Monday, December 01, 2008

Bare and Falanced

In Time Magazine's elaborate puff piece about DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee, there are quite a few leaps of faith that go unchallenged. First there's this:

Rhee has promised to make Washington the highest-performing urban school district in the nation, a prospect that, if realized, could transform the way schools across the country are run.

It's odd to see people judged solely on the strength of their promises. But how else can one praise Ms. Rhee, who, from everything I can glean, cannot be proven to have accomplished anything whatsoever? I can't think of a politician anywhere who hasn't done an excellent job by this standard. On the other hand, I'd have to give much the same credit to lunatics standing on soapboxes in Washington Square Park. Or working in Tweed.

Here's another leap of faith. Actually, I understand people taking them for religion, but for those of us who've not yet accepted Michelle Rhee as our personal savior, this is a toughie:

Rhee suffered during that first year, and so did her students. She could not control the class. Her father remembers her returning home to visit and telling him she didn't want to go back. She had hives on her face from the stress.

The second year, Rhee got better.

But there's no objective proof of that, despite the fact she was working in a school that should have shouted such an achievement to the rooftops. I'm ashamed to admit that, after 9/11, when W. talked about the need to go into Iraq, and when he and his cohorts said the smoking gun could turn into a mushroom cloud, I believed him. After all, he was the President of the United States, and we'd just been attacked.

Rhee offers not only her word, but that of her principal, the one who neglected to mention this achievement to anyone of note when it was supposedly occurring. Pardon me if I grant him no more credence than our head of state.

And then we come to this tidbit, a gem of objective journalism:

The most glaring example of the backward logic of schools is the way most teachers receive lifetime job security after one or two years of work.

First of all, I know of no one who gets tenure, let alone "lifetime job security," after a year or two. If it does indeed work like that in DC, it's plainly idiotic to assume that it works the same in the rest of the country. As for the "lifetime job security," tell it to the ATR teachers in NYC, tell it to the ones whose schools have been closed, or renamed (depending on whom you're asking) tell it to my colleagues in the rubber room, and tell it to those facing dismissal hearings (and you won't need to remind any of them that their lives are not precisely over--so much for that "lifetime job security"). In fact, tell me, after I faced the wrath of my ex-principal for having the temerity to tell a NY Times columnist that two of my so-called ESL students were actually fluent in English, but were illiterate.

If he could have fired me that day, there's no question that he would have. And in the hours of meetings I was forced to attend afterward, not one moment was devoted to finding assistance for these kids. It was more, "Is your butt covered? My butt is covered," and the like. I wouldn't trust that principal, or Michelle Rhee, as far as I could throw them.
In October, Rhee vowed to purge incompetent teachers through any means necessary. She has brought on extra staff to help principals navigate the byzantine termination process...

Wait a minute. There's a termination process? I thought the writer just stated teachers got lifetime job security after a year or two. Isn't that a boldfaced contradiction? And who was it who gave those supposedly unfitt teachers tenure anyway? Hasn't Michelle Rhee had this job for the year or two it takes for them to earn tenure? Despite her failure to accomplish anything, and despite her lack of a verifiable record, isn't she herself actually accountable for anything that's happened under her tenure?

It appears not.

Will anyone offer a disparaging word, in this long love-fest for Ms. Rhee? Why yes, it appears part-time AFT President (and part-time UFT President) Randi Weingarten is willing to make a comment:
"Michelle Rhee believes in scorched earth," says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union that has become unusually involved in local matters in Washington. "I am not saying that D.C.'s school system doesn't need a lot of help. But I have been part of a lot of reforms, and the one thing I have never seen work is a hierarchical, top-down model."

Ms. Weingarten is absolutely right, of course. She should know, because the hierarchical, top-down model that is the UFT aristocracy has failed miserably, along with Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, to bring any meaningful reform to NYC, where kids still study in trailers, closets, hallways, and even bathrooms. She supported mayoral control, class-size reforms that didn't work, the ATR mess, and a reorganization that made it worse. She made sure teachers worked more hours and days, and had fewer protections.

In fact, her model enabled Joel Klein, who recommended Ms. Rhee. Ms. Weingarten has not opposed Mayor Bloomberg's grab for a third term, continuation of the disaster that's been mayoral control, the privatization of health insurance for city workers, or even Joel Klein as US Secretary of Education. With friends like her, I'm afraid teachers in DC have quite a lot to worry about.
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