Sep 1 2010

Media’s Favorite School ‘Reformer’

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee

After Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty pushed for a mayoral takeover of the city’s school system and dissolved the school board, he chose a relative unknown to take charge. But it wouldn’t take long before she would become a national media darling.

Fenty’s pick was Michelle Rhee, a Teach for America graduate who had taught for only three years at urban schools in Baltimore before founding a non-profit organization, The New Teacher Project (TNTP), where she spent the next 10 years. Under Rhee’s leadership, TNTP promoted the idea that since good education came from good teachers, the way to improve education was to facilitate the firing of bad teachers and ease the process of hiring good ones. This program dovetailed with national trends like marginalizing teachers’ unions, expanding the role of standardized tests (as with the Bush administration’s punitive No Child Left Behind Act) and whittling away at public school systems through charter schools, voucher programs and mass school closures.

Cover of Time Magazine with the headline - How to Fix America's Schools

Once Rhee took over as schools chancellor in June 2007, she made a show of seeking community consent, holding several town hall meetings. But she was soon referring to community activists as “professional naysayers” (Weekend Edition, 2/10/08), and within seven months, she had closed nearly 15 percent of D.C. schools and started firing central office employees at will. She fired 79 teachers for “poor performance” in her first year and 96 the next year; in the past year more than 500 D.C. teachers have been laid off (New York Times, 7/24/10). Corporate media quickly took notice—and heralded her as take-no-prisoners hero.

NBC Nightly News chose “no-nonsense” Rhee for its regular “Making a Difference” feature (12/5/08), calling her “a woman with a lesson for the nation’s educators.” (“Her style is silky smooth,” declared correspondent Bob Faw. “But make no mistake, this lady is a killer.”) After a soundbite of Rhee declaring that she wanted to get rid of a system that puts “the rights and privileges and priorities of adults ahead of what’s in the best interest of the kids,” Faw noted that “the local teacher’s union is up in arms”—but, he told viewers, “She’s garnered accolades from both presidential candidates and residents here long weary of the city’s woeful schools.”

Time magazine (12/8/08) pictured Rhee with a broom in hand—apparently symbolizing her focus on getting rid of ineffective teachers—and insisted that her philosophy is uncontroversial and supported by science: “The biggest problem with U.S. public schools,” reporter Amanda Ripley stated, “is ineffective teaching, according to decades of research.” The article touched briefly on the effect of students’ environment before returning to the backwardness of teachers—meshing with Rhee’s attitude that any focus on things like poverty, gentrification and lack of affordable housing is a distraction from the true root of the problem.

In September 2008, Fast Company magazine ran a profile of Rhee. In a February 2010 update of that profile Rhee defended her 2009 teacher firings by explaining: “I got rid of teachers who hit children, who had sex with children, who missed 78 days of school. Why shouldn’t we take those into consideration?” Fast Company let the quote stand with no attempt to confirm or debunk it. Later it was revealed (Washington Post, 1/27/10) that only one teacher had been dismissed for allegedly having sex with a student, six of the 266 laid-off teachers had been suspended for corporal punishment and two had been absent without leave on multiple occasions.

The Washington Post editorial board (1/26/10) acknowledged Rhee’s rhetorical sleight of hand but ate it up anyway: “It is unfortunate that her comment about what she calls a minority tends to tar all 266 teachers. Nonetheless, it is clear that there were teachers who lost their job who had no business being anywhere near the children.” The editorial concluded with an attempt to implicate the Washington Teachers’ Union in the affair: “Certainly [Rhee] owes an apology to the dedicated teachers her words may have inadvertently hurt, but so does the union for its hand in enabling some of these unfit teachers to stay in the classroom.”

The image of Rhee as superhero is being challenged on a daily basis by dedicated D.C. teachers (by Chris Bergfalk, for example, on WPFW—6/10/10—or the 21st Century School Fund—6-7/10), but it’s hard to find their voices in the corporate media echo chamber. They’ll tell you that Rhee’s program is not one of “shaking up” the public education system, as media outlets from NBC (12/5/08) to the NewsHour (2/7/08) are labeling it. Rather, it is one of shaking down public education.

D.C. journalist Peter Tucker (of Pacifica’s WPFW) calls Rhee’s program “reform by press release.” The only thing that is quantifiable within this reform is the creep of private monies into the system—along with the increased private control that it buys. Recently Rhee brought in $64.5 million in private monies for the new teachers’ contract, donated by foundations like Walton and Broad that have been central to pushing the corporate approach to education schemes (including increased testing and charter schools—Washington Post, 6/8/10).

Soon after the donation was announced, it was revealed to be contingent on Rhee remaining chancellor; if she were replaced, this money would be off the table. A Washington Post editorial (6/8/10) impugned those who saw any conflict of interest: “In any other city, an official who manages to raise millions of dollars from credible organizations to improve public schools would get a commendation. Not so in the District of Columbia, where the reward for such effort is a suggestion of wrongdoing.”

Sidebar: An ‘Education and Media Company’—in That Order

There’s an example every week of the Post’s staunch support for D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, her punitive policies and her obsession with testing and data. A look at the Post’s changing financial investments reveals that this affinity for Rhee is not simply ideological, but also material. Not only is Washington Post Co. chair Donald Graham on the board of the KIPP DC charter school network, the Post Co. itself is actually mostly an education company, as the owner of test prep outfit Kaplan Inc. since 1984.

In a December 6, 2007, Post article Graham announced that he had decided to rebrand the Washington Post Company as “an education and media company.” The announcement was made at a meeting with Wall Street analysts and shareholders. Graham indicated that rebranding was necessary to reflect “the rise of Kaplan Inc. within the company and the decline of its flagship newspaper.” At that time Kaplan had become the Post Co.’s top earner, accounting for half of its total revenues; in 2009, Kaplan brought in $2.6 billion, compared to the newspaper’s $679 million. In announcing the rebranding, Donald Graham assured Wall Street that it would not hurt the company’s access to money. No mention of its impact on the newspaper’s credibility.

Zein El-Amine is a longtime community activist living in D.C. and teaching at the University of Maryland. He is a founding member of Left Turn magazine.

Also printed with this article: Knowledge Is Power—and So Is Ownership.