F.A.Q.: Is there such a thing as a rational debate involving Michelle Rhee?

Michelle Rhee. (Center for American Progress.)
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A conversation with author and journalist Andrew Rice about former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and her hotly debated campaign to change American education by creating more charter schools, tying teacher pay to student performance and ending tenure.

Josh Benson: So what's your impression of Michelle Rhee, now that you've gotten to spend a bunch of time with her?

Andrew Rice: I think that she's a tremendously impressive communicator who manages, as I say in the piece, to make complex choices appear unambiguous when she is making her very clear-cut case. How you feel about that skill—whether you think it's a force for good or ill—is largely a matter of where you come down on the politics of education reform.

Josh: The actual ambiguities you got at in the article were fairly substantial ones, though, aren't they? If she were merely a very effective salesperson choosing to emphasize best-case scenarios, that would probably fall into the category of political license. If her salesmanship is actually masking fundamental flaws in her prescription for the problem of Bad Teachers, that's a whole other thing.

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So I guess I'm asking how she's doing on the Rice credulity scale, now that you've talked to her and some of the smartest education-policy people around.

Andrew: Well, again, not to cower behind the pretense of objectivity, but I tried pretty hard not to come down too definitively on one side or the other in the piece about the rightness or wrongness of her prescriptions. Rhee cites a set of very intriguing studies (many of them by economists) that suggest that teacher quality is the most important "in school" factor when it comes to determining educational achievement. The other side—the one that is more intellectually sympathetic to the union's position—actually acknowledges that those studies are on to something. It's that "in school" modifier that's the rub.

The reformers like to talk as if a good teacher can overcome anything, from poverty to lousy parenting to malnutrition—all these other outside factors that were traditionally assumed to have an affect on kids that is equal to or greater than anything that happens inside school.

As an outsider to the education debate when I started this story, I was quite surprised to discover that the present debate is totally teacher-centric—usually, the deeper you go into an issue, the more nuanced the arguments you hear from the experts. Eventually, I did find plenty of experts who question the relentless focus on teachers, who for instance point out that there has to be a reason, beyond bad teachers, that the worst-performing school districts tend to be in the poorest areas.

So I guess where I ultimately came down on this is: yes, there are some bad teachers out there, and policies like "last in, first out," which preserve seniority above all else, are clearly not in the best interests of children, schools, teachers, and maybe even the union itself. And the reform movement definitely serves a valuable purpose in bringing these issues to the fore. But educating a child is a complex endeavor, and we haven't managed to come up with an adequate rubric to measure it, or even a consensus definition of what constitutes "success." It seems unlikely, to me, that focusing on a single factor is likely to produce an all-encompassing solution.

Josh: And even that conclusion works both ways, I guess. The fact that teachers are not solely responsible for bad outcomes in schools in not an argument for doing nothing about ineffective teachers. As you suggest in the piece, the teachers happen to have the bad luck to be the only lever that’s pullable at the moment, unless Michelle Rhee has a trick for curing poverty, too.

As you say, there’s no way Rhee is quite as politically naïve as she likes to suggest she is. She may be reductive and even cynical in the way she's arguing her case, but she is now unignorable, and is one of the reasons that teachers unions all over the country are on their heels right now.

Might the lesson be that there is no room for nuance in this debate?

Andrew: Well, that's a big question, or rather a couple of questions right on top of each other. Let me start with the first one: that the "fire teachers" lever is the only one that is pullable at the moment. One of the appeals that Rhee's message has, especially to the Republican governors that she is working with, is that it's a reform that is revenue neutral, or actually cheaper, than the status quo. And let's stipulate here—since it seems to be an argument that some of the left are now making—that the Republicans haven't merely invented these budget crises, and that for the foreseeable future, "just spend more money" is not going to be a practical counter-argument. Is it really true, though, that every other possible solution costs a lot of money or involves tackling intractable problems like poverty?

When I saw Rhee speak at the Manhattan Institute a couple months ago, a guy by the name of Robert Pondiscio stood up and asked her a question—the only remotely skeptical one I heard her field. He said he had come into education as a member of the New York Teaching Fellows program, which Rhee helped to start, and had taught in the Bronx. And he asked: what about curriculum? What good is it to recruit the very best talent into the classroom, without any clear idea of what it is that those talented people should be teaching?

Pondiscio wrote a blog post about Rhee's answer to the question, but to summarize: she was pretty dismissive. She expresses very little interest in curriculum, and all sorts of other issues that have long been part of the wider education policy debate.

I think Randi Weingarten a couple years ago said something to the effect of: "These things are really really important, and they're really really boring." Now, of course that's a self-interested statement: it says, don't look at us, look at these really boring, technical questions of pedagogy and let's continue to have an argument without end while preserving all of the union's prerogatives. But can we really say that WHAT a teacher teaches, and WHERE and teacher teaches, is really so much less relevant than who those teachers are?

But on to your larger question: is Rhee politically naïve or immune to nuance? I can't say for certain, but I think she is both less naïve than she presents herself and less cynical than her critics would contend. I think that, as you quite correctly say, she sees the expression of complexity as something that distracts from the battle that can be won right now, to eliminate tenure, LIFO and all these other strictures that, in her opinion, make it difficult to address this one factor. There's this window that's open for her now, to affect these reformist (again, their words, not mine) changes through conservative means, because the governors are having to cut their budgets and these tough-love measures happen to help them do that. Then, after you take care of the teachers, you can move on to things like curriculum.

Rhee told me, "For me, it's first things first." There's an appeal to that argument—I can see why she's had so much success in bringing others along with her. On the other hand, is this present moment making teaching an appealing profession to enter in the first place? Are we giving the "good" new teachers the tools they need to be successful in the classroom? And are we creating expectations for the profession that are possible to meet? Or are we just going to keep firing people ad infinitum?

Josh: That last question gets to another thing you talk about in the piece, which is the fact that she is clearly getting lots of her political and material support from very conservative people, many of whom quite openly regard the downsizing of public education as an end rather than a means.

It's obvious why the teachers' unions would scream about this. But actually, is it unreasonable to consider the possibility of some catastrophic Guns of August scenario here? That the war on teachers unions achieves its own momentum, and that Rhee succeeds in making it easier not just to fire bad teachers but to fire teachers, period? Forget about the rhetoric, for a second, and the fact that teachers are going to be about as popular as journalists by the time Rhee and her D.N.C.-sized ad budget are through.

Is there a legitimate chance that something fundamental gets wrecked here?

Andrew: Absolutely.

That's the point I tried to make in the very last paragraph of the article, where I wrote that instigators can't control who takes up the cause.

There are two parts to Rhee's equation, which I think are illustrated by different junctures of her career. When she first came on the scene, it was as the head of an organization called the New Teacher Project, which was meant to recruit bright but perhaps unsatisfied professionals—people like Robert Pondiscio, who was an exec at Time Inc.—into the classroom. That's a fantastic idea, in my opinion, and one the unions were unjustifiably suspicious of in some places.

Now, with her new organization Students First, Rhee is concentrating on the other side of the equation, getting rid of the bad teachers who are taking up space that might otherwise we occupied by the Robert Pondiscios of the world. The question is, will such people want to move into the profession if it no longer feels either respected or secure (forget well-paid for the time being)?

Then, there are two other questions. Are there enough Robert Pondiscios in the world to fill the void left by the kind of purge Rhee envisions? (Half the teaching workforce turned over during her three years in D.C.) And how do we know that the replacements for the bad teachers will be an improvement, in aggregate? Teaching is already a very high-turnover profession, with lots of attrition especially among those newest to the profession. Here in New York, where this debate is of course now raging, I talked to a number of teachers who said that the mood inside their faculty lounges is demoralized, and I can't imagine that has no effect on the quality of education that's being imparted in those schools.

There was a great quote that I didn't get a chance to use in the story, from a guy named Barnett Berry, president of the Center for Teaching Quality. He said: “It does not escape me that the model that creates preordained churn among teachers is pretty simpatico with the ideological model that what we need is a lot of cheap, compliant teachers who do not stick around long enough to have a collective voice.”

Now, I don't think that's all that's going on here—as I've said, I think that Rhee has a valid point about the need for greater flexibility when it comes to managing the teaching workforce. But I find it hard to believe that anyone would want teaching to become something like the army: an institution that young people choose to enlist in for a couple of years due to some combination of patriotism, financial incentives (like getting students loans paid off) and lack of more lucrative options. Not saying that that will happen, of course—the comparison is obviously imperfect—but it does seem as if turnover should be a means, not an end, for reform.

Josh: You had Cynthia Brown, an education wonk at the Center for American Progress, saying, “The workforce is teachers, and demonizing their organizational representatives is not a way to move forward. Going to war? I think there’s got to be some nuance here.”

I think we both agree that’s a fair point. But when you were talking to these people who have devoted their lives to studying a public education system in which, everyone agrees, there is ample room for improvement, what did they tell you they were in favor of? Is anyone articulating an alternative to war that is also not a prescription for paralysis?

Andrew: Well, let me close by saying (in half-answer to your question) that I'm not an expert myself, and I'm sure I've made a lot of assertions here that the people who are truly in the trenches would find facile or wrong, and if so I'm sure they'll let me know in no uncertain terms. (One thing other thing that's surprised me about the education debate is the degree to which people of seeming goodwill just outright excoriate one another.)

But, as to the BIG QUESTION: is there a way forward? The answer is, a lot of smart people think so. They may have their own agendas, but I'll just lay out what they have to say. One thing that many were quick to mention is that the picture of the unions, and especially Randi Weingarten, that was presented in Waiting for Superman is much less black-and-white in real life. Lately, Weingarten has been saying things and taking steps toward compromise that would have seemed extremely unlikely just a short time ago. (Davis Guggenheim, the director of W.F.S., has actually pointed this out.)

The real firebrands in the reform movement would say, Randi's only making these moves because we've got her under serious pressure, and I'm sure there's some truth in that. It's also true that Weingarten is hardly the only voice that matters here—the N.E.A., not her A.F.T., is the nation's largest teachers union. But there's been progress.

Michelle Rhee's critics like to compare her to Andres Alonso, who became the superintendent of the Baltimore city schools the same year she did, and who has pursued many similar reforms, but without quite the same rhetorical fireworks. Last year, he negotiated a contract with the union that includes performance-pay measures and other innovations. He's gotten some pretty impressive results, as this Times story describes, and perhaps as importantly, he's still on the job to see his reforms through.

There are many differences between Alonso and Rhee, and it's too early to tell whether he'll succeed. But many education experts say that his tenure proves that you don't have to go to war with the union in order to affect change. Collaboration doesn't always have to be a euphemism for surrender.

Andrew Rice is a freelance journalist and the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget. He wrote about Michelle Rhee for New York Magazine.