Thursday, September 18, 2008

Michelle Rhee Quote and Analysis

This comes from Michelle Rhee, so-called master reformer of the DC public schools. She acts as chancellor, and has caused a stir, mainly for her firings and school closings. This is from an interview with the ever-so-polite Charlie Rose.

"When you are basing the effectiveness of teachers on lots of softer* things...whether the kids feel good, whether the classroom is happy, whether we're creative...but if the kids can't read, that's not acceptable. You might have a happy classroom. It's not the classroom we're going to have in this district."

*Note:Emphasis added.

I immediately find this appauling for a few reasons. First, what kind of attitude will a child have throughout their education and indeed their adult life, if their happiness, comfort, safety, creativity, etc...are not ensured during the developmental parts of their schooling? If people link learning with a disregard for happiness, comfort, safety, and creativity, we will see a continued decline in lifelong learners and critical, analytical inquirers. Who the hell can learn when these things are absent? It's almost as if Rhee infers that we should flip Maslow's heirarchy1 on it's head. Absurd.

Furthermore, I think Rhee needs to evaluate the goals of education in the first place. By this I don't mean schooling, but education in its purest form. William Bennett, Reagan's Secretary of Education, attempted to ask this, although he came well short of getting a meaningful answer expunged from a world of economics and politics. It could be that Rhee's thinking is even more shallow than Bennett's, which is downright scary.

It is clear that Rhee sees nothing more for 'her' students in DC, many of them poor, and non-white, than acquiring jobs that require basic skills. To allow them the opportunity to be creative, for example, cuts their chance of getting a really crappy office job. Those who waste their lives being happy and creative really should have focused on those basic skills, and they could continue a life devoid of creativity, happiness, comfort, safety, etc...which they learned to love during their 12 years - if they last that long - in Rhee's DC schools.

It is just absolutely unbelievable that Rhee is praised for spewing such venom. She has denied the right of these children, becuase they're poor and non-white, to become self-aware, metacognitive, and self-motivated. She seems to believe that her story, as a child of Korean immigrants, can and should be the story of every child in the DC district. The old, 'I did it, and you should be able to also.'

What she fails to see is that there is a purpose to education that goes beyond hireability and marketability. In my opinion, the underpinnings of education are the very things Rhee wishes to deny our children - the opportunity to be happy, creative, and safe.

1 Abraham Maslow (1954) attempted to synthesize a large body of research related to human motivation. Prior to Maslow, researchers generally focused separately on such factors as biology, achievement, or power to explain what energizes, directs, and sustains human behavior. Maslow posited a hierarchy of human needs based on two groupings: deficiency needs and growth needs. Within the deficiency needs, each lower need must be met before moving to the next higher level. Once each of these needs has been satisfied, if at some future time a deficiency is detected, the individual will act to remove the deficiency.

-from Citation: Huitt, W. (2004). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date] from,


Just My Thoughts said...


First, Michelle Rhee is not saying classrooms should not be all the things you mention at the top of your post, she is saying that for a classroom to be ONLY those things is not acceptable. For any of us who have spent time teaching in DCPS who have seen teacher after teacher have a classroom where kids felt comfortable and safe but did not develop acadmically, we praise her desire to push for high achievement for our children.

Secondly, Michelle Rhee is not white. Her own children who are being educated in the DC public schools are not white. Your assertion that she doesn't care about kids who are not white is absurd on every level.

Finally, Michelle Rhee has demonstrated at every turn that she cares passionately for the children of DCPS, that she wants nothing but high expectations for them and those of us who interact with them.

Her job is harder than I can possibly imagine but I admire her commitment to our kids, to their achievement, and her desire to ensure every adult in our system is only doing what is best for children.

conscientizacao said...

Thanks for the comment. I don't think it's helpful to get really emotional, but I'd like to maybe clarify where I'm coming from in my original post.

I don't deny that Rhee brings high expectations of some kind to the DC public schools. I also don't deny that DC schools, along with schools nationally, are in crisis. Additionally, it would be absurd to not have high expectations for our children. However, I think my disagreement with Rhee and her methods lies in the defining of "high expectations" and "standards."

Standardized tests that simply evaluate decoding literacy skills completely unconnected from the students' personal lives are not fair judgements of the holistic position of a child. Standardized tests, which is the benchmark that Rhee uses as justification, tell us simply how well a student does on said standardized test. They cannot evaluate the effects of poverty, expectation, self affect, etc...They also cannot evaluate nor do they place any weight on emotional, social, spiritual, creative, and cultural intelligence. In all interviews and speeches by Rhee, which are the bulk of my sources, she makes scant mention of a child as a holistic being. Rather, she focuses on easily digestable, though similarly refutable, quantifiable data. Trust me, I realize the convenience of these measures for comparison sake. However, we're doing a disservice to teachers, parents, and staff by implying that they need an external criterion by which to judge their kiddos.

I personally have much more faith in the holistic assessments that are made collectively by teachers, parents, staff, and students themselves. The problem here is that such evaluations don't provide politicians like Rhee hard numbers with which to rally public support.

As far as her race, I apologize if I wasn't clear in what I meant to convey. I simply mean that her making congruent her experience as a non-white daughter of immigrant parents is not entirely valid. There are geographical, racial, cultural, ideological, temporal, ecnonomic, etc...facets of Rhee's past, just as there are with all of us and all of the children in DC and elsewhere. While her experience may very well be similar in some ways to some of the children she's dealing with, it is impossible for her to claim that her path is equivalent to that of any other person, in the same way I cannot ever truly know what has brought you to the place you are currently, even if we work in the same school, in the same town, have the same birthday, are neighbors, have a similar cultural/racial background, etc...

I hope you see what I'm getting at. It's really less about race and more about identity in general. In fact, I think the class division is a terribly problematic one, and one that must be addressed.

Again, thanks for your comment. If nothing else, I think you will agree that discourse is integral in moving ahead in 'the right' direction. Cheers.

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