Exploring Michelle Rhee’s destructive influence over Michigan education reform

I’m spending my evening getting acquainted with Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools, who’s gone on to a lucrative career as a hired gun in the fight to destroy teachers unions and privatize American public education. While I’d heard about her in the past, and I’d known that she’d been recruited by Republicans to help draft school reform legislation for Michigan in 2010, I wasn’t aware, until today, just how much she’d done in our state. Did you know, for instance, that her organization, StudentsFirst, operates a PAC, and, through that PAC, invested $500,000 in the campaign to defeat Proposition 2, the legislation that, if passed last November, would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in Michigan’s constitution?

Maybe I’m unusual, but I find it interesting that an organization dedicated to the principle of putting children first would spend half a million dollars in an attempt to keep weaken labor, and, as a result, bring down the quality of life of countless families, many of whom have children. But apparently the right of workers to unionize is what’s been keeping the children of Michigan from reaching their full potential, and not the fact that resources are evaporating at an alarming rate, as class sizes rise and demoralized teachers flee. If I were a smart ass, I might suggest that her $500,000 could have been better to put to use i downtown Detroit, where we’ve been told that they’re considering class sizes of 60, or at the Catherine Ferguson Academy, where, not too long ago, we witnessed teen mothers being dragged away in handcuffs for refusing to just walk away, and accept that their beloved school was being closed. But, instead, Rhee invested in ads that warned how, if Prop 2 were to have passed, we couldn’t have fired drunk teachers that were putting our children’s lives at risk.

If I were a cynical person, these facts might lead me to believe that the folks funding StudentsFirst don’t care nearly as much about the education of our children, as they do about destroying unions, containing costs, and driving down their own tax burdens. And, if I were really, really cynical, I might even go so far as to consider that they’re pushing Rhee’s agenda, which relies heavily on rote memorization and standardized testing, because they’d rather have good, obedient workers, than a bright, inquisitive citizenry capable of independent thought. But, clearly that can’t be the case, as the very name of the organization declares that that they’re all about putting the needs of the students first, right? I mean, an organization dedicated to putting corporate interest first wouldn’t be called StudentsFirst, would it? Unless of the tag line of the organization was something like, “Who shall we fuck?”

Speaking of these good samaritans that are financially backing StudentsFirst… these selfless men who only want the best for America’s public school children… it’s hard to find much information about them. Rhee, it would seem, doesn’t like to answer questions about where her funding comes from. (Maybe these wealthy titans of industry are just shy, and she’s protecting them.) Despite that, however, some of them are know. Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch, for instance, is a big contributor, as is New Jersey hedge fund manager David Tepper, and right-wing billionaire Philip Anschutz, who helped make Rhee a household name by featuring her in his 2010 propaganda film Waiting for Superman. (Murdock has “pledged to spend more than $1 billion to bring for-profit schools, including virtual education, to the entire country by electing reform-friendly candidates and hiring top-notch state lobbyists.”) Regardless of their motivation, they all, it would seem, like the StudentsFirst philosophy, which has been summed up as follows by Huffington Post.

…Among the reforms it advocates: abolishing teacher tenure; permitting more teachers without formal education training to take charge of classrooms; evaluating teachers in large measure by their students’ growth on standardized tests; and expanding charter schools, which are publicly funded but typically run by private corporations, including for-profit management firms…

And these conservative leaders of industry are apparently willing to pay Rhee to be the “former teacher” out front, leading the charge, while they watch from the wings. In the first nine months after its launch in the fall of 2010, StudentsFirst had already raised $7.6 million, much of which was spent in Michigan, where, according to the Huffington Post, the organization “spent $955,000 (in the fall of 2011) to lobby state lawmakers for an education package that included evaluating teachers primarily by student test scores and restricting union bargaining rights, so issues like the new evaluation system would not be subject to negotiation.” And, as these reforms passed the legislature, it looks as though their investment paid off. It’s also worth noting, I think, that Rhee has expressed a desire to raise $1 billion in five years, so I think it’s safe to assume that we’ll see a lot more of her here, putting money behind friendly candidates, buying radio and television ads, and lobbying our elected officials.

Speaking of funding politicians friendly to their cause, they’re already doing it in Michigan. According to an MLive report in October of 2011, StudentsFirst gave Michigan Representative Paul Scott “roughly $70,000” to avoid a recall effort initiated by the Michigan Education Association as a result of his work to push Rhee’s teacher tenure reform laws. In this instance, however, the sizable contribution wasn’t enough. State Representative Scott was recalled on November 8, 2011.

Rhee’s entire system, and I probably should have mentioned this earlier, is built upon the belief that everything boils down to test scores. She doesn’t think about the intangibles. She doesn’t think about art. She doesn’t think about creative problem solving and innovation. School, for Rhee, is about learning english and math, and taking standardized tests to demonstrate proficiency. Tests yield data, and, from this data, decisions can be made as to which teachers are fired, and which are promoted. It’s that simple. Students are, in the view of Rhee, simply widgets on a conveyor belt, and their teachers are nothing more than factory workers. And, if you turn out faulty widgets, you lose your job… And, when I say “students,” I mean public school students. Clearly this isn’t the way any of these people who are funding StudentsFirst would want their own children educated. This is just about bringing those who can’t go elsewhere up to an acceptable level of competence as inexpensively as possible. This is No Child Left Behind followed through to its logical conclusion.

And, speaking of testing, I should mention that many of the gains that Rhee made in D.C. public schools turned out to be largely fiction. Teachers and administrators, fearful of losing their jobs, simply found ways to give Rhee the numbers that she needed for the press conferences that she was so fond of calling. [The USA Today investigative report on the D.C. cheating scandal that lost Rhee her job can be found here.]

I could keep going with this, but I think, at this point, I’ll hand things off to our much more competent friends at Frontline, who just produced an incredible piece about Rhee, using, among other things, a great deal of footage they shot while she was working in the D.C. public schools… I particularly like the part where she called in the PBS camera crew to get footage of her firing a principal who, according to her metrics, was underperforming. (She’s very good at self-promotion.)

Watch The Education of Michelle Rhee on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

One last thing, as long as we’re talking about charter schools, and the lack of oversight. Did you happen to see the story the other day about the $20 million racketeering case against the founders of an Oregon charter school company? In case you didn’t, here’s a clip.

Tim King and Norm Donohoe, who ran a chain of taxpayer-funded charter schools across small-town Oregon from their headquarters in Clackamas, scammed the state out of $17 million and must repay that plus $2.7 million more, the state said in a court filing this week.

The legal claim, brought Thursday by the Oregon Department of Justice in Marion County Circuit Court, accuses the pair of racketeering, money laundering and other fraud from 2007 to 2010…

The state provided startup grants of up to $450,000 per charter school. The state Department of Educationalso paid about $6,000 a year for each student enrolled, relying on the charter school operators to document the number. The state now says those records were “erroneous, false and misleading.”…

Some of the schools abruptly closed during the school year, leaving students and teachers in a lurch. Others have since stopped operating. Still others operate under new auspices…

It’s probably worth noting at this point in the conversation that, if the Public Education Finance Act of 2013 is put into effect in Michigan as it’s currently written, there will be no ceiling on the number of charter schools allowed in the state, and these schools will only be answerable to a governor-appointed chancellor, and not to either the State Board of Education or the State School Superintendent. Given what just happened in Oregon, I’m inclined to say that this would be a horrible idea, but I’m sure that Rhee and her backers would argue otherwise.

Oh, guess what I also just learned…. As of a year ago, Michigan had a quarter of the nation’s for-profit charter schools. And that’s before the passage of the Public Education Finance Act of 2013, which will really open up the floodgates. (The legislation would even make it possible for for-profit charters to buy up former public school buildings, which had been built with taxpayer dollars, for pennies on the dollar.) One can just imagine what the education landscape in Michigan will look like in anther year or two.

[note: I can’t take credit for the images which accompany this article. I just woke up and found them in my mailbox. It would appear that I have elves.]

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  1. anonymous
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    I was just reading how some teachers in Seattle were refusing to give standardized tests.

    “Teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle say they have voted overwhelmingly to refuse to administer a district-wide standardized test. A statement from Garfield teachers called the test a waste of time and money.

    Students in Seattle Public Schools take the standardized Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test up to three times a year, from kindergarten through ninth grade or beyond. Along with many standardized tests required by the state, the school district requires the MAP test as a measure students’ progress in reading and math.”


  2. Edward
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    I don’t know if Rhee will be there, but the Center for Michigan will be hosting an event in a few weeks that may be of interest to people.

    Here’s the notice:

    JOIN US for a half-day conference on the future of education in Michigan and to discuss our latest report: “THE PUBLIC’SAGENDA FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION: How Michigan citizens want to improve student learning.” The Center for Michigan recently met with more than 5,000 citizens across the state in small Community Conversations to seek their views on how best to improve student learning.

    We’ve lined up expert speakers from across the state to discuss our findings, answer your questions, and listen to your point-of-view. The conference will have an important role in framing a citizen agenda to improve our schools.

    Please RSVP today to reserve your space. Send your name and the name of your organization (if applicable) and any dietary restrictions to Pam Sanders (psanders@pscinc.com).

    There is no charge to attend, but space is limited.

    Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013
    7:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. (includes breakfast & lunch)
    Lansing Center, 333 E. Michigan Ave. (Click for map)


  3. Meta
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Rep. Scott wasn’t just a member of the Michigan House, he was the Republican House Education Committee Chairman. The following is from the Daily Kos.

    Education blogger At the Chalk Face has obtained an internal briefing document from Michelle Rhee’s Students First, and makes clear just how extensively Students First collaborated with Michigan Republicans on four education bills targeting teachers, including one limiting collective bargaining. The 30-page PDF is available here.

    The crucial take-away is that although Rhee has claimed publicly that eliminating collective bargaining is not her end goal, and although Students First didn’t publicly support Michigan’s bill limiting collective bargaining for teachers, the document leaves no doubt that in fact the organization privately supported the bill, saying:

    StudentsFirst did not work directly with the House on the collective bargaining bill and we have not expressed public support for the bill. However, many of the things they included in the bill came from our policy agenda and pave the way for implementing a new eval process, mutual consent and performance based RIFs.

    However, even the claim that Students First did not work directly on this bill is contradicted elsewhere. In fact, the discussion of the legislation begins:

    “The [Republican House Education Committee chair] Rep. Scott and the House Republicans worked closely with StudentsFirst to develop four* bills.”

    Read more:

  4. Meta
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Her husband is also embroiled in controversy.

    Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, husband of Michelle Rhee, a bitter foe of teachers’ unions and champion of privatization, voucher legislation and for-profit management of charter schools, has been fined $37,500 for failing to report more than $3.5 million in donations he solicited for various non-profits, including his own education initiative, Stand Up.

    Read more:

  5. efavorite
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    John Merrow of PBS also has a really good, revealing written piece focusing on former Noyes principal Cothorne http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/?p=6070

    It includes transcripts from unused footage from the Rhee documentary.

  6. Eel
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    She was appointed to her position in DC by a Democrat. I don’t know that it makes any difference, but I’m curious as to whether she identifies as a liberal, in spite of the fact that her funding is coming from the far-right Fox News machine.

  7. anon
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    she probably identifies as a democrat, which means she is basically a republican.

  8. anon
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink


  9. Posted January 11, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    This is absolutely the best thing I’ve read in ages. This is probably because I agree with everything but also because it’s just awesomely snarky. Can we get this article to go viral? Seriously, this is pure brilliance…it’s pure Maynard!

  10. Mr. Y
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Rhee has been blocked from Change.org, Anon. Here’s the scoop.

    The Change.org petition site recently dropped the misleadingly named “StudentsFirst” and “Stand for Children” as paying clients.

    This came after public pressure including a counter-petition by a Chicago teacher on MoveOn’s SignOn.org petition site.

    Things came to a head when Stand for Children – Illinois posted a petition on Change.org attacking the Chicago Federation of Teachers for their recent vote to authorize a strike. The petition, titled “Tell Chicago Board of Education and Teachers’ Union: Get Back to the Bargaining Table,” seemed even-handed. But it contained key, loaded words: the teachers’ “premature strike-authorization vote.”

    Chicago public school history teacher Jennifer Johnson was outraged and posted a petition of her own, “Change.org: Stop Supporting Union-Busters” at SignOn.org.

    “These teachers are negotiating for libraries, art classes, school playgrounds, and support staff including counselors and nurses,” she said. “These are important for schools and more importantly, children. To promote an anti-labor group’s anti-labor petition in the middle of a contract negotiation is unacceptable and dangerously close to crossing a picket line.”

    Johnson’s petition went “viral” on the Internet.

    The AFL-CIO blog posted a compelling appeal from Nicole Aro, the federation’s digital strategies deputy director, who is a former Teach for America volunteer.

    Urging her readers to sign Johnson’s petition, Aro wrote: “Stand for Children, StudentsFirst and the gaggle of groups promoting similar agendas have crafted their messaging in such a way that many progressive activists are fooled.”

    What could be wrong with these self-proclaimed pro-student, pro-child groups? Plenty.

    StudentsFirst is headed by Michelle Rhee, former head of the Washington, D.C., public schools. Aro notes that “Rhee’s time as the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools was rife with anti-teacher policies, including illegally firing teachers.” Rhee has also been implicated in test-score tampering at D.C. schools during her chancellorship. Read more about her here.

    Amidst a fog of “pro-student” rhetoric, here is just a sampling of “meat” contained in the StudentsFirst policy list:

    -shifting control of public schools away from elected school boards to one-person “mayoral control.” Why? Because, the group says, “Public employee unions invest in friendly school board candidates and expect handsome returns.”
    -support for “turnaround” models that involve mass firing of teachers and principals and turning schools over to charter operators and other private managers – the vast majority of which are non-union.
    -end all job security and professional protection for teachers. Put them at the mercy of individual supervisors’ whims, prejudices or favoritism. The organization states flatly: “State law should not grant, implicitly or directly, tenure or permanent contracts for PK-12 education professionals.”
    -shifting teacher “defined benefit” pensions to individual 401(k) type plans, which put all the risk on the individual. StudentsFirst claims that “today’s district pensions and other benefits are not sustainable” and criticizes them for “excessively rewarding longevity.”

    Rhee has refused to discuss funding for her organization, but Reuters reports that StudentsFirst has received big donations from hedge fund managers.


  11. Mr. Y
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I think the way it works, Patti, is first you have to share it on Facebook, and then you have to ask your friends to do the same.

  12. Mr. Y
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    It’s basically the same as selling Amway.

  13. kjc
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Doug Henwood’s latest on Rhee:


  14. Meta
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    This is amazing, KJC. The StudentsFirst ranking of states, according to this article, have little do with actual performance. In fact, StudentsFirst gives their highest ranking to Louisiana, in spite of the fact that many other states test better. Interestingly, the state that tests best, Mass, is way down the StudentsFirst. Could it be because they’re the most unionized state?

    States that get high grades from StudentsFirst do worse on tests than those that score poorly.

    Rhee’s group gave letter grades to each state, along with a GPA that allowed them to be ranked from 1 to 51. (DC counts as a state here.) No state got a grade higher than a B-, and only two states made that grade. Eleven states got an F. Tough! But do these grades mean anything?

    To evaluate the StudentsFirst grades, I got 8th grade reading and math scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, aka NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card. Testing can be a debased pursuit when it’s used to measure individual schools and teachers (sample sizes are just too small, and there’s too much statistical noise from year to year to base anything on), but the NAEP is as good as they come for measuring broad trends.

    Here are the results. StudentsFirst has Louisiana at #1 in its rankings—but the state ranks 49th in reading and 47th in math. North Dakota, which StudentsFirst ranks 51st, comes in at #14 in reading scores and #7 in math. Massachusetts, which ranks #1 in both reading and math scores (and which is also the most unionized state for teachers in the country), comes in at #14 on the Rhee scale.

  15. Posted January 11, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Y–awesome! Dick DeVos and I will have something in common after all. Oh wait, that’s not awesome. I will still try it though! At the very least, it will get my “homeschooling rocks!” friends going….

  16. Anon
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    For the record, Rhee as far as I know has never attended a public school. She graduated from a private school in Toledo, one with great arts programs etc.

  17. Posted January 11, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    I’ve really been thinking about this for the past couple of hours (I am getting sick and need something to occupy my thoughts). What is her motivation (besides greed/money)? Is there another motivation for her? I am also wondering…if Big Money came to my door right now and offered a huge paycheck would I also turn on my public school roots? I mean seriously, who *does* this? Who goes from being a teacher to being someone who wants rote memorization/standardized testing as the holy grail of all education? How does that transformation happen? (Is it just the big check)?

  18. anon
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    she also used to love Venom

  19. josh
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink


  20. Posted January 12, 2013 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    Every single Republican education “reform” proposal, and I mean every single one, aims to accomplish one thing and one thing only: Destroy the National Education Association. Why? Because it funnels hundreds of millions of dollars to the Democratic Party. They can dress it up however they like, but all of their ideas do this first. Any improvement to actual education, to the extent it happens under any of their proposals, is just a happy accident.

  21. Edward
    Posted January 12, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Anon, is Venom a band?

  22. anon
    Posted January 12, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    a very excellent one, if you’ve got no access to good music

  23. detsol
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mark: I am surprised it took you this long to discover M. Rhee and her agenda. Yes, all problems could be solved if those lousy, lazy teachers would just buck up and take their students home with them! If only Rhee could get teachers to become priests, nuns, religious, so they could sacrifice even MORE and give up their own lives, their hopes and their own dreams. And be paid nothing for their work, effort and education. Kidding aside, I work for a very large district and I can tell you the pain, struggle and emotional cost teachers, administrators and support staff go through every day–all for their students. It will be a cold day in hell before Rhee acknowledges that not all problems can be fixed in the classroom. We can not make up for parents smoking dope, not being present, being incarcerated, being immature, being too young with too many children. We can not make up for students who have no food, no clothes, no bed to sleep on, no one at home to tell them to go to bed, no one to care for them before and after school hours. We can give out hugs and socks and shoes, but we can never, ever make up for what they do not and are not getting at home. No amount of bullying from Rhee and those like her, will change the daily and nightly realty of students who suffer from poor parenting, violent communities, a depressed economy, and people like Rhee who do not offer support to teachers, but instead, badger, harass, intimidate and and bully.

  24. Elliott
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    The Washington Post has a big feature today. Here’s a preview.

    After her boss, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), lost his bid for reelection in 2010 — due in part to political fallout from Rhee’s teacher firings and school closures — Rhee mapped out her next move.

    Convinced that Fenty’s defeat came at the hands of the teachers union, Rhee believed that the nation needed a political counterweight to the unions in debates over education that were taking place nationwide.

    With help from her husband, Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player who is the Democratic mayor of Sacramento, Rhee created StudentsFirst to push her agenda in state capitals, where most education policy is set.

    “There hasn’t been a national group advocating on behalf of kids,” she said. “The unions have a 30-year start on us. But we’re creating that balance. Putting pressure on legislatures to make decisions in the best interest of kids.”

    She communicates that idea in ways that grab attention — by wielding a broom on the cover of Time magazine as if she is sweeping out bad teachers or by unflinchingly firing a principal as a television camera rolls, with little regard for his dignity.

    ‘A very simple message’

    “She’s got a very simple message that is highly seductive because it appears to give an answer to our difficult education problems,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal-leaning research group.

    It would be great if her ideas translated into good results for kids, Kahlenberg said.

    “But, in fact, we’ve got two grand experiments of her theory,” he said. “The first is the American South, where teachers unions are weak and the schools are not lighting the world on fire. The other is charter schools, which are 88 percent non-unionized. In charters, you can do everything that Michelle Rhee wants to do — fire bad teachers, pay good teachers more. And yet, the most comprehensive studies looking at charter schools nationally find mediocre results.”

    So Rhee’s premise is faulty, he said. “But it’s a simple idea, and in the media, it’s powerful to have heroes and villains,” Kahlenberg said. “The fact that evidence doesn’t back her up doesn’t seem to prevent her from getting wide notoriety.”

    There rest of the article can be found here:

  25. Elliott
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    The Waltons, who own Walmart, are supporters of her work as well.

    From its founding in October 2010 through July 2011, the organization raised $7.6 million, the most recent federal tax filings show. Kahlil Byrd, who became president of the group in November, said donors have pledged $150 million by 2016.

    Rhee, as the chief executive of StudentsFirst, which employs 124 and is based in Sacramento, earns an annual salary of $61,000, according to federal tax filings.

    But she can make almost as much as that through a single speaking engagement. According to Creative Artists Agency, Rhee Enterprises LLC charged $50,000 per speech in 2011 and required first-class travel arrangements, including a chauffeured town car for travel between her appearances and the airport. But a spokeswoman has said that Rhee often reduces that fee for organizations she favors.

    StudentsFirst is not required to disclose its backers, but several, including the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, have reported donations to Rhee’s group.

  26. Elliott
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    To answer your question, Eel, she considers claims to be a liberal Democrat.

    In the 2012 general election, StudentsFirst contributed to 105 candidates in eight states. Most of those candidates — more than 80 percent — won their races. And the vast majority were Republicans.

    In California, StudentsFirst spent $2 million on two State Assembly races. In both cases, the candidates were Democrats. One won; the other lost.

    It also spent $500,000 in Michigan to defeat a ballot initiative that would have enshrined collective bargaining rights into the state constitution. The measure, which turned out to be a classic fight between business and labor, was defeated by voters.

    The organization pumped $452,000 into Tennessee in 2011 and 2012, where Rhee’s ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, serves as state education commissioner.

    Rhee has appeared at the side of Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who tried to weaken collective bargaining rights in his state, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who succeeded on that front. She served on the transition team for Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) wanted to appoint her state education commissioner.

    Rhee, who calls herself a liberal Democrat, says StudentsFirst is bipartisan.

    “The unions want to frame us up as right-wing Republicans,” she said. “The reality is the landscape is shifting now, the Democratic Party is shifting. The policies on our agenda — the vast majority are things that [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan and President Obama have made priorities. We’re not right-wing crazies.”

  27. Elliott
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Permalink


    At least five high-profile employees, all Democrats, resigned from StudentsFirst late last year. According to one source with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the staffers were uncomfortable with some of the bonds Rhee was forging with Republicans.

  28. Posted April 13, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    My dear friend is once again in the news:


  29. Meta
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    From John Tierney in the Atlantic:

    The dominant regime for the past decade or more has been what is sometimes called accountability-based reform or, by many of its critics, “corporate education reform.” The reforms consist of various initiatives aimed at (among other things): improving schools and educational outcomes by using standardized tests to measure what students are learning; holding schools and teachers accountable (through school closures and teacher pay cuts) when their students are “lagging” on those standardized assessments; controlling classroom instruction and increasing the rigor of school curricula by pushing all states to adopt the same challenging standards via a “Common Core;” and using market-like competitive pressures (through the spread of charter schools and educational voucher programs) to provide public schools with incentives to improve.

    Critics of the contemporary reform regime argue that these initiatives, though seemingly sensible in their original framing, are motivated by interests other than educational improvement and are causing genuine harm to American students and public schools. Here are some of the criticisms: the reforms have self-interest and profit motives, not educational improvement, as their basis; corporate interests are reaping huge benefits from these reform initiatives and spending millions of dollars lobbying to keep those benefits flowing; three big foundations (Gates, Broad, and Walton Family) are funding much of the backing for the corporate reforms and are spending billions to market and sell reforms that don’t work; ancillary goals of these reforms are to bust teacher unions, disempower educators, and reduce spending on public schools; standardized testing is enormously expensive in terms both of public expenditures and the diversion of instruction time to test prep; over a third of charter schools deliver “significantly worse” results for students than the traditional public schools from which they were diverted; and, finally, that these reforms have produced few benefits and have actually caused harm, especially to kids in disadvantaged areas and communities of color. (On that last overall point, see this scathing new report from the Economic Policy Institute.)

    Fueled in part by growing evidence of the reforms’ ill effects and of the reformers’ self-interested motives, the counter-movement is rapidly expanding. Here are some reasons why I predict it will continue to gain strength and gradually lead to the undoing of these market-based education reforms.

    It’s what history teaches us to expect. In this country, we lurch back and forth between efforts to professionalize and efforts to infantilize public-school teachers, and have been doing so since the beginning of public schools in America. Neither kind of effort accords teachers much respect. Because teachers are chiefly employed by local governments (unlike doctors or lawyers who are typically employed in private enterprise), there has always been a tendency on the part of some groups of people to try to exert greater central control over teachers, not believing them to be professionals who can be left to do their jobs according to their own judgment. When those skeptics hold sway, the “solutions” they impose favor quantitative/metrics-based “accountability,” top-down management, limitations on teachers’ autonomy, and the substitution of external authority (outside measurers and evaluators) for the expertise of educators themselves. (See William J. Reese’s op-ed piece Sunday on the early history of the “testing wars” in America.)

    Education policies based on standardization and uniformity tend to fail. The policy alchemists’ notion that a “Common Core” or standardized curriculum, along with standardized tests, are appropriate measures for “fixing” American education is uninformed by an understanding of history and practice. Twenty-five years ago, two of our wisest scholarly analysts of educational reform, Richard Elmore and Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin, observed, based on their study of education reforms over the decades: “Reforms succeed to the degree that they adapt to and capitalize upon variability [from school to school and classroom to classroom]. . . . Policies that aim to reduce variability by reducing teacher discretion not only preclude learning from situational adaptation to policy goals, they also can impede effective teaching.” Today’s corporate reformers are flying in the face of experience.

    Policies based on distrust of teachers tend to fail. The current crop of reformers also roundly ignored another fundamental principle laid down years ago by Elmore and McLaughlin on the basis of their exhaustive research: policies and practices that are based on distrust of teachers and disrespect for them will fail. Why? “The fate of the reforms ultimately depends on those who are the object of distrust.” In other words, educational reforms need teachers’ buy-in, trust, and cooperation to succeed; “reforms” that kick teachers in the teeth are never going to succeed. Moreover, education policies crafted without teacher involvement are bound to be wrongheaded. When the architects of the Common Core largely excluded teachers from involvement in its development, they simultaneously guaranteed its untrustworthiness and its ultimate failure.

    Judging teachers’ performance by students’ test scores is both substantively and procedurally flawed. A teacher’s instruction matters in student performance, but too many other things (a student’s socioeconomic background, upbringing, parental involvement, motivation) also matter for students’ test scores to be a reasonable indicator of a teacher’s merit. As The Nation magazine reported in 2011: “The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.”

    Moreover, using students’ test scores for such judgments is poor policy from a procedural standpoint. The news reports in recent weeks that teachers and administrators in various jurisdictions (Atlanta and Washington, DC, for example) have cheated by manipulating test scores carry a powerful message, but not the one many observers may first think. The message is not that educators are venal or mendacious, but that rewarding or punishing teachers based on students’ test scores is a fundamentally flawed process that fails to take into account Campbell’s Law, one of the best-known maxims in the literature on organizational behavior: if you impose external quantitative measurements to judge work performance that cannot be easily and clearly measured, all you will achieve is a displacement of goals — in this case, some teachers and administrators will be more concerned with maximizing scores (even through cheating) than with helping kids learn.

    More people are realizing that many of the organizations involved in “corporate reform” seem to need reforming themselves. A great irony of the corporate reform agenda is that the mission to bring business-like accountability and efficiency to public education has been hampered in part by the colossal incompetence of some of the companies involved. A good example is Pearson, which calls itself “the world’s leading education company,” a slogan which, if true, should give all of us great pause. This big testing company, like its testing-industry competitors, has been screwing up over and over again for more than a decade now, with news of its most recent colossal mistake coming just this past week. Moreover, despite their screw-ups, these companies are enriching themselves and their executives from taxpayers’ dollars – Pearson’s pre-tax profits soaring by 72 percent in 2011. And in the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up vein, we got the news in the last few days that Pearson is allowing embedded plugs for commercial products (LEGO and Mug Root Beer, anyone?) in the exams for which taxpayers are footing the bill. No wonder growing numbers of people are rebelling against the intrusion into public education of the sort of gross commercial greed and incompetence the testing-industry represents. (If you want to read a detailed and damning appraisal of the secretive and error-ridden testing business, read this 2003 report by Kathleen Rhoades and George Madaus of Boston College’s Lynch School of Education.)

    People wonder why reformers themselves aren’t held accountable. Accountability is a central tenet of the market-based reforms. So people naturally find it disturbing when the architects and advocates of the reforms elude accountability for wrongdoing they knew about. To be more pointed, it’s fair to say that the behavior of Michelle Rhee, the former DC school commissioner who was once the darling of the reform movement, has done genuine harm to her cause by countenancing or ignoring the misbehavior on her watch.

    Read more:

  30. sacramento expat
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    What some people are willing to do for money is absolutely astounding to me. Thank you for shining a light on them, and illuminating their activities.

  31. anonymo
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Michelle Rhee is at the Mackinac Conference right now, according to Michigan Radio, helping to guide Governor Snyder as he–check this out–seeks to have the Educational Achievement Authority be completely funded ($100 million, of which $60 million is now pledged) and run by private “stakeholders.”

  32. Posted May 30, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Damn. I wasn’t aware that she was at the Mackinac Conference. I’ll have to spend some time looking into it tonight. Thanks for the tip.

  33. Meta
    Posted March 3, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Researchers find an interesting between Rhee’s work and the over-prescription of ADHD drugs.

    There has been a lot of public agonizing lately about the steep rise in diagnoses of ADHD over the last two decades. There is growing, and justifiable, worry that a lot of kids are being put on stimulant medications who don’t need them.

    What there hasn’t been is a plausible theory about what’s driving this explosion of diagnoses — 40 percent over the last decade and more than 50 percent over 25 years. The CDC now estimates that 12 percent of school age kids, and as many as 20 percent of teenage boys have been diagnosed with ADHD.

    Blame has been directed at parents, for being so poor at discipline that they reach for a pill to make unruly kids settle down. Teachers are blamed for being so inept at maintaining order that they want students medicated into submission. Psychiatrists are blamed for being the pawns of drug companies peddling ADHD meds. But blaming doesn’t explain it. It’s not credible that an increase of this magnitude comes from individual parents, teachers and doctors suddenly pathologizing ordinary child and adolescent behavior. In my experience, most parents are quite reluctant to put their kids on psychotropic medication unless they’re in serious distress.

    Now comes a book that, finally, offers a data-based analysis that could begin to account for an increase on this scale. “The ADHD Explosion [2],“ by Stephen Hinshaw and Richard Scheffler, considers all kinds of factors that may contribute to the surge, from diagnosis by undertrained and harried pediatricians to pharmaceutical advertising. But the eye-opening insight from Hinshaw, a clinical psychologist, and Schleffler, a health economist, who are colleagues at University of California, Berkeley, is the correlation between educational policies and the prevalence of ADHD diagnoses.

    Using Centers for Disease Control surveys, [3] Hinshaw and Sheffler found that when rates of ADHD diagnoses are broken down by state, it turns out that there are dramatic discrepancies. Based on the most recent survey, from 2011, a child in Kentucky is three times as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD as a child in Nevada. And a child in Louisiana is five times as likely to take medication for ADHD as a child in Nevada.

    And these states aren’t just outliers. The five states that have the highest rate of diagnoses — Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, Indiana and North Carolina — are all over 10 percent of school age children. The five states with the lowest percent diagnosed — Nevada, New Jersey, Colorado, Utah and California — are all under 5 percent. The disparity is even greater for kids prescribed ADHD medication. The same five states are at the top of the list, all of them with over 8 percent of kids getting medication. The states at the bottom of the list for medication — Nevada, Hawaii, California, Alaska and New Jersey — are all under 3.1 percent.

    The authors set out to look for factors that could account for those sharp discrepancies.

    “We thought it might have to do with the supply of providers — how many pediatricians or child psychiatrists in a given region — or the ways states supplement Medicaid,” explains Hinshaw. “It might have to do with advertising. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that most kids first get noticed for ADHD in a classroom setting. So we wondered, are there policies about schooling that might be relevant?”

    What the team found was that high rates of ADHD diagnoses correlated closely with state laws that penalize schools when students fail. Nationally, this approach to education was enacted into law in 2001 with No Child Left Behind, which makes funding contingent on the number of students who pass standardized tests. In more recent years, similar testing-based strategies have been championed by education reformers such as Michelle Rhee. But many states passed these accountability laws as early as the 1980s, and within a few years of passage, ADHD diagnoses started going up in those states, the authors found, especially for kids near the poverty line.

    Read more:

  34. Meta
    Posted August 13, 2014 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Rhee is leaving StudentsFirst and joining the board of a plant fertilizer company.

    Former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has told people close to her that she is preparing to step down as CEO of StudentsFirst, the advocacy organization she created after leaving her chancellor post, according to three sources close to the organization.

    Rhee is expected to remain active on StudentsFirst’s board after she steps down, likely by the end of this year. The sources requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of Rhee’s move.

    Francisco Castillo, spokesman for StudentsFirst, said in a statement to The Huffington Post: “Michelle remains fully committed to education reform and leading StudentsFirst.” He declined to elaborate……

    In recent months, as local media have reported that StudentsFirst is winding down activities in at least four states, Rhee has taken on other jobs. It was recently reported that she would become board chair of St. Hope Public Schools, a charter school chain run by her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (D). (Rhee recently changed her name to Johnson, but she is continuing to use Rhee professionally.) This week, Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. announced Rhee would join the company’s board.

    “She’s been really brutally attacked personally, and StudentsFirst has not been as effective as she wanted,” said a former prominent StudentsFirst staffer, who declined to be named, wanting to preserve relationships in education reform. “It’s been frustrating. It’s not totally shocking that eventually even she would decide to step away.”

    Read more:

  35. Meta
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    Michelle Rhee, dubbed ‘Public Enemy No. 1′ of the teachers’ unions is eyed by Trump team for Education Secretary

    The Donald Trump transition team is eyeing former Washington, D.C. public school chancellor Michelle Rhee for Secretary of Education, multiple sources close to the transition tell the Daily Mail.

    The appointment of Rhee – who has been dubbed ‘Public Enemy No. 1′ of the teachers’ unions — would be a bold move by the Trump team, and a signal that his administration is gearing up to take an aggressive stance on education reform.

    It would also cut across partisan lines. Rhee is a lifelong Democrat, and a proponent of Common Core, a set of federal education standards that is opposed by many conservatives and Donald Trump.

    Read more:

5 Trackbacks

  1. […] scandal in Atlanta runs right through the White House”By Mark | April 3, 2013Continuing our recent conversation on the misguided work of education reform advocate Michelle “we can te…, I thought that I’d share this comment, which was sent out yesterday by our friend Bill Ayers […]

  2. […] love to see Ravitch debate Michelle Rhee… Can one of you at the College Education at either UM or EMU make that happen, […]

  3. […] nothing new for us. We’ve been talking for years about Michigan’s failed experiment with for-profit charter schools. Now, however, it would seem that word is getting out to the rest of the country. The following […]

  4. […] And, it’s worth noting, this isn’t just about YCS. All public education in the state of Michigan is under fire. It’s just that we’re further along the path to destruction than better funded, more fiscally stable districts like those in Ann Arbor. [For more on the Michigan assault on public education, click here.] […]

  5. […] nothing new for us. We’ve been talking for years about Michigan’s failed experiment with for-profit charter schools. Now, however, it would seem that word is getting out to the rest of the country. The following […]

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