“Still Waiting for Superwoman”

Richard Kahlenberg is a thoughtful education thinker and author, someone I agree with on all kinds of issues. As I once wrote on the editorial pages of USA Today, the best outcome for D.C. kids would be to open pipelines so they would have the option of attending schools in Montgomery and Arlington counties, two school districts with impressive reputations for educating diverse student populations.

With that in mind, I’ll try to offer some thoughtful responses to his Slate assessment of both Michelle Rhee in general and my new book, The Bee Eater. I’ll tick them off in USA Today bullet style:

– The heart of the book lies in trying to explain why low income black children in D.C. are as much as two years behind similar children in several other urban areas. My conclusion, from visiting successful and unsuccessful schools in mirror neighborhoods, was that the schools making progress were those with forceful new leaders who replaced some, or even all, of their teaching staff. That lined up with what experts on D.C. schools advised me from the beginning: when Rhee arrived in D.C. in 2007, only about a third of the teachers were capable of making significant progress with their students.

To Kahlenberg: If teacher quality wasn’t the main player behind D.C.’s lapses, what was? Money spent per pupil there certainly wasn’t a player.

– Teacher quality, including the ability to hire and fire, doesn’t matter at the elite charter schools experiencing unprecedented success with children failed by traditional urban schools? I find it hard to believe that’s a position you want to defend.

– Of course poverty and segregation matter. A lot. And don’t forget what usually gets blamed by both D.C. teachers and parents – bad parenting. Again, though, you have to explain why D.C. kids are behind kids just like them in other cities. Are D.C. parents really that much worse at parenting? Doubtful.

– You say the unions work at trying to get rid of bad teachers. If peer review works, then I’m all in favor. My book, however, was not about Montgomery County. It was about D.C., and here’s what I found in D.C.: When Sousa Middle School in Anacostia (the academic death trap “Anthony” wanted so badly to avoid in “Waiting for Superman) got a Rhee-appointed principal who pulled off one of the most dramatic urban school turnarounds I’ve ever witnessed, union leaders cried foul. One prominent anti-Rhee blogger, who now serves as vice president of the Washington Teachers Union, called him a “bully.” That same person came to the defense of a principal Rhee fired at nearby Johnson Middle School, a school that continues to fail, claiming erroneously that Rhee had him led off in handcuffs. No mention of the abysmal academic outcomes at Johnson – didn’t seem to be an issue for her.

– You say Rhee bungled her attempts at integrating schools. Certainly, her move to draw in middle class parents at Hardy Middle School backfired when opponents used racial politics to fight back. Given what you’ve written about the importance of economic and racial integration, however, are you arguing she should not have tried? Blaming Rhee for the backlash, promoted by Washington Post writers and columnists, seems odd. Should she really shoulder all that blame? This city, including many of its politicians, educators and journalists, seem bizarrely satisfied with the reality that D.C. schools are now likely to remain economically and racially isolated. And yet your blame gets solely focused on Rhee, the one person who tried to break that isolation.

– You cite Rhee’s main achievement as delivering textbooks on time. Really? Nothing about regaining control over the district’s special education system, firing under-performing teachers, cleaning out central office staffers who were costing the city millions by mishandling special education paperwork, sparking turnarounds in schools such as Sousa or building what is recognized as one of the nation’s most sophisticated teacher evaluation systems?

– You criticize her for non-collaboration. Last night I asked a group of D.C. residents at a book gathering to give me their own assessment of whether “Michelle Lite” (Rhee’s reforms with more cooperation and smiles) would have worked. How many of you, I asked, believe Rhee could have closed those 23 unneeded schools so quickly had she involved D.C. council members at every step of the process? What I got back was knowing laughter. No way.

I agree that Rhee has a unique ability to polarize people, which is not usually a good thing. What I struggle to come up with is a D.C.-like school district – Kansas City, St. Louis, Detroit, Newark, L.A. – where Rhee-like gains are being made with a Michelle Lite approach. If I cheat, and name some mostly middle class places such as Montgomery County, I can. If I name districts such as Baltimore or New Haven where promising reforms are in place, I can do it. But if I don’t cheat, and if I base my answer on actual student outcomes, that challenge gets a lot harder.

The signs of the National Press “going negative” on Rhee – perhaps to make up for their previous enthusiasm — are everywhere. My only surprise is that it has taken this long. (Full disclosure: In my journalistic past I’ve also tried to be the “first” to build the counter-argument. Gets you published every time.) So I don’t want to be a hypocrite here. Just one cautionary note: before you go negative, take the Michelle Lite challenge offered in the previous paragraph.

Again, my book was on what happened in D.C., and when assessing what she did in D.C., I come to the conclusion that the answer why poor black kids were so far behind distills down to a simple explanation: effective teaching wasn’t taking place. Rick I read your piece twice looking for your explanation. Still looking for it.

This entry was posted in Bee Eater press. Bookmark the permalink.