Michelle Rhee Comes to Los Angeles; The City Shrugs
UPDATED: A student in attendance at the “Town Hall” wasn’t buying what Rhee was selling either.
Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst group is holding a “Teacher Town Hall” meeting in Los Angeles on September 5, 2013, as part of a multi-city tour.
I can’t fathom why anyone would be excited.
As a Californian (since 1990), as an Angeleno (since roughly 2001), and as the parent of a public school-attending fourth grader, I’m hard pressed to think of a single thing on her agenda that speaks to me as a parent or would appeal to teachers.
So here are four reasons why Angelenos might, as Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn was rumored to have said, “stay away in droves.”
- People who care about their neighborhood schools care that even after passing Proposition 30 in November of 2012, we’re STILL 49th in the nation in per pupil funding. How can that be? Thirty-five years of chronic underfunding from Proposition 13, passed in 1978 — that’s how.
I had the galvanizing bad luck to send my child to kindergarten just as the Great Recession began in 2009. Five billion dollars a year were cut from the roughly $50 billion annual K-12 education budget for four years straight. Teachers received pink slips every March, and waited to see if schools could scrape together enough budget to hire them back in August, right before school began. Predictably, music and art lost their toehold on the school day and got pushed to the side as “extras,” and schools also lost librarians, counselors, and school aides who help special ed kids.
But before the Great Recession, commercial property valuations were artificially frozen at below market rates for individuals and corporations savvy enough to have bought property before 1978. Since then, individual homeowners have turned over residential properties faster than corporations have, and corporations have worked DAMN hard to hang onto their subsidy. According to this NYT article, wildly successful high-tech corporations in Silicon Valley pay three to thirty-three cents per square foot in real estate property tax, while residential homeowners pay between a dollar to a dollar twenty-five a square foot on more recently acquired residential property. Let’s see, $1.25 – $.03 equals $1.22 per square foot of commercial properties that, multiplied by the sheer number of square feet and also thiirty-five years, makes for billions of dollars that was supposed to have funded California’s public sector. Hence the title (and the thrust) of this New Republic piece: “Apple’s Tax Hypocrisy: Tech says there’s a shortage of home-grown talent — but tax avoidance only makes it worse.”
Where was Michelle Rhee, who lives part time in Sacramento with her husband who’s mayor of that city? NOWHERE. In 2012, the entire state was consumed with debates about which proposition was better for schools — Prop 30 or Prop 38? Would Prop 39 help?
Conclusion: school funding is the number one priority of people who support public education in California and she has nothing to offer anybody. In fact, she and her organization went around to other states pushing her “teach to the test,” “no excuses” agenda, and ignored the fiscal health of public schools. Given her agenda, we should probably be grateful that she does ignore California.
- Michelle Rhee advocates for things that are wrong, irrelevant, obscure, and boring. Take “value-added measure,” or the use of student standardized test scores to assess teacher effectiveness. I’m no statistician, but I have common sense and that, plus the work of professional psychometricians, tells me that standardized tests measure how well my child can take standardized tests. They were never designed to make any statement about teachers. As it is, they barely deliver any useful information about my son’s abilities.
I’m fully capable of assessing how well my child’s teachers have been teaching him, because — guess what? — I’ve been talking with my child’s teacher all along. I get frequent email reports. I can pick up the phone or write a note to her any time. We talk at dropoff or pickup or at the two parent-teacher conferences during the year, the back-to-school night, the open house night at the end of the year, and any other time I want to discuss issues relating to my kid’s social, emotional, and intellectual growth. Here’s a big secret: I’ve even gone into the classroom on occasion to volunteer, and while there I peeped how the teacher taught! Shocking, I know.
And you know what? During those conversations with the teacher, she’s also checking me out as a parent. Do I seem on top of things, or is lunch/homework/required books/weather-appropriate clothing always missing? It goes both ways.
It’s a little insulting for Rhee to act as if parents are completely clueless and need a rating system to tell us how our kids are doing and how well teachers are teaching. Could both parents and teachers be better partners with each other? Are parents or caretakers sometimes, sadly, missing in a child’s life? Are some teachers competent but flawed people who can be impatient, insensitive, or have a really really bad year (likewise, parents)? Of course. But there’s an assumption that we don’t have opportunities for frequent contact with each other. A test that tells you at the end of the year that your child has difficulty reading should NOT be the first time you’ve heard this ever. And if it is, no standardized test I know of will fix what’s wrong, because the communication between teacher and parent or guardian is so dysfunctional there’s far more to grapple with than simple reading mechanics.
Conclusion: if you’re relying on a single standardized test to give you the whole picture of how your kid is doing, you need to dial in. Way in. Because you are at a cruising altitude of 40,000 feet up. And that goes for teachers, principals and superintendents who over-rely on data.
- Michelle Rhee has never said “boo” about breadth and depth of curriculum (including the arts, history, and sciences) or class sizes, which is what 99% of Los Angeles parents care about. I guarantee you, Los Angeles parents are not fretting over cut scores or worrying if their kid is one or two standard deviations from the mean. They’re wondering how their kid can get any individualized attention in a class of 40 or even 50 kids to one teacher. They’re wondering why band, and sports, and theatre performances are cut, when those are the very things that make your kid’s eyes light up. (Not everybody is a bookish scholar, and that’s just fine. Different things make different people tick. And that’s the point of school: to be exposed to a lot of ways of thinking and doing, and a wide variety of people.)
I’ve never heard these things pass Michelle Rhee’s lips: project-based learning. Opportunities to do hands-on learning like robotics, or maybe learn new languages. Crack a computer code and program something. Write, produce, and act in your own film or theatre production. Yet these are ways I’d love my kid to learn. Parents have very simple yardsticks for gauging how their kids are faring: do they seem excited? Do they want to keep doing it? Does it tickle their imaginations or spark an interest? Does learning it seem to come easy? Even if it doesn’t, does the kid enjoy herself?
Conclusion: there’s just no discovery, joy, or excitement in what Rhee offers. She mostly seems to want to blame people.
And, finally, here’s why teachers specifically might attend her town hall and give her an earful, that is, if they don’t “stay away in droves”. Rhee has made working conditions for teachers AWFUL. She presided over a cheating scandal in Washington, DC that seems immune to deeper investigation despite a chronology that indicates awareness of wrongdoing, and launched a competitive, cutthroat environment where unfair, upside-down incentives were rewarded. She pushed for policy changes with some of the nation’s most extremist, most conservative governors and legislatures that enacted punitive, high stakes, anti-teacher policies and did NOT incorporate the input of professionals about their own profession. She did all this as a novice teacher with scant training, little feel for the classroom, and no sense of collaboration.
Basically, she’s Dolores Umbridge. Most teachers are striving to make their schools more like Hogwarts — that is, places where magic happens. But Rhee gleefully heads a well-funded movement that could shred one of our still-evolving and most important democratic institutions, our public schools.
Teachers find that unforgiveable. Many enjoy that they’re part of a larger mission, they love the hopeful possibilities they see in the children they teach, and they need a stable and cooperative working environment with each other in order to coax skittish, fickle young minds to learn.
So sure, sparks may fly if teachers feel it necessary to respond to her provocations on their profession. But otherwise? I’m not seeing what Michelle Rhee has done to really address the needs of parents or kids when it comes to funding schools, fighting for smaller class sizes, or making sure kids experience an engaging curriculum. Those are the things I hear most often from parents and teachers whenever they talk about the things children need in order to thrive.
And if she suddenly starts spouting these same talking points — well, how does this jibe with the rest of her agenda that makes all the good things impossible?