We know that the flesh and blood Michelle A. Rhee was born in Michigan 43 years ago, the second child of South Korean immigrants Shang Rhee, a physician, and Inza Rhee, a clothing store owner. She spent most of her childhood in Ohio, where she attended public and private schools.
My question is about the public phenomenon known as “Michelle Rhee.” The one that’s has become America’s most prominent education activist. She’s loved by some, hated and/or feared by others. To her admirers, she’s a shining symbol of all that’s right in school reform. Her opponents see her as the representative of the forces of greed, privatization and teacher-bashing in education.
Who created that character, that symbol? I can identify four possible parents: She created herself. We created her. “They” did. U did.
Michelle Rhee created “Michelle Rhee.” There’s some evidence for this line of thinking. Either accidentally or deliberately, she exaggerated her success as a teacher in Baltimore. She inflated her resumé to include an appearance on Good Morning America, which has no record of her being on the program. Her early resumé claims that she had been featured in the Wall Street Journal, but, again, we could find no record. She said (and still says) that she ‘founded’ The New Teacher Project, an assertion that is disputed by reliable sources familiar with Teach for America. A more likely story is that she was asked by its real founder, Wendy Kopp, to take it and run with it–and she did.
But lots of people puff up their resumés early in their career, without attaining Rhee-level success. She may have started the ball rolling, but she can’t claim most of the credit/blame for her own creation. We need to search further to find her principal creators.
We, the mainstream media, created “Michelle Rhee.” Good argument there. Rhee blew into Washington like a whirlwind, where she was a great story and an overdo gust of fresh air. DC schools were pretty bad, and she was candid, accessible, energetic, young, and attractive–everything reporters love. While I don’t think my reporting for the NewsHour was puffery, we did produce twelve (!) pieces about her efforts over the 40 months — about two hours of primetime coverage. That’s an awful lot of attention.
Did anyone else get that much air time from us? Well, yes, we also produced twelve reports about Paul Vallas in New Orleans. But Vallas never received the positive treatment (or even the coverage) from the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Charlie Rose, et alia, that Rhee did back in 2007-2009.
Were we skeptical enough about the ‘miracle’ gains in her first year? Unfortunately not. So we certainly helped create the public phenomenon that is “Michelle Rhee.”
“They” created her. “They,” according to conspiracy theorists, are the Walton Foundation and other right-leaning organizations; ALEC; the Koch brothers, Eli Broad and other wealthy individuals; and influential power-brokers like Joel Klein. Without them, this explanation has it, she would be nothing.
But we don’t know for certain where the money behind Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst comes from. Moreover, it’s an insult to her to assume that she would fall in line and parrot whatever her wealthy backers want her to say. Seems more likely they liked what she was saying and decided to bankroll her efforts. So I guess one could say that “They” helped create her, just as the mainstream media did.
And finally U created her. “U” is my shorthand for teacher unions. This is simple physics: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The “Michelle Rhee” phenomenon is the inevitable product of, and reaction to, intransigent teacher union policies like the ones that produced New York City’s famous “rubber room,” where teachers who couldn’t be fired spent their days reading, napping, and doing crossword puzzles–on full salary and with the full support of the United Federation of Teachers, the local union. (See Steven Brill’s Class Warfare.) She’s the inevitable reaction to union leaders who devote their energy to preserving seniority at the expense of talented young teachers, not to mention children. She’s the product of the California Teachers Association, which I recall was willing to sacrifice librarians’ jobs in order to preserve salary increases for teachers. She’s a social reaction to union leaders like Vice President Jack Steinberg of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. In an interview that is burned into my memory, Steinberg asserted that teachers can never be held accountable for student results. No teacher! Not ever! Jack was muzzled when he said that on national television in 1996, but he and his union have stayed on message.
But let’s remember that union intransigence didn’t just spring up all of a sudden out of nowhere. It too was produced by that same law of physics. Teacher union militancy was a long time coming and was the reaction to administrative policies that infantilized and trivialized teaching.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that U(nions) also created the social phenomenon that is “Michelle Rhee”–and are now reaping that bitter fruit.
So ‘They,’ we and U created the social phenomenon that is “Michelle Rhee.” What happens next?
Rhee’s critics now openly mock her after the revelations about her failure to investigate widespread erasures while she was Chancellor in Washington. “Erase to the Top” is the clever new meme, and her famous Time Magazine cover has been altered. Will this mockery defeat her? Perhaps.
Even if that strategy is successful, it won’t do much for kids, who are generally forgotten in these nasty political fights.
Is it asking too much to expect strong leadership from Arne Duncan and President Obama on this? More words about ‘Race to the Top’ and ‘The Common Core’ are not enough, not now.
I have said this before, but we need to be measuring what we value, instead of valuing what we measure (usually cheaply). What do we value? That’s a more important question than “Who created “Michelle Rhee”?”