Nicholas Lemann: Must Read New Republic Essay on Michelle Rhee!

Dear Commons Community,

Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and author, has a must-read essay on Michelle Rhee  in the New Republic that exposes her essentially as a self-promoter who simplifies education reform to abolishing teacher tenure, establishing charter schools, and imposing pay-for-performance regimes based on student test scores.  Entitled, How Michelle Rhee Misled Education Reform, Lemann comments that she has little time and maybe little understanding of “pedagogical technique, a hot research topic these days, or of curriculum, another hot topic owing to the advent of the Common Core standards, or of funding levels, or class size, or teacher training, or surrounding schools with social services, or of the burden placed on the system by the expensive growth of special-education programs”.

Lemann points to events in Rhee’s life as told in her own book that helped shape her views:

“ a year she spent back in Korea as a child, in a large classroom in which every student was numerically ranked against the others every day, as a season in paradise, because it taught her “that it was not only okay but essential to compete.” Later on she grouses that her daughters have too many soccer medals and trophies even though “they suck at soccer,” which is an example of the way in which “we’ve gone soft as a nation.”

Lemann also attempts to explain why Rhee and the entire education–reform movement appeal to the big donors:

“Surely one reason that the education-reform movement comports itself in this limited manner is that it depends so heavily on the largesse of people who are used to getting their way and to whom the movement’s core arguments have a powerful face validity. Only a tiny percentage of American children attend the kind of expensive, non-sectarian private schools where many of the elite send their children. It is worth noting that these schools generally avoid giving their students the standardized achievement tests that state education departments require, making the results public, and paying teachers on the basis of the scores, and that they almost never claim to be creating hyper-competitive, commercial-skills-purveying environments for their students. Sidwell Friends, of presidential-daughter fame, says it offers ‘a rich and rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum designed to stimulate creative inquiry, intellectual achievement and independent thinking in a world increasingly without borders.’  That doesn’t sound like it would cut much ice with Michelle Rhee.”

Nor would any discussion involving issues of complexity, nuance, or compassion cut much ice with Rhee.  Hers is a cold-hearted, humorless, and strident approach that turns off the dedicated educators who work day in and day out in schools.


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