Open Letters To Reformers I Know. Part 7: Michelle Rhee

Links to the rest of this series here

I first met Michelle Rhee, the reformer’s reformer, back in the summer of 1996.  At the time I was working for the TFA summer institute in Houston.  Though I was one year ‘ahead’ of her (I was a 1991 corps member and she was a 1992 corps member), she was several levels ahead of me by then.  I was a CMA (corps member adviser) and she was second in command of the entire institute.  I didn’t interact with her much for most of the summer.  There were a lot of cliques in TFA there and the ‘higher staff’ didn’t mingle a lot with the CMAs.

Back then, I remember, I was having trouble getting along with my immediate supervisor, a school director named Charlie.  Charlie had only taught three years and since I had taught four, I guess, I felt that he shouldn’t be micro-managing what I was doing.  This led to a big conflict early in the institute when at the opening ceremony I was asked to represent the 1991 corps in a typical TFA thing where one person from each corps tells why they joined TFA and why they are still a part of it.  I wrote a draft, which needed to be approved by Charlie, which included a joke about how I joined TFA, in part, because I wasn’t ready to go to law school.  He said I couldn’t say that since this wasn’t the time to be joking and I said that if I couldn’t make the joke than I wasn’t going to do the speech.  Well, he backed down but as a result of this conflict I stopped talking to him unless it was completely necessary.

A few days later when I was at my placement school I got a surprise visit from Michelle Rhee.  I was at a picnic table and she sat next to me and said, “Can I take you to lunch?”  Though she was many years away from getting infamous for firing people, I still got the sense that I was in a lot of trouble.  She led me to her car and she started driving me to the restaurant.  She was silent so I tried to break the silence with a joke — a reference to The Godfather Part II.  I said “You’re not taking me to Reno to shoot me, are you?”  She didn’t respond.  Maybe not a Godfather fan.  Maybe it just wasn’t a great joke.  We got seated at the place, Mexican, I think, and she suddenly became a lot more animated.  I think she said “So what’s going on?”  I started telling her about the problem I had with Charlie and she was a pretty good listener, actually.  I felt a little better as she offered me ‘validation’ and then she asked if I thought I might start talking to my supervisor again, and I said I would try, which I did.  Michelle actually did a nice job of intervention — something that might surprise people who know her as the big bad ‘Rhee.’

Throughout the next 15 years I saw Michelle at various TFA events, but never spoke to her, as far as I can remember.  When I worked for The New York City Teaching Fellows I was aware that Michelle was the head of The New Teacher Project, but she was in D.C. so I never had any contact with her, though I was working under her again.  When she was appointed Chancellor of D.C. schools in 2006, I didn’t know, then, how extreme she was with her views on improving schools.  I saw her on Oprah, I read about her in TIME magazine.  Still, it wasn’t until ‘Waiting For Superman’ came out that I started getting actually worried that Michelle had become the ‘leader’ of a reform movement that I considered to be dangerous.  Over the past year and a half, I’ve written her a few emails and she has always responded, sometimes within five minutes.  We haven’t gotten very deeply into the issues, but I’ve appreciated that she was willing to ‘engage’ with someone who is an opponent of some of her ideas.  One of our exchanges was posted, with permission, on Whitney Tilson’s email list once, but I haven’t ever put anything she ever wrote to me on my blog.

With this context, I’ve written part 7 of my Open Letters Series (to end the suspense, the 8th and final one will be to Wendy Kopp).


Dear Michelle,

I hope you’re doing well and are getting a chance to take a few days off.  Putting students first all the time is not good for one’s longevity.  Sometimes you’ve got to put your family or yourself first, I’m sure you agree.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been writing these letters to people I’ve known over the years.  Though I suppose that of the nine people I’m writing to, you’re the person who I know the least, only working together that one summer 16 years ago, and haven’t had much contact with since then.

Still, I’m pretty optimistic that you will respond since I think it will be very easy for you to respond.  Whereas all the other people, I think, are hesitant that they may inadvertently write something that you wouldn’t approve of, that isn’t something that you will have to worry about.  Also, I think you are most confident about what you stand for, so I’m hoping you’re willing to respond and possibly your response will contain some more insight into the nuances of what you think, beyond the usual soundbites that are a necessary part of your T.V. and radio appearances.

Aside from the time you supervised me when I worked as a trainer at the 1996 institute, I also worked for The New York City Teaching Fellows for a few summers in the early 2000s.  I found that organization to be well run and the staff to be generally on top of things, which was to your credit.  The Teaching Fellows, for a time, purchased thousands of copies of my first book to distribute to the teachers-in-training.  I don’t know if you authorized that, or were even aware of it, but if you did approve it, I appreciate that.

Michelle, I want you to know that I ‘get’ what frustrates you about education in this country.  Yes, there are some ‘bad’ teachers out there.  Yes, it is not easy to fire teachers under most union contracts.  And, yes, there are surely some ‘bad’ schools out there with a tipping point of ‘bad’ teachers and also ‘bad’ administrators.  Like a money pit car, it is a lot more efficient to scrap them then to try to fix them.  But what bothers me about the StudentsFirst platform is that I truly believe that the solutions you offer will, in the long run, do more harm than good.  My fear is that these reforms will not lead to increased student achievement and will, as a side effect, lead to massive teacher shortages as few will want to work in a job that has so little stability.

I’m not the only person, you are well aware, who feels this way.  The opposition to some of what you are doing is fairly large and since you must respect at least some of those people — we are not all union shills (I know that I’m not one) — that I wonder if you sometimes have any moments of self-doubt.  I base my feelings on the research I’ve done and find that I disagree with you on several of your key pillars of your education reform ideas.  If I were to summarize what I think your key beliefs are, I’d say they are:  1)  Our education system is, as a whole, failing.  2)  There should be a ‘great’ teacher in front of every class, 3) Parents should have many high quality choices of where to send their kids to schools, and 4) Laws and union contracts that protect teachers with tenure, LIFO layoffs, and evaluations that do not count, as a factor, student learning are things that harm students as the needs of the adults are put ahead of the needs of the students.

1)  I’m not convinced that our schools are ‘failing.’  Depending on what statistics you want to use, either point of view can look correct.  You have gotten a lot of mileage out of the PISA scores, but I’ve seen plenty of analysis of those same scores that paint a different picture.  Regardless, though, of how broken or not-broken the education in this country is right now, I believe that we would both agree that it can be improved and that it is very worthwhile to pursue improving it.

2)  But to improve it, we have to truly identify what the weaknesses of it are.  You have said and written much about how a big problem is the number of ‘bad’ teachers out there who are protected by their tenure and by the fact that they are not held accountable for how much their students learn.  If we could change the laws, you suggest, to rid ourselves of these teachers, achievement in this country will rise significantly.  Education research, unfortunately, is as much of an art as a science and there are studies you’ve quoted that say that ‘great’ teachers teach three times as much as ‘bad’ ones (Hanushek 1992) and also research that says that having three great teachers in a row will close the achievement gap (Jordan 1997).  I carefully read both of these reports and found serious problems with both of them.  More than anything, though, the conclusions they make run counter to what I’ve experienced in schools.

Now I’ll agree that there are teachers who are more talented than other teachers.  After teaching for fifteen years, I hope that I’m one of the more talented ones.  But I’ve also experienced, first hand at times, the limitation of teachers to overcome some external factors, particularly things like mental illness, including things like depression.  A question I’d like to ask you is:  What percent of teachers, do you think, are ‘great’ in that they truly cover a year and half worth of material in a year and that three such teachers consecutively will close the achievement gap?  I’ve met some great teachers in my time in schools, but I can’t say I’ve met any that I think accomplish this.

I know the theory is that if we ‘reward great teachers’ with merit pay that everyone will try a lot harder and that in doing so some average teachers might become great teachers and some ineffective teachers might become average teachers.  I do think that great teachers get rewarded.  Many schools have ‘lead teacher’ positions where a great teacher can make extra money by mentoring other teachers and sharing his or her best practices.  I’m not convinced, though, that the current type of teacher evaluations gauge teacher quality accurately enough to be used for these purposes.  Also, I’m not convinced that the benefits of giving bonuses to certain teachers, especially based on a flawed pseudo-scientific formula, outweighs the problems associated with it.  (Things like competition hindering collaboration and great teachers who are not evaluated as ‘great’ by the metric leaving the system because they think it is unfair.)

3)  As far as school choice goes, as a parent of two kids myself, I wouldn’t like it if my students were ‘trapped’ in a school with a majority of uncaring teachers and administrators.  Fortunately for me, I can afford to move if I really needed to (thank you lock-step seniority pay raises!).  But what concerns me about this current ‘choice’ movement is that it is really just an illusion.  From my research I’ve concluded that parents in poor community may have ‘choice,’ but those choices are about the same in quality as the schools they are escaping.  Some schools, particularly some charter schools, have found ways to make themselves ‘seem’ like they are doing significantly better than the nearby ‘failing’ school, but when I’ve really looked deeply into the numbers I’ve found these schools to generally have a lot of student attrition and even with that, have pretty low standardized test scores.  I visited my first high profile charter high school recently and, without getting into too many details, I was not very impressed.

My concern is that many of these schools are duping the public into giving them a lot of money to work their miracles.  This wouldn’t be so bad if their exaggerations were victimless crimes, but there are victims.  To make room for these schools there must be, as there are in several cities, mass closings of the neighborhood failing schools.  I believe that even if there is a slight benefit to having these ‘high-performing’ charter schools, even if they get their results, in part, by ridding themselves of some of the toughest to teach kids, the benefit is far outweighed by the turmoil that comes with shutting down neighborhood schools and displacing the students and also even firing the staffs.  The other schools, from what I’ve seen, just aren’t good enough to justify this ‘disruption.’

I’m also not convinced that the supposed ‘gains’ we see in ‘reform-minded’ cities like Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., and New Orleans are due to the reforms or if they would have had similar gains, if not greater ones, if different reforms were pursued.

4)  The name ‘StudentsFirst’ implies that your organization has beliefs counter to people who think that the needs of adults should sometimes come before the needs of students.  The name is well chosen to convey this idea.  It is hard for someone to say “I disagree with the policies supported by StudentsFirst” without sounding like some kind of jerk, but I can say, without shame, that all teachers, even the great ones, often make decisions that put their own needs above those of their students.  For example, it would be putting students first if every teacher were to donate 75% of their salaries back to the school.  This would enable the school to purchase the latest technology, more books, and even hire more teachers to get the class sizes down to what there are in elite private schools.  But it would be wrong to criticize teachers for not wanting to do this.  Teachers are very giving people.  Despite claims that we are on easy street, we have a tough job and many great teachers would not have become teachers without some of the benefits that go along with it.  We are not indentured servants.

As a parent I might ‘need’ to leave school each day at 4:00 PM to pick up my kids at daycare.  If I have a union contract that says that I can’t be asked to stay past 4:00 PM, despite the fact that it might benefit my students if I were to stay until 5:00 PM or 6:00 PM each day, then I am not a selfish teacher who is only thinking about his own needs.  I’m a person with a life and when there are times that my student’s needs conflict with my own, I will sometimes choose my own.

Now, if I ‘need’ to be late for school every day, well that’s a problem.  In that case the needs of the students to have a teacher in class surely outweighs my need to snooze an extra time.  But if I ‘need’ to watch the World Series and that causes me to go to sleep very late on a school night and though I get to school on time, I’m a bit tired that day and maybe not as sharp as I would have been if I had gone to sleep at 9:00 PM, well as long as this isn’t something I’m doing all the time, I certainly reserve the right to go to bed late some nights as my ‘need’ to have the right to use my free time as I wish, as long as it doesn’t interfere too much with my ability to do my job.

Now I know that you have not asked teachers to go to bed at 9:00 PM, but other things you’ve advocated do violate some teacher’s ‘needs.’  For instance, I feel like I ‘need’ to get a step raise in a predictable way.  As I get older, my expenses go up.  One day my kids will be in college.  I don’t think I’d keep being a teacher if I felt that fifteen years from now I could get a huge pay-cut based on my not meeting an inaccurate computer’s prediction of how well my class will do on a standardized test that has its own mistakes in it.  I also ‘need’ an evaluation system that is fair, not one that could rate me highly effective one year and highly ineffective the next year despite little difference in my quality of teaching.

Anyway, these are just some things on my mind.  You’ve surely responded to every one of my concerns in various writings and speeches throughout the years so I hope you’ll write back.



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19 Responses to Open Letters To Reformers I Know. Part 7: Michelle Rhee

  1. Steve M says:

    I predict that her response, whether public or private, will simply be recycled StudentsFirst policy statements that one of her TFA alums mashes together into a “personalized” letter. Like the others, she has become a politician who will benefit most by not really responding at all.

    • Cosmictinkerer says:

      Rhee studied government and public policy, so she definitely put herself on the political track, and you are right, she behaves much more like a politician than an advocate for students. She is is certainly no educator.

      I spent a few years working in insurance in my 20s. I learned a lot, but did that qualify me to pass myself off as an expert capable of leading the industry, evaluating veterans and promoting policy decisions in that field? More than anything, it made me realize what I did not know. Rhee does not recognize and acknowledge her own gaps in understanding the field of education. She has no business telling educators what their shortcomings are and how to do their jobs, let alone driving education policy decisions.

      Behind the highly orchestrated smoke and mirrors, Rhee is really just a shill for right-wing politicians and corporations intent on privatizing public education for profit motives.

    • Terry says:

      Hopefully it will not be as painful to read as her response to the Newtown tragedy where she didn’t even mention one dead teacher, referred to children as assets and then reverted back to herself. What a complete failure, but she did show her true colors. Reprehensible, indeed!

  2. Educator says:

    I don’t mean to be a broken record on Gary’s posts, but one question I have for the educational establishment and the education reformers is — One end goal is to create a society of critical thinkers who can become the future leaders of America. Do we know if the focus on test scores leads to this goal, as it seems many of the education reforms put in place (NCLB, value-added, school rankings based on scores) seem to be based on the assumption that test scores correctly reflect critical thinking? And every study of “effectiveness” seems to be based on standardized test scores.

    This speech by Professor Yong Zhou (starts at 18 minutes in)

    may make you rethink whether we should be judging a great education on PISA scores, or any other standardized test scores. He leaves you with questions such as:

    1) Why is it that countries like South Korea and China, which have super awesome international test scores, are trying to figure out how to get their students to be like American students and their teachers like American teachers?

    2) When you hire someone, do you look at their test scores? When you see a leader, did s/he have great test scores?

    3) The United States has always ranked low or average in international test scores. (I think it’s also because of our higher child poverty rates, but that’s a different topic.) This has been the case since the 1950’s, so American education, by today’s reformers’ definitions, has been failing for over 60 years. If we’ve been failing as a nation for 60 years, why are we still an international leader by countless measures?

    But I understand why the reformers are upset — they’re upset that low-income, minority students, are not reaching the middle class in America. They’re stuck in poverty, and they don’t attend top colleges in the same numbers as their White and Asian counterparts. Their zip code determines destiny for the most part. So for Michelle, TFA, DFER, etc…I understand them, I think. They’re seeing this injustice, they’re pissed, and so they want to change the status quo educational system.

    I just hope that instead of trying to drop a bomb in the system with firings, school closings, kicking out SPED/ELL/difficult to manage students from charters….that the reforms take time to reflect, evaluate, gain experience in education, and then innovate from there.

    And most important, be honest. I’m afraid the education reformers are the new status quo, where they’ve created a new system that may be based off of pseudo science and pseudo statistics. Now as the ed reform status quo is being questioned by folks like Gary, it seems many reformers are running for cover. But the irony is that many of the reformers criticized the education establishment for protecting their status quo and running for cover also when they’ve been questioned.

    I hope 2013 can be a year where both the establishment and the reformers can reflect and move this conversation forward.

    • Terry says:

      I have to disagree. They don’t really care about the injustice or unequal opportunities; this is solely about advancing themselves, their pocketbooks and their images. If they were so concerned they would be in the trenches working with these kids and they are not. They are opportunists plain and simple. Michelle and Wendy are concerned with their reputations and their potential to profit off an exaggerated crisis. Shame on media whores.

      • Cameron says:

        As someone who was in the classroom for four years, and left to learn more about how kids learn math so I could help teachers, I disagree.
        It is not an exaggerated crisis. I don’t agree with everything Michelle and Wendy say, but when I’ve seen them speak I do truly believe they care about kids and they think that their strategies will help kids.
        Somebody needs to visit the trenches and then leave them to work for massive organizational change. Some people need to stay. Leaving doesn’t mean you don’t care.

  3. Steve M says:

    I don’t think that “reformers” are the new status quo. Instead, they are the barbarians knocking at the gate. Their influence certainly extends past the number of institutions they have under control, certainly, but at the (fairly moderate) rate which they are upsetting things, their deceits, lies and self-deceptions will be recognized before they disrupt the whole system.

    Of course, they will cause an incredible amount of damage in the process. Like Gary says, people such as Michelle and Wendy are ultimately going to keep a lot more prospective educators out of the profession than draw in. And, like the charter advocates that they support in many ways, are two of the forces that will drive the profession from delivering a middle class wage.

    It is going to take a good ten years for the public to see this as the failure that it is.

  4. Terry says:

    Why does anyone even listen to this pariah? She was an average teacher, at best, a mean spirited self aborbed chancellor. She used questionable practices herself…by some standards..child abuse. dShe has lied about her accomplishments. She married a pedophile. She refers to teachers as human capital and children as assets. She says what the union busters want to hear. She is not raising her own children. I don’t care what she thinks. She is not an educator. She is a FRAUD and she has delusions of grandeur.

  5. Puget Sound Parent says:

    Good post, Gary—but please fix the typo in the last paragraph “…standardized test that has it’s own mistakes in it. ”

    Thanks for writing to Rhee. She needs to hear from people like you who have the credibility and the experience to undermine her mendacious narrative.

    When I meet a so-called “education reformer”, I always make sure I get to ask the KEY QUESTION: “How much are you getting paid and who or what is the source of your income?”

    That will generally tell you all you need to know.

    Happy Holidays, Gary. Looking forward to your 2013 posts!

  6. Caroline Grannan says:

    Do you really believe Rhee the tiniest bit sincere and hasn’t just been swept into seeking money and power through this destructive, immoral route? Surely she doesn’t have enough of a conscience or enough of a soul to even consider trying to reach.

    I think that many “rephormers” probably started out sincere and got sucked into a “fake it till you make it” milieu that gradually erodes their moral principle. But it seems impossible that someone as flinty and remorseless as Rhee was ever sincere.

  7. Marc V says:

    I’ll admit my hesitation at the open-letter approach, Gary. But I just wanted to say that reading these letters, along with numerous comments attached to each, has been a constructive use of my own time and contributed greatly to my own reflections. Thank you for doing these, and especially for the civility with which you have articulated your thoughts.

  8. LBerger says:

    Thank you Gary for your very thoughtful posts. There was, however, one point that really stuck out to me — it would be great if you could tell me more about your thinking. You wrote: “A question I’d like to ask you is: What percent of teachers, do you think, are ‘great’ in that they truly cover a year and half worth of material in a year and that three such teachers consecutively will close the achievement gap? I’ve met some great teachers in my time in schools, but I can’t say I’ve met any that I think accomplish this.”

    This concerns me because in many classrooms, especially low-income, classrooms, this is a necessary challenge. When there are fifth graders on a third grade level, or eight graders on a fourth grade level … there is work that needs to be done.

    As a student in low-income schools and a second year corps member in a low-income school, I believe it CAN be done…

    • Educator says:

      Well, hence these education debates. How exactly can this be done, and can it be scaled? And, how important is it to have test scores increase? (This is another debate.)

      The no excuses reform camp has stated that it can be done, and they claim it has been done especially in charters, and they promote a series of reforms. Gary is questioning these “results” in these letters. And, to his knowledge, there is o evidence of these miracle schools in America yet, just fuzzy statistic math tricks. See his Wik on miracle schools. No excuses reformers also seem to blame educators and “status quo” for not believing this can be done. Hence, stop making excuses. The problem is, so far, there doesn’t seem to be evidence the no excuses folks are doing this. Personally, I don’t want to believe it’s not possible, but I have not seen a low income/ELL/SPED school be successful yet. The ones that I used to think did have done tricks like having high dropout rates to increase their scores. Again, see the Wiki. Go to Gary Rubinstein’s main page and click on the top right.

      The other camp, which I’ll call the social context reformers, believe, in my view, of a more holistic approach that includes what’s called wraparound services, like counseling, physical and mental health, smaller class sizes, and more. Of course, this costs money, and I don’t know how many taxpayers are willing to pay for these services. Although they believe low income students can achieve, in order for them to achieve at the same rates as middle class students, other factors need to be addressed…like poverty.

      Gary’s posts are interesting because he could be considered a once pro-TFAer and is questioning what TFA is doing now.

  9. DCParent says:

    Sorry Gary
    AS a Dc Parent who dealt directly with her and is dealing now with Hederson (Ms. I don’t have a curriculum but hey lets close schools) , I can’t say that if Rhee had a compassionate response that I could even believe her. This duo has simply been too damaging to communities, teachers and learners in this city.
    Good luck with your letters though.

  10. Educator says:

    In the off chance that people who come to this blog post don’t know about the Rhee cheating scandal in D.C.

    Here are links to the PBS Frontline documentary and follow up investigative articles —

    Please, for the sake of the children, let’s get to the bottom of this. Reporters like John Merrow don’t have the power to subpoena obviously. All he and his producers got were shut doors and phone call hang-ups when he tried to investigate D.C.

    Yes, Rhee is very connected with those in power, but now it’s time for those in power to distance themselves and realize that they need to do the right thing. Investigate D.C. now. These “no excuses” multiple choice test policies are being implemented nationwide based on what seems to me to be another Atlanta scandal.

    Education reformers: You may have good intentions and I know many of you do care for poor children, but you have to step back and ask yourself, are you doing more harm than good by promoting Atlanta-type policies?

  11. Educator says:

    Update by Merrow that’s sure to turn heads:

  12. Pingback: Why I stopped being a public school parent | | local knowledge without a net.

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