Michelle Rhee

I was fortunate enough to attend a Q&A with Michelle Rhee today. Living near DC meant I was generally aware of her controversial approach and being interested in education meant I was interested to learn more about her ideas and positions.

After hearing her talk, I’ve decided I’m a fan. Before you make a snap judgment about my thoughts about teachers and so forth based on this statement, hear me out.

First – she began her entire talk with I think the most important point of all, which was that: 1) public schools are currently not working for all children (fact. duh. if you don’t agree with this then you’re delusional), 2) with so many elements involved in education, there is no single answer (also duh. there’s never a silver bullet), 3) therefore, we ALL (meaning, all educators and policymakers around the country) need to engage in a “discussion” where we get deep into the issues and details and figure out what is needed to get all kids a good education.

There is too much special-interest group and partisan back-and-forth going on in the “education conversation” where all of the issues aren’t fully laid out or explored. (She said she didn’t want to go on talk shows and debate Randi Weingarten because those formats would cater to conflict and not constructive discussion. I swooned a bit when she said that.) And, she has set up her own special interest lobby, called Students First, which is meant to add a student-oriented lobby to the current scene full of teachers unions, textbook manufacturers, charter school fans, testing companies, and so forth.¬†Her aim is to get a bunch of money and a bunch of supporters to get behind efforts that start by asking, how do we get all students to learn? She doesn’t think the other lobbies are bad, just that the students need a voice too. Yes it sounds a little cheesy, but she can actually do it (in a sense) because she’s famous enough to get supporters and she isn’t elected like union reps or speaking on behalf of some business.

Those are the two biggest reasons I’m a fan – she’s serious about the depth of conversation and she’s in it for the students first. As she talked, she got into what that “depth” of conversation would look like for certain elements of education. She didn’t get into all of them, and some people at the talk think she glossed over key points (like, what are good teaching practices? How should teacher training programs be teaching their teachers?) though I’m not sure if that was because she always glosses over that (read: it’s a serious hole in her argument that people would attack) or because there wasn’t enough time to get into it. Even if she is weak on certain points, I’m ok with that because she laid the initial groundwork that said we as a country need to figure out all those important elements together. I don’t actually expect her to have all the answers.

Also – the very first question asked about her abrasive leadership style. She responded by mentioning an op-ed where someone said they liked everything she was doing, but implored her to do it “nicer.” I have had a similar thought, and she defended her style with her own particular reasons. However, after hearing her speak and reflecting upon how the culture of education has become rather stagnant and afraid of offending people, I think that her abrasive style was needed. Most superintendent’s can’t or shouldn’t use the same style. But her role in the saga of fixing education in this country is an important one. She’s the interruptor. She’s the one who goes to the extreme in order to catalyze the change. If there were hundreds of Rhee’s, I’d be worried. But she can play the vocal, controversial role, which I think is a necessary role.

The only thing that worries me is if her voice is the only one, or the loudest one. The fact that she said we all need to engage in this discussion encourages me because it means she doesn’t want to be the only voice. However, our information systems are not reliable means of having an intelligent public discussion with lots of good voices. So we’ll see how it goes. Waiting for Superman was a great way to put the conversation in a different information medium and get more people engaged in the topic. But we need a wider variety of mediums engaging in intelligent, informed engagement, and we need it in every district.

So those are some initial thoughts. I’ll keep this as a “reaction to Rhee” post, rather than a discussion of various education inputs and her views on them, for brevity’s sake. There will be more time to discuss them later.

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