Friday, February 3, 2023

Michelle Rhee Is Back

Michelle Rhee, the Kim Kardashian of education, the poster child for a decade of reformsterism, is back in action in the education entrepreneur space, and the White House has apparently welcomed her. 

There's no way this could end badly

First, a refresher course

If you're old enough to have memories of Rhee's salad days, you can skip this section. But in 2023, it's entirely possible that some folks will say, "Who?" So here's who.

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, and done it all as the prototypical pro-reform Democrat.

I wrote a retrospective of her career (from which the above is cribbed), which suddenly evaporated around 2014, when her brand of Visionary CEO leadership began to falter (mostly because it had failed to produce any positive results). She was on the board of Miracle-Gro. She settled down in with husband and former NBA star Kevin Johnson in Sacramento (Johnson had troubles of his own). 

And that seemed to be that.

But Michelle Rhee was not done.

Late in 2021, Rhee founded BuildWithin. According to LinkedIN, her co-founder Ximena Hartstock came on board in January of 2022.

Hartstock worked for Rhee as Deputy Chief of Teaching and Learning in DC, moved on briefly to the DC Department of Parks and Recreation, and then became National Director of StudentsFirst. After two years she left to found Phone2Action, "a comprehensive digital engagement and communications platform for grassroots advocacy, public affairs, and government relations" aka an astroturf astrofertilizing tool (it has since been acquired). And so here she is, teamed up with Rhee.

The pair apparently spent the better part of 2022 ploughing the road. In November of 2022, the announcement went out that BuildWithin was launching with $2.4 million in "pre-seed" funding primarily from Dundee Venture Capital, a firm seeding technology entrepreneurs, along with Black Capital, a fund "focused on investing in underrepresented founders." They also picked up a $7.9 million grant from the Department of Labor via the Apprentices Building America program, one of the top grants in a program that moved a lot of money to many grantees.

What is BuildWithin?

Yahoo finance tried to explain.

The company’s software brings together end-to-end workplace monitoring, learning, task management, and real-time feedback to make apprenticeships scalable. These capabilities help businesses grow their workforce, stay in compliance, optimize salary spend and ensure workers are getting amazing on-the-job experiences.

"At my prior tech company, we had trouble filling our tech roles, so we started an apprenticeship program. We realized that there were a lot of capable people out there who could be quickly and effectively trained to fill technology roles. Many of the team members who went through our program are now working at some of the top tech companies in the country like Google, Uber and Amazon, and others," said Ximena Hartsock, co-founder, BuildWithin. "It was this experience that inspired us to start BuildWithin and create an accelerated path to well-paid technology careers for individuals of any background, geography, demographic group or age. The beautiful thing is that our platform both solves a major talent problem for employers and creates access to new opportunities for job-seekers."

The website puts their motto in huge letters-- "Potential Over Credential"

While not everyone has a degree, everyone has skills and potential. If given the right opportunities and training, anyone can achieve great things.

This sounds very much like the Tear The Paper Ceiling movement, very much focused on getting people into jobs without all the muss and fuss of credentials and degrees and that kind of thing. 

That $7.9 million from the feds is for the company to "recruit a minimum of 10,000 apprentice candidates (through sourcing and outreach partnerships with 150 organizations)." From the grant proposal:

At BuildWithin we have built out significant technologies that allow employers to recruit, select, train, and manage tech apprentices at scale. Through this grant opportunity, we will build upon and expand partnerships and relationships with employers, community-based organizations, institutions of higher education, trade associations and government agencies and create five (5) Tech Apprenticeship Innovation Districts: 1) Sacramento/Bay area, 2) Los Angeles/Nevada 3) District of Columbia/Maryland 4) Northern Virginia and 5) Kansas City, Missouri/Kansas

BuildWithin look to be located in Tennessee, Nevada, California, Virginia, and Kentucky, where the five apprentice innovation districts will be. There's not a great deal of info on their site about the team or personnel or partners. Their LInkedIn page lists forty employees, and though some are "LinkedIn user" others appear to have some tech background, which is good because BuildWithin touts a vaguely described "significant technologies" product, "a software platform that employers can use to accelerate team member productivity utilizing apprenticeships, onboarding & training and upskilling."

The Business Journal boosts the company as a Startup To Watch 2023, and they've been busy. They are in Tennessee because Tennessee just launched the Apprentice Innovation District, and Rhee was there for that. 

All of which explains how we arrived at the point that this popped up on my Twitter feed today:

Is this all for real?

Lordy, who knows. With her roots in Teach for America, Rhee is well versed in the ethic of putting people jobs with minimal, even sub-optimal training. There's no reason to believe that she has the expertise to develop "significant technologies," but maybe some of those employees are able to fill that gap.

On the other hand, Rhee's entire history in the ed biz is of someone who vastly overestimates her own expertise and overpromises what she never delivers (and who never suffers consequences for her failures). 

Maybe this will all work out just great and Lucy will not pull the football away this time. Or maybe the feds are getting conned by one of the great education grifters on her comeback tour. 

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