Between the Students First report card, the Frontline documentary, and now a big front-page Sunday article in The Wash Post it really was Michelle Rhee week last week. Couple of quick notes on the article, which was quite good overall (and you also want to check out Rhee biographer Richard Whitmire’s take, also in the Wash Post, yesterday).
First, the storyline that Rhee rocketed from obscurity to celebrity is a convenient one, and who doesn’t love that arc, but it’s not quite right in this case. Before coming to Washington D.C. she had founded, and was leading, The New Teacher Project (now TNTP). It was her work there that caught the attention of analysts, policymakers, and school system leaders, in particular her willingness to dive into the data to change the typical trajectory of labor negotiations in big cities. Her work in New York, for instance, had big ramifications. It’s probably more accurate, and more boring, to say she moved from influential inside player to influential outside player.
Second, Rick Kahlenberg makes the tired point that Rhee’s ideas have already been put to the test in the American South. Whatever you think of the merit of Rhee’s policy ideas this assertion is manifestly false for two reasons. First, big picture, this is a popular talking point but everyone saying it either knows better but also realizes what a good talking point it is or shouldn’t be consulted as an expert on policy (in my view Kahlenberg is the former). The reality is that schools in the south operate much like their counterparts elsewhere in terms of day-to-day norms, salary scales, etc…They key difference is the extent to which various rules, regulations, and practices are codified in state law, teachers contracts, or memorandums of understanding etc…at the county/district level. In practice, if you were to blind taste test schools between different labor contexts (eg Maryland and Virginia for instance) you’d have a hard time knowing what state you’re in. And teachers unions/associations exert a great deal of political influence at the state level in the south – that’s why those things show up in state policy. In addition, while I don’t think this is definitive at all, you could argue that one of the places some of Rhee’s ideas have been tested is Florida via some of Jeb Bush’s education agenda and there are multiple points of evidence (national and international assessments, independent research, etc…) that they, along with other policies, contributed to improvements there.
Kahlenberg also says that charter schools provide a counterpoint to Rhee’s policies because they have freedom but don’t get markedly different results, on average, than traditional public schools. They don’t, but they also don’t all operate radically differently than most schools. Analytically, rather than the average, the key point from the evidence to date is this: The cluster of really high-performing charters do operate differently. And guess what? They have a lot of common elements and many of those elements are ones that Rhee supports. Reasonable people can disagree on how replicable those elements are and what they mean for public policy as a result, but to say that charters overall are a test of Rhee’s ideas is simply false and a look at the best ones supports rather than undermines her position. Students First has put itself out there with this new report card, in a few years the impact of their policy recommendations can be discussed in some empirical detail – so stay tuned.
Third, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli makes an important point when he says Rhee has engaged wealthy donors in ed politics in a way no one else has been able to. You could extend that to say she’s engaged American elites in education reform in a way no one else has. But, other individuals and groups, state and national, have made real inroads here and been successful at impacting politics as a result. Petrilli then says Rhee has “leveled the playing field in terms of campaign contributions and in terms of savvy.” The campaign contribution assertion isn’t true on the facts, with hard and soft money the unions still outspend Rhee, and education reformers more generally – and out-organize them at the state and local level, too. But on the savvy point, we’ll see. Right now education reform is like Iraq. Reformers gather in the “Green Zones” and talk about their savvy while most of the country is untouched or has resistors blowing things up at every opportunity. Meanwhile, the unions are happy paint themselves as victims, but despite the last few years they’re still the most successful victims I know! I don’t want to overstate it and, of course, in our democracy blocking change is easier than creating it (as we’re about to see on guns). Still, if reformers are so damn savvy then why do things look the way they do?
Finally, in the article’s kicker I make the point that there is a half-life to an organization built just around a person. What I mean by that is when you look at successful organizations that stand the test of time (and founder transition) it can have a forceful leader but it also needs a reason to exist beyond that. The example I use a lot on this issue while working with non-profits is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which has impact, is widely respected, and can hardly be described as merely an extension of its leader, Bob Greenstein, despite how instrumental he is in its success. Rhee would be wise to study that and other similar examples.
A big part of the ruckus around Rhee stems from the basic logic that if you discredit her then you discredit Students First because the two are still so closely intertwined. It’s why a big organization with millions of members like the American Federation of Teachers spends so much time obsessed with a relatively little organization like Students First and Rhee. Students First is taking steps to address this with their policy work, the report card, etc…and Rhee’s critics seem to understand they’re in a race against the clock to knock all that down. That’s why this probably isn’t the last Rhee Week we’ll have.