By Zachariah Bryan
Northwest Asian Weekly
There is no middle ground when it comes to national education reform figure Michelle Rhee. People either love her or they hate her.
At a talk she gave on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at Seattle Town Hall, to promote her new book, “Radical: Fighting to Put Students First,” both sides were prevalent. Audience members ranged from those eager to soak in every word of the cold, hard truth Rhee had to deliver, to those who scoffed and laughed mockingly after every big point Rhee tried to make.
In her new book, Rhee tells her personal story of her life commitment to education. It includes her time as a teacher in inner city Baltimore, her time as the first chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools under Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, and her founding of the national education reform organization, StudentsFirst, which she described as a “union” to lobby on behalf of kids, just as teachers have unions to lobby for them.
Rhee’s policies and cures have not been without their controversy. As the chancellor in D.C., opponents said her harsh policies on punishing underperformance were responsible for schools closing down and 241 teachers being fired. She believes that seniority status should not be a factor in teacher layoffs and parents should be able to send their children to whatever school they want. Moreover, she claims that America has lost its competitive edge and that parents coddle their children too much, rewarding them even when talent is nowhere to be seen.
Rhee jokingly used her daughters as an example. They are terrible at soccer, she said, yet they still have all manner of ribbons and trophies to show off. Rhee admitted that she was also bad at soccer and said her daughters unfortunately received the same genes.
For some, her points are lucid. Others say she is a teacher hater.
The Northwest Asian Weekly had a chance to catch up with Rhee before her talk on Wednesday.
NWAW: This recent election, we just passed an initiative to do a pilot program of charter schools, to create up to 40. So I guess first of all, I want to know, what is your opinion on charter schools, and secondly, how do you think we should proceed with them?
Rhee: So I am a huge fan of effective charter schools. I think the problem in the debate today is that some people think that charter schools are the answer to all of the problems in public education, and other people think they are the root of all evil. The fact of the matter is that they are neither, they’re somewhere in the middle.
There are incredibly effective charter schools across this country that really do absolutely heroic things for the kids, and those schools should be recognized, they should be grown to scale. And there are some not so good charter schools, and those schools should be closed.
So I think as Washington state moves forward in this, what it should be focused on is less, “Is this a charter school versus a traditional public school?” It should be more about, “Is this an effective school?” Because I think that’s the dynamic, that’s the differentiation you want the public to make.
NWAW: I don’t know if you’ve heard about the MAP testing protest going on here. (Rhee nods yes.) What I want to know is either your opinion on MAP testing, or assessment testing in general. Is it effective? And how should we handle this situation?
Rhee: What the bottom line is is that assessing kids in a consistent standardized way is important. You can’t have every teacher, every school developing their own test — then you can’t do apples to apples comparisons, which is what you’re going to have to do in a district or a state. You have to know what kids are doing, who has grown the most, etc. So we have to have these.
That said, you know, are the vast majority of standardized tests in the country perfect? No. Are they good? Some of them aren’t even good. And so we have to do a tremendous amount of work to improve them.
With the MAP test … (teachers should) go back to the table and say, “OK, here’s what worked and what didn’t work, and here’s what we want to see moving forward,” as opposed to a boycott, which quite frankly I don’t see the productivity in, number one. Number two, you see this sort of thing going on across the country where people are saying, “Well, boycott this test,” and “Solidarity with Seattle,” when these teachers and these students don’t actually even know what the specific issues in Seattle are, and they might not even have that issue in their state. It helps feed into the anti-testing frenzy, which I don’t think is a helpful one
NWAW: Can you speak to any personal experiences as an Asian American in the American education system?
Rhee: I write about this in my book. I grew up in a Korean American household that was very focused on education. I spent a year in Korea in the 6th grade and just learned how important education was in the culture. It was the thing every parent focused on. Every kid knew they were going to be held accountable.
I think that what we have to understand in America is that’s who our kids are competing against. We have to know in the new global economy that this is not about the kids in Seattle competing for jobs against the kids in Sacramento or Memphis. They’re going to be competing for jobs against kids in India or China or Korea, so we have to understand more about the good things those countries are doing.
NWAW: Do you think there can be more done for people of color in general in our education system?
Rhee: Well, you know we have a significant achievement gap here in this country, where African American and Latino kids are graduating at a much lower rate. Their achievements are at a much lower level. And so we have to focus as a country on making it a priority to ensure the color of a child’s skin does not dictate their educational achievement levels. (end)
For more information, visit www.studentsfirst.org/pages/about-michelle-rhee.
As of press time, Michelle Rhee’s Town Hall talk has not been uploaded. When it is, you can view it at seattlechannel.org/TownSquare.
Zachariah Bryan can be reached at email@example.com.