Friday, January 3, 2020

Michelle Rhee Has Been Robbed

As the various lists of faces, names, moments that defined the education policy debates of the last decade have been tallied up, one name has been, I think, unfairly overlooked-- Michelle Rhee. No, really, bear with me.

The very fact that I don't really need to review her story makes part of my point. Rhee was the previous decade's best-known public face of education reform, culminating in that infamous Time cover of her holding a broom. Rhee was the quintessential reformster, a Teach for America product who had put in her time (including the apparently-hilarious incident in which she duct-taped student mouths shut). After her TFA stint, she started The New Teacher Project, a group that brought the TFA philosophy to older folks who had already had a job or two; TNTP morphed into another reformy thinky tank kibbitzing on topics from teacher evaluation to professional development. They made up something called the opportunity myth, but their big hit has been a position argument called "The Widget Effect" which argued that teachers should be paid, promoted, and fired based on student test scores.

This, somehow, led to a job in 2007 as the Chancellor of DC Public Schools, Rhee's big breakout role win which she beat the crap out of teachers and administrators alike. Her triumphs were celebrated, her improvements touted as proof of concept for hard-hitting accountability and firing your way to excellence. Except that it turned out that most of her DC miracle was not so much miracle as good old-fashioned fudging and cheating.

And it came with big costs. George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers Union, said no other superintendent had wrecked morale more than Rhee. Interviewed by Marc Fisher in 2009 for the Washington Post, Parker pointed to some other issues as well:

Parker spells out what many older, black teachers told me right after demanding that I not publish their names: "I suppose it's not simply racial -- it could be culture. The chancellor said to me, 'Why do people feel they need [tenure] protection if they're doing their jobs?' And I said, 'A lot of our veteran teachers know better.' As African American teachers, they learned coming up that it didn't matter how good you were: Because you were black, you weren't treated fairly. That is the African American experience. And there could be a lack of understanding of the culture of the workforce."

Mayor Adrian Fenty tied his own political future to Rhee's school leadership, and in the 2010 election, the voters said "No, thank you." Rhee was out of a job, but in a true edu-celebrity move, took to Oprah to announce her next move: the launching of StudentsFirst. And not just a launch, but  an audacious goal-- 1 million members would raise $1 billion dollars.

That was 2010, the dawn of the decade.

Rhee entered the decade as the quintessential reformster. She possessed no actual qualifications for the jobs she took on, had never even run a school, let alone a major urban district., She championed every reformy idea beloved at the time, from charters to test-based accountability to gutting teacher job protections and, as was the common back then, the notion that the real problem with schools was all the shitty teachers protected by their shitty unions.

Like many of the big names in education disruption in the oughts, Rhee skated on sheer chutzpah. There was no good reason for her to believe that she knew what the heck she was doing, but she was by-God certain that her outsider "expertise" was right and that all she needed to create success was the unbridled freedom to exert her will.

And in 2010, it was working. The media loved her and, more significantly, treated her like a go-to authority on all educational issues. They fell all over themselves to grab the privilege of printing the next glowing description of the empress's newest clothes. She was more than once packaged as the pro-reform counterpart of Diane Ravitch (though one thing that Rhee carefully and consistently avoided was any sort of head to head debate with actual education experts).

For the first part of the decade, it kept working. Students First became a powerhouse lobbying group, pushing hard for the end of teacher job protections. She was in 2011's reform agitprop film Waiting for Superman. LinkedIN dubbed her an expert influencer. She spoke out in favor of Common Core and related testing. A breathless and loving bio was published about her in 2011; in 2013 she published a book of her own. She had successfully parleyed her DC job into a national platform.

2014 seemed like peak Rhee. I actually decided to stop mentioning her by name; I felt guilty about increasing her already-prodigious footprint. She seemed unstoppable, and yet by 2014 we knew that the TFA miracle classrooms, the DC miracle, the TNTP boondoggle, the StudentsFirst failures (far short of 1 million or $1 billion). Rhee was the Kim Kardashian of ed reform, the popular spokesmodel who did not have one actual success to her name. She was increasingly dogged by her controversies.

And then, in the fall of 2014, Michelle Rhee simply evaporated from the ed scene. She left Students First (which itself shortly thereafter faded into the 50CAN network of education disruptor advocacy). She joined the board of Miracle-Gro (a decision that was itself not without controversy). She married NBA star Kevin Johnson and settled in Sacremento into the board of St. HOPE charter school (a position she still apparently holds). Her Twitter feed showed to her crawl, and her LinkedIN profile hasn't been updated to show she left Students First. She popped up again when Donald Trump was elected, but nothing came of that. Meanwhile, her husband's fortunes have slumped a bit (Deadspin in particular has been relentless in pushing Johnson controversies).

Rhee started the decade as a major player; she finishes as someone who's barely in the game. At her peak, she exemplified a particular type of education disruptor, as captured by this quick portrait from a Nicholas Lemann review of her autobiography:

But as soon as she becomes head of an organization, and a voice in public debates, and (perhaps most importantly) a regular fund-raiser among the very rich and their foundations, Rhee’s story begins to change into one in which everything wrong with public education is attributable to the malign influence of the teachers’ unions. Rhee is a major self-dramatizer. As naturally appealing to her as is the idea that more order, structure, discipline, and competition is the answer to all problems, even more appealing is the picture of herself as a righteously angry and fearless crusader who has the guts to stand up to entrenched power. She is always the little guy, and whoever she is fighting is always rich, powerful, and elite—and if, as her life progresses, her posse becomes Oprah Winfrey, Theodore Forstmann, and the Gates Foundation lined up against beleaguered school superintendents and presidents of union chapters, the irony of that situation has no tonal effect on her narrative. Again and again she gives us scenes of herself being warned that she cannot do what is plainly the right thing, because it is too risky, too difficult, too threatening to the unions, too likely to bring on horrific and unfair personal attacks—but the way she’s made, there’s nothing she can do but ignore the warnings and plow valiantly ahead.

Rhee typified the brand of hard-charging visionary crusading faux-Democrat CEO school leader, the brand of hubris-empowered reformsterism that believed a bold outsider with a clear vision and no obstacles (like unions and government rules and "experts") could remake schools into perfectly awesome engines of education. Joel Klein, Chris Barbic, the Broad Academy grads, the Chiefs for Change members, David Coleman-- just let them get their hands on the levers of power and get the hell out of their way, and they would show you how their outsider brilliance could fix everything that education professionals had screwed up. They were vocally anti-union and anti-teacher. (Meanwhile, stop picking on them and unfairly criticizing them.)

This was the decade that this brand of reformsterism fell aside to make room for other styles of privatization, from the technocrats to the champions of freedom. Other Reformsters quietly started suggesting that maybe for any reforms to actually work, maybe, just maybe, it would help to stop treating the teachers (who would, after all, have to actually implement this stuff) like the enemy. Reformsters like Eli Broad and Laurene Jobs bankrolled operations like Education Post to beat back those who dared to criticize their vision; it hasn't particularly helped. Attempts to break the teachers union seemed successful at first, but as West Virginia and Chicago and Kentucky and Oklahoma etc etc etc have shown, teachers are actually invested in their work and will fight for it. And most of the visionary CEO eduleaders have gotten their shot-- and failed to do anything spectacular; have, in fact, proven to be nothing more than well-connected, well-financed edu-amateurs who really didn't understand what they were doing. And while some have demonstrated an actual abiding interest in education (Eve Moskowitz turns out to have far more grit than most of her reform peers), some just keep failing upward from one job they can't really do to the next one, and many others have proven to have a short attention span, heading off to seek their fortune in some other field. The visionary CEO model suffers from a variety of problems, but the biggest one is that it just doesn't work, and every attempt to implement it yet again just exposes, again, how badly it fails.

In 2010, Rhee appeared to stand at the forefront of a group of people who, we might have predicted, would in ten years time be the Grand Masters of US Education. Instead they have become as transparent, as weightless, as the Emperor's new clothes in hot noonday sun. They scuttle from job to job like cockroaches escaping from one opened window after another. They are human vaporware. And in DC, folks are still trying to clean up after Rhee's mess.

Ed reform belongs to other people now, people less interested in flash and celebrity (do you think Betsy DeVos really cares if she gets the cover of Time magazine or not). They're worth a discussion another day. The visionary CEO model, the Rhee-style hubris-fueled edu-celebrity just-let-me-break-stuff model hasn't died, but I'd argue that it has lost the punch it had a decade ago, and that's been good news for education in this country. It is one of the stories of education in the last decade, and as its best symbol, Michelle Rhee deserves to be on all those lists. Embattled and attacked, run down just because she is an amateur who didn't know what she was doing, picked on just because she could never point to an actual true success in the field she had decided to elbow her way into, opposed by people just because they had invested their lives in the work that she casually commandeered, Rhee has been robbed one last time of what is rightfully hers-- a spot on those damn end-of-decade lists. May she enjoy her quiet life now, anyway.


  1. George Parker joined StudentsFirst and is now a "senior advisor" at the National Alliance for Public (sic) Charter Schools

  2. Brilliant article. And brilliant quote from Leman's review.

    It's breathtaking that people can get taken in by such transparent posturing - true vaporware. Is this what happens when a culture is soaked in entertainment - we stop seeing the difference between doing things, and perfecting the theatrical poses we associate with people who do these things? Is this yet more evidence that Neil Postman = John the Baptist? I wonder.

  3. My how times have changed. From, "She Who Shall Not Be Named" to the poster girl for reform has-beens. A woman whose education legacy will best be remembered by her re-perposing of masking tape and her "Erase to the Top" scandal. Don't forget her Time magazine cover story, complete with broom to sweep away all the deadwood teachers. Irony of irony that we're still standing tall while she has suffered the worst of fates: Irrelevance.,16641,20081208,00.html

  4. Steve Perry, too. Soledad O'Brien gave him so much free press. Where has THAT charlatan landed in 2020?

  5. No story of Michelle Rhee is complete without mention of her foremost cheerleader and enabler, John Merrow. Merrow was the man who, among other things, allowed her to fire a principal on live television. Merrow has never apologized or accounted for that act specifically or for his support of Rhee generally, yet somehow he is now considered a supporter of public education.

    1. I believe that John Merrow addressed the act and gave an explanation sometime last year. Apology.....I don't know? I don't know if it was on his blog or in an interview, but you may want to research a little further.

  6. Maybe an indication of her diminished profile, St. Hope lists her as "Michelle Johnson"... Kevin Johnson, former basketball player and St. Hope founder, former Sacramento Mayor (disgraced by #Metoo allegations) is her husband.

  7. Speaking from San Francisco, 90 miles from Rhee and Johnson's Sacramento home: Rhee faded away from public view basically simultaneously with her husband. The coverage of Johnson's alleged sexual assaults/harassment was getting intense, and that seemed to be the way they handled it -- just fade out of sight. Meanwhile, StudentsFirst never got close to reaping the millions it proclaimed it would (after a wildly hyped start on Oprah), but it certainly raked in some bucks, and where did those bucks go? Seems like Rhee and Johnson may be living comfortably, put it that way.

    I was in Sacramento on -- I know the exact date -- Sept. 11, 2015 -- I know this because there was a town parade and event that day. Johnson's term as mayor was close to its end. He and Rhee were in the town parade and spoke at the event, but it was kept low-key. StudentsFirst still existed at the time but had also become low-key. I went to look at the StudentsFirst office (again, this operation was WILDLY hyped). It wasn't quite a mail drop, but a step above one -- one occupant of an anonymous office building above a T-Mobile store, with only a tiny listing on one of the buttons at the front door to announce itself, and no sign of life.

  8. “The Mighty Have Fallen” by Derek Buford

  9. My how circumstances are different. From, "She Who Shall Not Be Named" to the banner young lady for change has-beens. A lady whose schooling heritage will best be recalled by her re-perposing of concealing tape and her "Delete to the Top" embarrassment. Remember her Time magazine main story, complete with brush to clear away all the deadwood instructors. Incongruity of incongruity that we're actually standing tall while she has experienced the most exceedingly terrible of destinies: Irrelevance.
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