Thursday, October 14, 2010

Do We Really Want What We Say We Want?

It came as no surprise. When Washington, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty lost his campaign for re-election, the highest profile casualty of his loss would be he controversial Chancellor of schools, Michelle Rhee.

This week she officially resigned. It was an admission that the era of public school reform she instituted during her three year tenure was over.

"In a prepared statement, Rhee said that leaving after nearly 31/2 turbulent years was "heartbreaking," but she said Gray "deserves the opportunity to work toward his goal of 'One City' with a team that shares his vision, can keep progress going and help bridge the divide.""

""In short, we have agreed - together - that the best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside.""

"Rhee survived three contentious years that made her a superstar of the education reform movement and one of the longest-serving school leaders in the city in two decades. Student test scores rose, decades of enrollment decline stopped and the teachers union accepted a contract that gave the chancellor, in tandem with a rigorous new evaluation system, sweeping new powers to fire low-performing educators."

Michelle Rhee has been hailed across the country as a crusader for public school reform. She has been lauded for getting rid of 'bad' teachers; closing sub par, dysfunctional schools with a history of failure. Her lack of political agenda has been hailed as a key to confronting the systemic gridlock associated with an educational system which has, for at leas a generation or two, operated to protect the interests of adults at the expense of providing and promoting the future of children. But, what is also obvious is that those efforts were appreciated everywhere else but D.C.

A central figure in the documentary, 'Waiting for Superman', Rhee has also been vilified by a host of educators for creating an atmosphere in which teachers were 'blamed' for the failure of public education and the teachers' union castigated and demonized.

At Central Dallas Ministries' free screening of the documentary, in the panel discussion afterward, the president of the AFT gave a full throated defense of teachers and extolled the virtues of teachers who worked hard at their craft at great sacrifice. Likewise, the principal on the panel spoke of her commitment to work with teachers to make sure that those who were less talented and less effective did not fail. Both spoke to the need for (and the documentary's lack of) recognition of public schools that were doing a great job of educating children.
Of course, the problem is, if Ms. Rhee's reputation is true, these are not the teachers or the schools at which she was taking aim.

"Rhee, who was appointed by Fenty in 2007 and given unprecedented power to shake up the ailing school system, fired hundreds of teachers and dozens of bureaucrats and principals, even removing the popular head of her daughters’ elementary school in the northwest part of the district. She demanded that the city’s tenure system be replaced with one that would reward teachers for producing measurable performance gains in their students."

It appears that Rhee was too strident in her condemnation of both the institutions (community schools) and the educational icons (teachers and administrators) and not deferential enough to their stature in those communities.

But the question ultimately has to be asked: Does the community perceive the depth of crisis in public education? Do the parents of a child consistently and persistently failing in school recognize that if the failure goes beyond that child - and it usually does - that there reaches a tipping point where drastic measures must be taken? And at one point does appreciation and deference to the teacher, principal or administrator who taught you and possibly even your mother, become counter productive if they are no longer doing the job? Does anyone with a child in school actually believe that the needed progress can be made by simply 'tweaking' the present system?

Michelle Rhee's reforms could have resulted in revolutionary results to be emulated across the country. We will now most likely never know. A new chancellor with a new philosophy can undo everything she's done. And the last time I was in D.C. was slightly before Rhee was appointed chancellor, so when I was there I heard nothing about her. I would, however, like to hear from some of my friends there and find out whether or not her agenda was so Draconian that her tacit rejection was warranted. Or even desirable.

If the analysis of our educational system is even partially correct, we do indeed have a crisis in this country. And if Rhee was doing good and that good drastic as it was is warranted and it was rejected, then what's happening in Washington, D.C. is a tragic microcosm of what is happening across the nation: we're a people who want change...until we actually get it. We actually like demanding change, until change comes.

If that's the case, our public schools aren't the only institutions in trouble.

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