Frontline: The Education of Michelle Rhee

Like many people, I first saw Michelle Rhee on the cover of Time, standing in front of a blackboard holding a broom. As an Asian American woman educator myself, you can imagine I almost got whiplash turning my head sharply back to confirm what I just saw. I picked up the article, read it, sighed and shook my head.

After being appointed Chancellor of the school district, this Korean heritage American educator went into the dilapidated D.C. school systems like a wildfire and proceeded to clean it from the inside out by “doing what needed to be done” such as firing a ton of teachers, administrators and staff; closing half empty schools and relocating students; and tying teacher pay and job security to student test scores, just to name a few. Rhee is undoubtedly a controversial figure thanks to her no excuses reform approach to the public school system. This new episode of Frontline documenting Michelle Rhee’s journey as a school reformer brought all of this back to light.

Is Rhee a courageous woman who cares deeply about the education of the children of this country? Absolutely. Is she right in bringing the incompetencies of a school system and the failures of teachers, administrators, and staff to light? Yes and double yes. Is she an admirable educator and Asian American personage that APIA should be proud of? Most certainly. Did she do the right reforms on her crusade to clean up the D.C. school system? This is where I shake my head and sigh. Let me explain.

The core of my head shaking is the fact that Rhee’s reforms seem to revolve around one key indicator of student success–standardized test scores. I’ve already laid out my discontent with that system and am especially against the grip of the standardized test system on Asian Pacific Islander Americans specifically because “we’re” so gosh darn good at it.

It sure sounds like a good thing, being all smart and good at getting high test scores as a group, and yeah, of course, it is definitely racist to just assume that every APIA you meet is good at school, forcing every APIA to carry this colonial yoke of the model minority. However, I am most upset when APIA of all ages are parading around congratulating themselves for being smarter than everyone else just because of the color of their skin or the genetics in their nuclei or the superiority of their “culture”, not only because it’s just despicably ignorant, but also because it is so disgustingly self-degrading and self-shackling. We’re so proud of the fact that when they said jump, we said “how high?”, and then patted ourselves on the back when we jumped higher than everyone else. Who’s the monkey and who’s the master in this picture?

Standardized test scores and grades are all just false products. Instead of writing books, creating mind blowing new art, or engaging in deep dialogue about real problems and actually trying to come up with real solutions for them, really preparing our youth for their future as the new generation, we’ve reduced the potential of their greatest accomplishments to a multiple choice scantron test score and the tyrannical performance grade of a teacher, all under the guise of fair, objective, and accurate measurement of student performance.

The big controversy around Rhee’s supposed success in improving the education of students and raising the test scores in the D.C. school district is that there were accusations of rampant cheating done by the teachers whose very job security depended on how well their students scored. By casting this shadow of doubt on Rhee’s success, I’m sure opposers were trying to discredit her and her methods.

But you know what? I don’t even care if there was cheating or not. Let’s just assume that all the gains that the district made under Rhee’s chancellorship were totally legit. Let’s assume that there was zero cheating going on. And really, if you went around firing bad teachers and putting their feet to the fire to produce higher test scores or else, I’m sure there were many teachers who stepped up their game and really helped their kids score higher on those tests.

However, here’s the hell that both that fireball of awesome Michelle Rhee, her opposers, and her supporters were creating–a world in which the value of each individual child was measured by a supposedly unbiased number of pure truth, the standardized test score. In fact, this is the world as it is today for the children of America, especially thanks to President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, a program that Rhee supports.

I always hear on the news about this school or that school really turning it around and making their test scores jump by reaching out to the community, having higher expectations, improving teacher quality, etc. etc. despite the students coming from backgrounds of poverty, violence, and suffering. When I hear this news, I’m happy for the kids, happy for the community and the school, knowing that the improvement of the test scores is some indication of things being better than they were and that there is more learning going on than before.

Unfortunately, since it is still under the oppressive system of standardized test scores, what I also see is a community and a school working so wholeheartedly to help their youth become enslaved into a system that robs them of their dignity as unique individuals and prevents them from fulfilling their fullest potentials in life. Students who obediently ask “How high should I jump teacher?” instead of “Why should I jump? Is there something else more relevant I could be doing with my time?”

For all you educators out there, please do not pull out the card of “but we use multiple measures at our school/district”. That vague defense coupled with the waving banners with API scores (school standardized test achievement) and the infinite hours of actual high quality learning lost to test prep and test taking just doesn’t cut it. We may use multiple measures, but the final score on the card is a standardized one, and everything else, even the other multiple measures, are hell-bent on improving that standardized test score. Our kids are losing out on real learning in the interest of jumping through orderly hoops, missing out on critical developmentally sensitive time that they’ll never get back, and that is simply immoral.

I admire Michelle Rhee, I really do. She has gumption and is a courageous go-getter not afraid to blaze in and do what she thinks is best and right. You simply cannot get more American than that, and I just love that about her. But for all her hard work, blood, sweat and tears, she took the easy and lazy way out when it came to real improvement in learning and instruction. She depended on the standardized test score system as the thermometer of her success in improving education for children.

Our dependence on this system is a result of it being the cheapest and easiest way to measure the progress of our next generation. It is not because it is the best system of assessment. No expert in educational research, not even the statisticians, will tell you it is an accurate measurement of the educational abilities of each child.

And I’m not kidding when I say Rhee used it as a thermometer. When the thermometer tells us it’s 50 degrees Fahrenheit outside, it just tells us the temperature of a single place and moment in space and time. It doesn’t tell us that a storm is coming or that the wind is blowing hard or that the rain is pouring down.

Just like educators and parents and administrators all across America, Rhee stuck that thermometer out, read the temperature, and based on that single number of a temperature degree, concluded that the sky was cloudlessly blue, the grass was vibrantly green, the ducks were flying back, the wind was mild, and the sun was shining on all. Welcome to the beautifully paved road to hell where the cosmic miracle that is the soul of a human child can be totally represented by a heartless scantron number.

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About tinabot

Tinabot is a writer, teacher, and ninja. She and her students write and publish their work. Her debut teen kung fu romance novel The Legend of Phoenix Mountain is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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