Still Waiting for Superwoman

What Michelle Rhee’s fans don’t get about education reform.

Michelle Rhee, former public schools chancellor of Washington, D.C.

The national press and political class adore Michelle Rhee, who ran the D.C. public schools from 2007 until 2010. She’s appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek, chatted on television with Oprah and David Gregory, and starred in Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman and a 12-part series on PBS’ the NewsHour. This level of attention is unheard of for a schools chancellor of any size district, much less the 108th largest in the country.

For many, Rhee is the heroine in a morality play that draws on the power of the civil rights movement. In Washington, D.C., disadvantaged black and brown children are being robbed of an education, and Rhee has been battling the forces that were keeping them down: the teachers’ union. Whereas the union selfishly put adults first, Rhee puts kids first. The new organization she just founded, StudentsFirst, is hoping to raise $1 billion explicitly to counter the political influence of the unions.

In years past, Republicans like Bob Dole castigated teachers’ unions as a central impediment to good schools, which made political and policy sense because the unions are strong supporters of Democratic candidates and provide the political muscle that has stymied conservative school-privatization initiatives. But today the critique of unions is advanced not just by conservatives like George Will, but liberals like Jonathan Alter and Nicholas Kristof; not just the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, but also of the Washington Post and New York Times. And in the 2008 presidential debate at Hofstra University, Barack Obama called Rhee, one of the nation’s leading critics of unions, a “wonderful new superintendent.”

Rhee’s message about education reform is very seductive because it’s simple and optimistic. Childhood poverty and economic school segregation, in Rhee’s world, are just “excuses” for teacher failure. If we could just get the unions to agree to stop protecting bad teachers and allow great teachers to be paid more, she says, we could make all the difference in education. The narrative is attractive because it indeed would be wonderful if poverty and segregation didn’t matter, and if heroic teachers could consistently overcome the odds for students whom everyone agrees deserve a better shot in life.

The fact that Rhee is a hard-working Ivy League graduate makes the elite press respect her as one of their own. And Rhee’s flair for the dramatic makes her irresistible. In his well-written and highly favorable biography, The Bee Eater, Richard Whitmire recounts that as a teacher in Baltimore, Rhee grabbed the attention of her students one day when she swatted a bee flying around the classroom and promptly swallowed it. As a chancellor, Rhee once told a film crew, “I’m going to fire somebody in a little while. Do you want to see that?”

Most education researchers, though, recognize that Rhee’s simple vision of heroic teachers saving American education is a fantasy, and that her dramatic, often authoritarian, style is ill-suited for education. If the ability to fire bad teachers and pay great teachers more were the key missing ingredient in education reform, why haven’t charter schools, 88% of which are nonunionized and have that flexibility, lit the education world on fire? Why did the nation’s most comprehensive study of charter schools, conducted by Stanford University researchers and sponsored by pro-charter foundations, conclude that charters outperformed regular public schools only 17 percent of the time, and actually did significantly worse 37 percent of the time? Why don’t Southern states, which have weak teachers’ unions, or none at all, outperform other parts of the country? Rhee often noted that poor blacks in New York are two years ahead of poor blacks in Washington, which properly illustrates that demography is not destiny, but New York didn’t get ahead by firing bad teachers. Chancellor Joel Klein terminated only three teachers for incompetence between 2008 and 2010.

The press—including Whitmire, a former USA Today editorial writer—has a fundamental misunderstanding of unions. Whitmire writes that Rhee’s proposal to weaken tenure protections and pay great teachers more “represented an existential challenge” to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “If the union couldn’t protect their members’ jobs, what was the point of having a union?” In fact, teachers’ unions were created to do lots of things: lobby for more funding for public education, increase teacher salaries, reduce class size, improve the ability of teachers to discipline students, and fight private-school-voucher initiatives.        

The AFT also favors plans to get rid of bad teachers, just not in a way that unfairly demeans large numbers of educators. In 2009, Rhee said she had to fire 266 teachers for budget reasons and told an interviewer, “I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed seventy-eight days of school.” In fact, she later conceded, only 10 teachers had been fired for corporal punishment and two for sexual misconduct since 2007. Just recently, an arbitrator reinstated 75 educators fired by Rhee in 2008 after determining that Rhee had not explained why they were being terminated nor given them a chance to respond to charges. At one point during her tenure, Rhee floated the idea of getting a Congressional declaration of emergency, so she wouldn’t have to bargain with the democratically elected representatives of teachers at all. “Cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building,” she argued, “are way overrated.”

But in fact, collaboration can be used to achieve Rhee’s objectives—such as getting rid of bad teachers—in a way that elevates rather than demoralizes educators. Several communities, from Montgomery County, Md., to Toledo, Ohio, use peer evaluation and review, whereby expert teachers come into a school, try to help struggling educators, but in the end recommend that some be terminated. This might seem like the fox guarding the hen house. But in both communities, teachers were tougher on colleagues than administrators had been because the 7th-grade teacher is hurt when the 6th-grade teacher is incompetent. Beginning in 2002, 177 Montgomery County teachers were dismissed, not renewed, or resigned in the first four years of peer review, compared with just one teacher who was dismissed due to performance issues between 1994 and 1999. Peer review remains controversial among many teachers, but the AFT has a national policy in support of it.

Rhee’s call for rewarding teacher performance also has a place, but the program needs to be structured to encourage rather than limit cooperation among teaching colleagues. In nations that beat us on international exams, teachers collaborate on lesson plans and share the best methods for teaching difficult concepts. Merit-pay plans that significantly reward teachers for school-wide gains, as well as for individual gains, provide incentives to share, rather than hoard, good teaching ideas.

The tragedy of Rhee’s tenure is that the second major prong of her education reform strategy—bringing D.C.’s middle-class back into public education—could have made an enormous difference to low-income students in D.C. But she bungled that, too. Rhee couldn’t herself do much about poverty levels, but it was within her power to address the socioeconomic Balkanization of schools by intelligently managing Washington’s gentrification.

Rhee knew that attracting more middle-class students of all races into public schools would strengthen the schools for all students. In one interview, she recounted Warren Buffett’s advice to her that the nation’s education problems would be solved if private schools were made illegal and students were randomly assigned. No one actually advocates that approach, of course, but behind Buffett’s remarks is the old “common school” idea, also inherent in Brown v. Board of Education, that if low-income and black students attend schools with middle-class and white students, they will have far better opportunities. In economically integrated schools, poor students benefit from peers with big dreams, a parental community that is actively involved in school affairs, and strong teachers.

In D.C., the goal of making all schools majority middle class is not immediately possible, given that 63 percent of the city’s students are low-income, but Rhee could have made significant progress in many schools for three reasons. First, the wealth of D.C. residents is growing dramatically, as upper-middle-class people have moved to the city in droves. Second, white middle-class families, rightly or wrongly, liked Rhee’s reforms and became more willing to take a serious look at using public schools. Third, Rhee made a conscious effort to recruit middle-class families through, among other efforts, pre-K programs that were designed to make middle-class families comfortable with using public schools. Under Rhee’s watch, the D.C. public schools’$2 41-year decline in student population ended.

But the politics of gentrification are complex, and Rhee never spelled out a long-run comprehensive plan to make sure the influx of middle-class families would benefit everyone in the system. The case wouldn’t have been hard to make: Low-income students in more affluent schools are two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools. And the infrastructure was already in place to bring students from different parts of Washington’s highly segregated residential areas together because two-thirds of D.C. students already choose to attend a charter or out-of-boundary public school. Because no overall plan was announced to benefit everyone, however, Rhee was seen as courting affluent white kids to create segregated enclaves of privilege, most notably at one middle school in wealthy Georgetown.

The story line, says Whitmire, became that Rhee favored whites over blacks; and in the end, Rhee and her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, were ousted in the 2010 Democratic mayoral primary, a result Rhee ungraciously declared “devastating” for D.C. schoolchildren. Whitmire suggests Rhee’s fate involved “race politics” at its worst. At one point, Whitmire hypothesizes: “Part of the resentment against Rhee in some parts of D.C. appears rooted in the fact that it took a Korean American to actually improve schools—after a long string of black schools chiefs produced no improvements.” One would expect a racially loaded charge like this to be backed up by evidence from polls or interviews, but Whitmire provides none whatsoever.

What is undeniable is that black voters in D.C. did not like Michelle Rhee. Only one-quarter of black women viewed her favorably. There is some evidence that African-American voters believed that Rhee had unfairly treated D.C.’s mostly black teaching force by firing educators without adequate explanation and generally holding veteran teachers in disdain. (She posed on the cover of Time with a broom in hand.) Conservatives are accustomed to getting almost no black support, but one wonders whether it gives liberal Rhee supporters some pause that a set of reforms which were supposed to help black children were decisively rejected by black voters.

Michelle Rhee undoubtedly made some important improvements to D.C. public schools. Under her regime, kids got textbooks on time. Rhee made more efficient use of space by closing underutilized schools. But she didn’t revolutionize education in DC. Some schools improved, but even Whitmire concedes that one of her signature “success” stories (improvement at Dunbar High School) subsequently unraveled. Overall, D.C. scores improved on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but at no faster rate than under Rhee’s two immediate predecessors.

What the press never saw—and Whitmire fails to recognize—is that Michelle Rhee’s war on teachers’ unions was a sideshow that distracted from the more important effort to give more low-income students a chance to attend middle-class public schools. Another school leader might have been humbled by her experience and thought about ways to work with teachers to improve education. Instead, with StudentsFirst, Rhee has doubled down on her approach, aligning herself with conservative anti-union governors in New Jersey and Florida.How many more years will it take the press to see that adopting Bob Dole’s talking points won’t bring about the civil rights revolution in education that’s so sorely needed?

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.