Wednesday, August 31, 2011

SpecificRhee Speaking

We live in a country where those seeking to “reform” education actually do more damage than improvement.  It is beyond the time when the public must learn to recognize these people and their arguments when they appear on television and in mailboxes during election season.  We must learn to identify them through their own words, and once identified, to banish them from their positions of influence. 

Michelle Rhee is only one such individual.  But her words in a recent interview on CBS news serve up several examples of the kinds of beliefs held by reformers, and if we can take the lessons to be learned from her words to heart, we can get a sense of what lies behind these persistently non-specific ideas.

Rhee, of course, is the former superintendent of the D.C. school district and the star in an undeserving role as a credible policy maker in Waiting For Superman.  The video of her interview was posted here: Rhee Interview

I’d like to go through a few of her quotes, and offer the reaction of a teacher in the trenches.

What’s amazing about her statements is how many of them I have already debunked extensively on my blog.  People really do say these things, and here are the latest versions:

#1: Standards Are the Answer
Rhee: “We have to have standards, we have to have certain expectations. If we hold high expectations for children, they will rise to meet them.”

Truth: This boilerplate ideology is the definition of vapid nonsense.  You’ll notice here, as I have specifically addressed in greater detail previously (see especially the Lunacy of High Expectations series), that she gives not one example of what constitutes a high expectation.  She just reiterates the same cliche about how children will “rise” to meet whatever high expectations we set for them. 

To this I always ask, “So why don’t we offer calculus to sixth graders?”  Isn’t that a high expectation?  Won’t the students rise to meet it? 

Oh, except, sixth graders aren’t ready for calculus.  Rhee no doubt would say this isn’t what she meant.  But then what do she and all the others like her mean when they make this statement?  They never get specific.

Does she mean we should expect all students to pass calculus in order to graduate?  Does she mean all students should have to give a ten minute presentation to a room of 500 people?  Does she mean all students should have to write a fifty page essay with thirty non-internet sources?  Or maybe she means all students should be able to get 5's (the highest score) on three AP exams in order to graduate. 

What does she mean?  These are all absurd examples of high expectations.  But that’s because the question of defining what constitutes a “high” expectation that is also attainable is far, far more difficult that someone of her lack of understanding is capable of answering.  She really doesn’t know. 

She thinks a standardized test score is a high expectation.  Well then why don’t we just ask all students to ace the standardized test?  Isn’t that a high expectation?  Won’t they “rise” to meet it?  That’s the mantra she and her ilk keep spewing. 

The truth is, this cliche has absolutely zero meaning.  She says, “We have to have standards.”  Huh?  Every state in the country has standards.  Every single one.  What’s she talking about? 

#2: What’s a Good Teacher?
Rhee follows the previous statement with this one: She says good teachers believe “it is part of their responsibility to ensure they meet those expectations.”

Truth: How many teachers don’t think their students need to meet their expectations?  Who doesn’t want their students to do well?  This is just another vague, general, accusatory statement implying our schools are filled with apathetic teachers who never consider the importance of their role as educators. 

How many teachers fit this description?  I’m not saying there aren’t any, and the one bone I will throw to Rhee is her interest in including more than just seniority in determining which teachers get laid off during budget cuts.  I have watched several great teachers get laid off from my school because they were too low on the totem pole.  But the number of teachers who fit her insinuation here is very small. 

In addition, is this all there is to good teaching?  Having high expectations?  That’s it?  That seems a little simplistic, really.  It is my belief that people who use phrases such as this to explain good teaching do not actually know what good teaching is. 

Further, the idea that you can remove every single careless teacher is pretty far-fetched.  Yet, this is her ideal.  Listen to her next quote:

#3: Every Single Teacher is Great
Rhee: “What we should be striving for is making sure every single child in every single classroom has a teacher like him.”

Truth: Is this a reasonable goal?  Why is it that in education, there persists this fantastical notion that it is possible for every single teacher to be superb.  That every single last student will master all the academic requirements expected of them. 

Doesn’t this defy human experience for the last several thousand years?  What occupation, industry, bureaucracy, or institution has ever lived up to a standard of absolute and total success? 
Even the best football teams in history, when you listen to the players talk after they win their third Super Bowl, they discuss the many mistakes they made and that they could have done better.  Improvement is always possible.  Nobody succeeds every single time.

Yet Rhee thinks it’s possible to have an outstanding–not competent, not decent, but outstanding–teacher in every single classroom across a nation with over 300 million people. 

The “him” she refers to is a teacher named Mr. McCarthy who was interviewed by the same reporter right before her.  He gets about three minutes of screen time, and this is enough observation for her to declare him an outstanding teacher.  She’s never observed him in class.  Never seen his actual data or methods.  Has no idea what kind of students he teachers.  But she knows he’s outstanding. 

That aside (which sheds light into how flippantly she likely considers her other decisions as well), suppose he really is this outstanding.  What makes him so?  Listen to her next quote:

#4: He’s Better Because...
Rhee: “You heard from some of his kids, that they see a real difference between being in his classroom and being in someone else’s classroom.  So there is a very significant difference in our country between a highly effective teacher like Mr. McCarthy, and an ineffective teacher.”

Truth: What?

On what is she basing this?  Because his students like him, this means he’s a great teacher? 

At my school, one of the students’ favorite substitute teachers is the one who passes out candy when he’s in their class.  They praise him publicly all the time.  In my opinion, he’s one of our least qualified subs.  One time in my class, all I asked of him was to pass out an assignment and collect it at the end of the period.  In one class, only five students turned it in.  In the second class, he didn’t even pass them out. 

But the students love him, so he must be a great teacher.  He “cares.”

But, let’s suppose McCarthy really is as outstanding as Rhee has labeled him.  Suppose his students are correct, and that his classroom is uncommonly excellent.  Rhee highlights how different his class is from...all those ineffective teachers out there.  In other words, because his students like his class so much more, all their other teachers must be ineffective.  This is what she’s essentially saying.

Are these the only two possibilities?  Is there no room for mere competence here?  Can’t a teacher just be a decent teacher?  While in one breath she lauds his class for being so different, in another she declares that every single child deserves every single one of their teachers to be this good.  But is that even possible?  Won’t there always be exceptional, average, and subpar teachers–the same as in every other job in the entire world?

In other words, she believes every class should have such an outstanding teacher that the students just spend all day marveling about the greatness of it all, and soon every class will score in the 90th percentile. 

Math reality: If you doing percentiles, there will always be half the country in the bottom half. 

Does Rhee get that?  Let’s say you have ten classrooms.  Let’s say their scores on a test worth 100 points have the following averages: 87, 83, 82, 82, 81, 79, 75, 74, 74, and 61.

Now, suppose the 61, the following year, increases to 85. Are we now going to label the classes scoring 74 as failing because they are at the lowest percentile? 

Only if we don’t understand basic math.  The truth is, there is a limit to how high any achievement can go.  That’s why it’s called an average.  Unless you’re in Lake Wobegon, half the kids will score above average, and half below it.  That’s the definition of median. 

The bottom line is this: Just because students love a teacher doesn’t mean he’s a great teacher.  Conversely, just because they hate him doesn’t mean he’s a bad one.  I’ve had students who despise me, “hate my guts,” according to one.  I’ve had others who have sent me personal letters of thanks for how much they liked my class and how much they learned. 

Student opinions do not have much credibility with regard to the quality of a teacher. 

The second bottom line is this: Rhee can go on all she wants about how effective this teacher she’s never observed and doesn’t know is compared to all the other ineffective ones.  She never defines what makes a good teacher.  She never specifies what good teaching looks like.  And the reason she doesn’t is because she doesn’t know. 

#5: Do the Impossible?
The interviewer at least asked some good questions.  Following Rhee’s previous comments about how we need great teachers everywhere, she was asked very directly, how do we actually do that?  Very good, I thought.  Make her get specific.  Don’t let her skate by with generalities and buzzwords.  Let’s prove she doesn’t actually know.  Would I be right in this assumption?

Rhee: “People are very interested in the possibility of coming into teaching. What we have to do is make it easy for them to do so.  We should have high standards for the kinds of people who are entering into the classroom.”

Truth: Yep. I was right.  So, Michelle Rhee’s answer for how to get a great teacher in every classroom is to make it easy for people to become teachers. 

This basically asserts that schools of education are worthless.  (I know some teachers who might agree...because sadly, some of them are. However, the ones that don’t prepare teachers well, in my experience, fail because they spend all their time on untested methods and unrealistic approaches that don’t work in a real classroom). 

But many schools of education, such as the one I attended at Oregon State, are reasonably effective.  When I showed up to my first teaching job, a week long substitute position in a middle school social studies class, I felt prepared and qualified.  During my week, the students learned, and even built models of various ancient buildings by the end of the week. 

And I’m endorsed in math and chemistry. 

See, this is because teaching is not only about the content.  People like Rhee think content is all there is to teaching (see next quote..).  But the truth is, if I had to, I could teach anything.  Because I know what it means to lead a class such that learning takes place.  It’s not me that has to learn; it’s the students.  I don’t need to be an expert in the subject to still help them learn it.  If this weren’t true, then almost all home-schooled students would be woefully under-educated, because most parents are not experts in every subject. 

Yet we see that many home-schooled students do just fine in college, and in fact excel there.

Rhee seems to believe that without an outstanding teacher, students will not learn.  This is totally false.  A student can still learn even from a terrible teacher.  It’s harder, of course, and the student has to want it.  But it’s still very possible.

Rhee also seems to think it’s possible to make it easier to let people become teachers, while simultaneously raising the standards for becoming a teacher.  These are contradictory statements.  You can’t have it both ways. 

Further, do we really want it to be even easier?  Shouldn’t it take a little work?  Aren’t we just inviting even more people who “feel” like teaching but aren’t actually very good at it to say, “What the heck, I’ll give it a shot. All I have to do is spend a summer taking a few classes and passing some tests”?

#6: The Content Delusion
Here are two more comments from Rhee elaborating on this idea:
Rhee: “But for somebody who has studied to potentially become a lawyer like Mr. McCarthy, we have to have a pathway for them.”

“It should be that when we have talented people, who don’t necessarily have an education degree, but who do have very strong content knowledge, we have to have a path for those people to come through.”

Truth: Like I said, she thinks content knowledge is all that matters.  What about managing a classroom?  Designing an effective curriculum?  Reflecting on your instructional practices?  Writing good assessments? (Oh wait, she wants the state to do that one....).  Interacting with parents?  Knowing how to use technology effectively?  These other skills are not optional.  They are what truly make a teacher, a teacher. 

By her logic, if you take the smartest mathematician in the world and put him in a high school class, he will be the best math teacher they’ve ever had.  In reality, he’ll probably be a bore, and will lose patience quickly with all these students who can’t solve basic fractions.

This is how she describes this McCarthy fellow who apparently went to law school.  So everyone who goes to law school, because law is so much “harder” than schools of education, will automatically be great teachers? 

Now, I’m not against what she’s saying here, in general.  If a person wants to become a teacher, there needs to be a pathway for that.  But, there already is!  I personally know over a dozen teachers who worked in various industries before entering education.  It happens all the time!

So, not only is this a total non-solution to putting an “outstanding” teacher in every classroom, but it’s already been done.  These pathways already exist, and they aren’t making anything near the difference Rhee seems to think they will. 

#7: Testing Panacea
Finally, for the last quote, Rhee talks about standardized testing.  The interviewer tells us Rhee believes testing to be the best objective standard for evaluating the effectiveness of a teacher.  This is false, but I won’t go into the details here, as I have written about it elsewhere.  Then she asks Rhee for her thoughts about the Atlanta testing scandal, which I’ve also discussed in two other posts.  Here is Rhee’s response:

Rhee: “But I think that it's important not to draw the conclusion that, because a minority of people are cheating, that we should throw the entire testing and accountability system out. That makes no sense whatsoever.”

Truth: Why not?  While she is correct this is probably only a minority of the teachers, and that most of us would never compromise our integrity, she fails to consider the factors that led up to this scandal and the others that will follow.  The fact that it happened at all should cause us to ask some serious questions about placing so much emphasis on a single test.
  • Is a single test capable of evaluating a student’s worthiness to graduate?
  • Can a single standardized test accurately reveal the effectiveness of a teacher over an entire year?
  • What would motivate so many teachers and administrators to cheat on these tests?
  • Is it right, or even plausible, to hold all students to the same standards?  Who decides which standards, and how well a student must perform to show they “know” it?
This last question to me is the key one.  Again I urge you to read my series about the Lunacy of High Expectations.  Not every student can or should be held to the same expectations.  This is a pernicious lie that pollutes much of the education reform movement.  The standardization of everything is itself part of the problem.  Not every student comes in with the same skills or behaviors suitable to learning.  And not every student will be at the same place in tenth grade.  Therefore, how can we possibly expect every student to pass a test the same year?  Some of them just aren’t ready yet, for a whole host of reasons.

The Failure of Testing
Washington state’s test scores for last year were just released today.  On the state science test, students improved in every single grade level.  In math, the averages for students between third and seventh grade either rose or stayed the same.  Remember, this is across the entire state.  At my high school, Franklin, in Seattle, our scores improved dramatically in reading (over 16 percentage points), and also increased in writing and science.  And, our scores beat the district averages.  Why is this significant?  Because we are an “urban” school.  We have one of the highest percentages in the state of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch.  This means we have a high rate of poverty in our school compared to most others in the district.  And yet we beat the district averages on the reading and writing tests, and our students receiving free lunches beat the district averages handily on all three tests compared to those students at the other schools. 

I’m not saying all this to toot our own horn, even though clearly, we rock.  No, the reason I bring this up is simply this:

According to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) “law,” we are still failing. 

See, to the people like Michelle Rhee, it’s not even enough to improve.  They continually want to press us down, discourage us, and then force us to change everything.  How do they do this?  By setting impossible standards, and then labeling us failures when we don’t meet them.  They never acknowledge success on its own merits.  Success is defined by a number, and if we don’t reach that number, we fail.

We improved in every category.  How can we still be a failure?  Because we didn’t improve enough:

“No Johnny, I told my friends you were gonna score 20 goals this season.  You only scored 18. You disappointed me again! Go to your room!”

The public needs to keep hearing this truth.  According to this “law,” if one group of students among the 30 or so they monitor fails to meet these arbitrary levels of improvement, the entire school is labeled a failure.  Yes, you read that right.  The entire school.  And now you can see how 223 out of 295 school districts in our state have been labeled failures.

The truth is, they aren’t failures.  They just didn’t measure up to an impossible standard.

Conclusion: What Is Our Response?
The ultimate absurdity?  By 2014, according to NCLB, all students–every single one–must pass the reading and math tests. 

At least Rhee and those like her are consistent.  Just as they want an “outstanding” teacher in every classroom, they also want every student to pass the state tests.  Anything less than perfection is failure, to them. 

Is this the person you want influencing educational policies in your country, state, or school?  She’s not the only one like this.  The public–that’s you–needs to start learning how to determine if a candidate or policy-maker has this kind of view toward education.  We need to learn to identify these people and send them packing quickly.  Take away their funding and their influence.  Tell your friends and neighbors not to vote for or support them.  Expose their lack of understanding by demanding specifics they will be unable to give.

Read Rhee’s seven quotes here. These are not unique to her.  Anyone who uses the tired line about children “rising” to high expectations is living in a fantasy world.  The beliefs she puts forth here are the very ones that will help you identify other people who see education as she does–through an inexperienced, shallow, uninformed, unqualified, distorted, narrow-minded perspective for whom nothing is ever good enough. 

If you want education to improve, first we must defeat those who are trying to make it worse and who blame the wrong people for its struggles. 

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