Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Ball Buster

I am referring to the woman in the picture above, D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Some might gasp at such a description, but I can't think of a more appropriate description. Michelle Rhee is a ball buster. And yes, you do need a ball buster to do the job that Ms. Rhee is trying to do. For better or worse, she is now the de facto face of education reform in this country.

Certainly, she has a tough task at hand, and no one can doubt that she needs to get tough to do it. But there is also a lot of room to worry. This part of the Time article has already given a lot of people pause, including myself:

"In many private encounters with officials, bureaucrats and even fundraisers–who have committed millions of dollars to help her reform the schools–she doesn’t smile or nod or do any of the things most people do to put others at ease. She reads her BlackBerry when people talk to her. I have seen her walk out of small meetings held for her benefit without a word of explanation. She says things most superintendents would not. “The thing that kills me about education is that it’s so touchy-feely,” she tells me one afternoon in her office. Then she raises her chin and does what I come to recognize as her standard imitation of people she doesn’t respect. Sometimes she uses this voice to imitate teachers; other times, politicians or parents. Never students. “People say, ‘Well, you know, test scores don’t take into account creativity and the love of learning,’” she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. “I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t give a crap.’ Don’t get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job.”

Fair enough, but standardized tests also don't take into account the seriousness with which most students take them given there is no link between the test scores and grades. Don't even get me started with the issue of human grading of more subjective test questions. And as far as education being too "touchy-feely", students are not robots. People, especially young people, are highly emotional, and complex beings that come from numerous different backgrounds. They respond to different methods of teaching, discipline, evaluation, etc. in different ways. Don't get me wrong, there should be strong discipline, tough standards, and accountability. But it isn't so black and white.

Another concern with Rhee that myself and others have is that she may go too far in trying to shake things up. Yes, things need to be shaken up, but how much is too much? Robert Pondiscio makes a better argument than I can on this point:

"Here’s what worries me: accurate or inaccurate, fair or unfair, the increasingly confrontational, impatient, blunt, even rude public persona that’s affixing itself to the Washington, DC schools chancellor runs the risk of getting in the way of what Michelle Rhee wants to accomplish. I’ll put it bluntly: piss off enough people whose help is essential to your success, and your failure becomes inevitable, a consummation devoutly to be wished. Then for years to come, the answer to the reforms anyone proposes becomes, “Oh yes, we tried that in Washington under Michelle Rhee and you remember how that worked out.” If she fails, Michelle Rhee’s failure will not be hers alone. At worst, she runs the risk of damaging the ed reform “brand” for a generation."

Rhee kind of reminds me of another famous education reformer:

Granted, this is an exaggerated comparison, and I'm not saying that this is the way to do things. But Crazy Joe and Ms. Rhee both have more in common than people think. And without question, both are ball busters when it comes to education reform. Let us all hope that Rhee does what she needs to do to get the job done without going overboard.

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