Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Michelle Rhee

The big talk in our English Department today was of the Time magazine cover story about Michelle Rhee. Some strong language was aimed at her. She's a former Baltimore City school teacher; did you know that? I didn't.

I do not know how I feel about it all. Another thing I need to sleep on. I didn't much like the bias of the article or some of Rhee's language (wow, she really just seems like an unpleasant person based on the article), but I agree with the sentiment that bad teachers exist and it's important to get rid of them. But who is the judge of bad teachers? I've not yet heard a satisfying answer, and there are a lot I-can't-expand-on-a-public-blog reasons for my worries in this area.

That being said, this summer I got to know Peggy O'Brien a little bit, and gained a lot of respect for her. She started the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, for example. Meeting her, it was clear she has a huge passion for teaching and learning, especially city kids. She one of Michelle Rhee's chief officers, and, well, I trust her a great deal.

So... I'm not sure. I'll be watching Washington DC very closely in the next couple of years. So will Baltimore. The post-it on the Time article, written in the familiar English-teacher hand of a veteran colleague, was, "Is this a sign of things to come?". Indeed, it might be.


P.S. - It's too bad you all aren't my facebook friend. You would be able to see the awesome pic I just posted of me dressed as Odysseus for Greek Theme Day last Wednesday.


Kate said...

There's a great ongoing discussion on Metafilter about this same article and a few others on Rhee -- you might find it interesting.

Anonymous said...

I might have to go check that discussion out too, Kate. Thanks for sharing.

I think that I basically agree with a lot of what Michelle Rhee thinks about getting rid of poor teachers, but based on the article I did not find her to be at all engaging, and I did not like how she treated people. No matter how much you care about changing things, as the chief face of your school system I would think you'd need to be a little more personable, especially if you want to get things done. You can make the hard decisions and still be nice or at least pleasant to others working for you or with you.

Anonymous said...

I actually worked at Harlem Park Middle school, which was not just beside the elementary school but connected by a hallway as I recall, when Michelle Rhee was teaching there - in her last year, 1994-95. I'm sad to say I don't remember ever meeting her or seeing her. My guess is that her claims of success at Harlem Park elementary are a load of garbage. I'm sure she worked hard and put in her time, but from my experience, especially in urban education, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I'm sure Hollywood could make a great movie about the way she amazingly turned around the lives of 36 struggling second and third graders, but it would carry the all-encompassing tagline of "based on a true story" which means most of it is a load of crap. Don't worry - give her a couple of years and then she'll be gone. Once everyone figures out that the ruin of a nation begins in its homes (one of my favorite African proverbs) and that no amount of principal firings and teacher whippings can change that. I'm not saying you can't do great things and make a difference in the lives of children. But, come on, look at that wave of misery in a place like DC or B-more or wherever. The classroom and the school is just one part of a child's life - there needs to be complete, systemic change throughout the lives of these young people. Reading, writing, and basic math principles are great, but what about nutrition, nurture, love? How is anyone going to make desperate families provide that to their children, especially in desparate times.

Good luck, Michelle Rhee. Keep on believing in yourself, and keep on getting that fat paycheck (just shy of $300k a year? Nice ) and leave after you don't make a dent in 2 - 4 years and become a lifetime consultant and spin your failure experience in DC into another "success story" and join the rest of the former urban school superintendents in the millionaires club as the youth of urban America still suffer and can't read or write or do basic math.


A BCPSS Parent said...

I'm not sure being personable should be high up on the list of what we're looking for in a school leader. Maybe the perspective of a parent (I guess that makes me a second-hand customer of the system) as opposed to an employee is just too different. I read the TIME article (thanks for the link) and it sounds like a good time to be involved with the DC schools. To have people at the top really value good teachers - Wow! Good teachers that are good for the students, not good at sucking up to principals, or even good at getting along with fellow teachers. I know good teachers changed my life and I'd like all of the teachers that my kids interact with to be successful, imaginative, motivated...

Again, maybe it's my perspective, but I don't see the bias. And her harsh language? Sounds refreshing to me. As an engineer, I have to say the touchy-feely, non-rigorous nature of some of the education lingo I have to deal with can make me crazy. Some of these IEP goals for my autistic kid seem way too squishy. From my perspective a passionate, excited and engaging teacher should be easy to recognize, both by the student's achievement and just by looking into the classroom. If those are the teachers that will be rewarded by this new mindset that doesn't sound so bad to me.

Steph said...

BCPSS Parent:

I know its not all about feel-good talk, but teaching is a whole lot of collaboration and working together. It's also a lot of relating to children and having them relate to you. If you're a jerk, I really doubt that you are or ever were a really amazing teacher.
I also think what most teachers worry about is what bmoreteach was saying: who decides what a good teacher is? Because at my school, a good teacher is defined by the principal as somebody who follows his arbitrary rules and procedures.
I've also been given the impression a good teacher is defined as someone who puts on a nice show for the visitors or produces good test scores, no matter what the cost.
I've seen several good teachers get other jobs because they get tired of the bullcrap.

Lorie said...

I've only read the first page of the article so far, but I was really bothered by this sentence, "They bicker over small improvements such as class size and curriculum, like diplomats touring a refugee camp and talking about the need for nicer curtains." Although I understand the larger point they're making - class size is less important than making sure a student isn't shot on the way to school - I think it shows a real disrespect for teachers.

A BCPSS Parent said...

I can understand not wanting to be judged by something arbitrary, but isn't the current system pretty arbitrary as well? I get the impression from teachers that I've respected that principals can very subjectively judge a teacher and make their life very difficult. Why wouldn't a change to judging a teacher by test score improvements, while not perfect, be better than having to impress a principal, especially if you've got a principal who's impressed by brown-nosing.

It seems obvious to me which teachers are the great ones my kids have had. They're the ones that are excited at the beginning of the school year. They have organized and structured classes, but don't mind spending extra time on topics that the class isn't getting or that the class is really interested in. They help their students learn and develop a love for learning. In these classes kids as a whole learn, test score go up (I would think) and most are not frustrated and discouraged. Is this really that hard to objectively assess?

As far as Rhee coming across as a jerk... well that's hard to judge with little snippets in the article. Being frank and no-nonsense can make you seem like a jerk, but it might be exactly what is called for in a crisis.

Teach Baltimore said...

BCPSS parent:

Thanks for the comments. I read your 2nd-to-last parent. You list excitement at the beginning of the year as a factor in deciding what a good teacher is. You list willingness to work on a tough topic longer than prescribed. You list helping students to learn and develop a love of learning.

Of course, I agree with you - these are all part of being a great teacher. I hope I have some of them. But, heck yes, that's hard to objectively assess. How do you do it? Rhee seems to do it by visiting a classroom for two minutes, stalking off and (I've heard rumors, though the article didn't say it) firing the person.

Test scores could work, but what test? What kids?

I liked a lot of Rhee says and she does seem like a dynamic figure. But, as Steph says, the way she treats people (at least according to the article, which I felt had a huge anti-public school and anti-teacher stance) and her comments about creativity were scary. Is she going to cut art in favor of subjects that are tested?

Anonymous said...

To BCPSS Parent:

It is interesting that you identify those teachers you consider outstanding as those that "...have organized and structured classes, but don't mind spending extra time on topics that the class isn't getting or that the class is really interested in."

You then go on to suggest that a merit system based on test scores would be a good idea, or at least worth a try. While I agree with your assessment of some of the qualities of a good teacher are, I'd like to point out the following:

If you spend too much time on an area to make sure everyone "gets it" you will run out of the time needed to cover the rest of the assessed areas in the curriculum. If you divert from the "mandated" topics too much, you once again will be teaching the students things that "won't be on the test" (even though they might be interesting or even valuable intellectually in their own right) and will once again harm the evaluation of the kids' learning, as well as your pay check.

Herein lies the problem with evaluation solely by test (particularly in subjects where only a standardized test of regurgitated knowledge as a determiner of what one has learned is a poor meter stick). Critical thinking is removed from consideration(particularly when things like BCRs and ECRs are removed by State Assessors for the simple convenience of grading quickly). Valuable and possibly vital lessons in ethics and/or social responsiblity related to content are often sacrificed to make sure funding and/or one's livelihood are safeguarded.

about 4 years ago at a MD State University sponsored colloquium for secondary school science teachers, a professor, after extolling us for the fine job we have done preparing his students for the study of science, expressed shock and dismay upon learning the push toward the emphasis on standardized testing in the high schools. I can only surmise by the lack of change in policies and the prevalence of opinions still being expressed similar to your suggestion, that his promised letters of protest were ignored by those in charge of academic assessment policies.


sexy said...