontline” followed Rhee over a period of years, starting in 2007, as she waded in to one of America’s worst-functioning school districts, determined to make big improvements in a hurry.

We see what motivated her: The fights in the hallways, the lack of discipline, the tuned-out faces of the student body. We see principals who look overwhelmed with the simple task of keeping order.

We see her demand change: Pressuring principals to identify laggards on the teaching staff, firing the low-performing. We watch, startled, as she invites a camera crew to witness as she hauls a principal into her office and fires him. We see her arouse the anger of the teachers’ union and some city council members when she starts using student test results as a basis for giving raises to teachers — or firing them.

She closes half-empty schools, sends hundreds of teachers their walking papers, and registers huge gains in student test scores — but many of those glowing test scores come into question when reporters discover suspiciously high numbers of erasures on test papers.

She stirs so much backlash that her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, is defeated at the polls in 2010. Soon after the election, Rhee resigns.

But since then, she has taken her reform ideas national, heading the organization StudentsFirst (which this week issued its first report card on how well each of the 50 states adhere to Rhee’s reform agenda — chiefly, using student test scores to measure teacher performance.)

Is she a hero, standing up for children against entrenched groups: teachers, district bureaucrats, politicians? Is she an overbearing zealot? Watch and decide.

Rhee’s ideas,  embraced by both Republicans and Democrats, are at the core of most of the political battles now going on in school districts and state legislatures — as seen in the recent Chicago teachers’ strike, which hinged largely on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to tie teacher evaluations partly to students’ standardized test scores.

A compelling rebuttal to Rhee and the reform movement comes from Diane Ravitch, a veteran educational thinker who was once in the movement’s forefront, but has changed her mind and is now probably the movement’s foremost critic, charging, among other things, that the emphasis on standardized testing is crushing student creativity and is a poor measure of teacher quality; the most difficult kids to teach — those with learning disabilities, for instance — won’t show the most dramatic test gains, and neither will the gifted, whose scores are high to begin with.

The crisis in public education, Ravitch says, has been much exaggerated.

The New Yorker profiled Ravitch in November, and Chicago’s public-television station, WTTW, interviewed her  that same month. Both reports are worth your while. And here’s a lengthy interview in the American Prospect.

photo: Time magazine

UPDATE: John Merrow, who reported the “Frontline” story, gave an insightful interview to the National Education Writers Association.

Rhee, he said, is “charismatic, smart and hardworking. She said to me early on, ‘I’m going to wear you out.’ And she did. I think even if I had been her age she would have worn me out. She wore us out in another way when she became so elusive and didn’t want to answer any questions, particularly about the test-scores scandal.”

“I don’t think people know how strongly she resisted the investigation of the erasures,” he added.

Read the interview with Merrow here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *