Washington’s Chancellor of Union-Busting

Behind the Media Celebration of Anti-Union Zealot Michelle Rhee and Her Smear Campaign Against Teachers

“People say, ‘Well, you know, test scores don’t take into account creativity and the love of learning.’. . . I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t give a crap.’ Don’t get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job.”

Those are the words of Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), in an interview last fall with Time magazine. Besides the flippant attitude and narrow, robotic conception of what teaching and learning look like, Rhee’s comments reflect her zealous mission to lay the blame for the crisis in D.C.’s schools at teachers’ feet.

Rhee was installed as DCPS “chancellor” in 2007, when Mayor Adrian Fenty succeeded in abolishing the elected school board and taking over the city’s schools. Since then, Rhee has embarked on nothing short of a “scorched earth” campaign, in the words of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

Rhee’s first act was to work in conjunction with the city council to have all central office staff legally reclassified as “at will” employees. This effectively abolished union representation. Rhee marked the moment by firing around 1,000 employees.

As a teacher in D.C. public schools from 1997 to 2004, I know firsthand the chaos that reigned at the central office — payday was a crapshoot, papers and certificates got lost, making changes to your benefits was a nightmare, superintendents and their coteries came and went faster than we could learn their names.

Rhee’s calculation was that years of frustration with the bloated central office would lead to support for the firings. But the further intention was clear: start with the easy target, then move on to the main event.

And that main event has been a “relentless” (one of Rhee’s favorite words) campaign to convince the world that bad teachers are the only thing standing between D.C. schoolchildren — who experience poverty at some of the highest rates in the country — and academic success.

Since the first round of firings, Rhee has fired some three dozen principals and assistant principals, more than 250 teachers, and 500 teacher aides. She has closed 23 schools and promises to restructure another 26. Media accounts vary with respect to the exact numbers, but in an urban school system with just 4,000 teachers and 130 schools, the impact of these attacks is enormous.

Rhee’s primary goal is to get rid of tenure and seniority rights in the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) contract. And her strategy includes a pretty hefty carrot — increasing compensation for teachers who show success (i.e., raise test scores) to $100,000 a year and higher. In exchange for this dramatic increase in pay, teachers must agree to a high-stakes annual evaluation, which can lead to their termination if they don’t show student success.

As of this writing, contract talks were in their 18th month and still in arbitration. But the plan has garnered an immense amount of attention.

The lucrative pay sounds like a good deal for teachers. In reality, it exposes not only the bankruptcy of the explanation of “reformers” for why schools fail our students, but also a backward and ineffective vision of what education could be like.

For example, many media reports about Rhee’s ambitious plan make reference to the “research” and think tanks that “prove” the central factor affecting student achievement is an effective teacher.

The problem is that these references, when they are specific at all, are to the likes of Erik Hanushek and the conservative Hoover Institution, affiliated with Stanford University. Such think tanks are well known for generating “research” and reports with the conscious aim of backing up conservative explanations for what’s wrong with schools.

Even if we accept the idea that effective teachers make a huge difference, Huffington Post contributor Dan Brown is right to point out the “myth that there is a shadow population of GREAT teachers, touched with something like fairy dust.”

Rhee does believe that such a shadow population exists — and that they can be found among the ranks of programs like Teach for America (TFA).

TFA is a program run by a nonprofit foundation that is often (and rightfully) mocked as “Teach for Awhile.” It recruits what it calls “outstanding” recent college graduates, usually from the top universities in the country, and after a summer crash course in how to teach, places them in struggling school districts on a short-term basis.

The entire logic behind TFA is based not only on the mythic teacher-hero, but smacks of the worst kind of snobbery. If that claim isn’t clear at first, Rhee — herself a TFA alum — makes sure we get the point in an interview with Charlie Rose last fall. One of her defenses of the attack on the WTU contract is that huge pay increase will “attract a different caliber of person.” This is a slap in the face of every teacher in D.C. schools.

In addition to the myth of the miracle-working teacher, Rhee’s vision of what counts as student achievement is dangerously narrow.

First, and most obvious, is that the primary measure of “achievement” is standardized testing, which has been shown over and over to narrow the curriculum and, in fact, dumb down the instruction students receive.

In addition, a profile of Rhee in Newsweek points out another frightening aspect:

Rhee doesn’t quite come out and say it, but she and her fellow reformers are trying to change the teaching profession, at least in the inner city . . . to something that bears more resemblance to joining the Green Berets. . . . There are teachers who can maintain this pace [of twelve-hour days, six-day weeks] for decades (just as there are some older Special Forces operatives in the military), but in Rhee’s world many teachers may find themselves working hard, burning out, and moving on.

This notion — especially when applied to DCPS, whose student body, workforce and community are overwhelmingly African American — is racist and insulting. The insinuation is that inner-city schools and the people in them are simply out of control — and require something akin to military occupation to solve the problem.

Finally, Rhee’s plan to “fix” D.C. schools is profoundly un-democratic. This is true in the obvious sense that Rhee operates by pushing through her attacks by ignoring community and parent input.

She may have glowing words to say about WTU President George Parker, but Parker has come under increasing criticism for the lack of rank-and-file input into contract talks. His vice president sued him last year over freedom of speech claims, and a union activist was assaulted by a Parker supporter at a recent building representative meeting. Parker has turned to AFT President Weingarten to quash dissent and push through Rhee’s contract, but this has only fueled rank-and-file criticism.

But the violation of democracy also takes place at a deeper level. Rhee has stated repeatedly that the only reason she took the position as DCPS chancellor is because the city council had abolished the school board. In fact, she regularly argues that school boards — democratically elected community members who oversee local schools–are another major source of the problem with public schools, not least because of union monies that she claims “buy” board members.

In D.C., however, this argument is especially outrageous. One of the major gains of the civil rights movement in Washington, D.C., was the formation of a democratically elected school board to oversee D.C. schools. To this day, D.C. does not enjoy rights as a state or any formal representation in Congress, and national lawmakers have veto power over city policies. Abolishing the school board was a major step backwards in terms of D.C. residents having a say in how their city is run.

Much of the media attention on Rhee’s attack on tenure and union rights rests its case on listing the dismal educational figures about for D.C. schools: eighth-grade reading and test scores rank last in the nation, only 27 percent of 9th graders graduate within five years, families are abandoning DCPS in droves for charter schools.

In addition, claims about per-pupil spending in D.C. being high relative to other school districts are never too far behind. The figures cited vary wildly — after all, facts matter little when you’re waging an assault on D.C. schools and the people in them. But the point to these arguments is always the same — you can’t throw any more money at the problem.

Apparently, however, the two powerful foundations run by billionaires Bill Gates and Eli Broad believe you can throw money at the problem — at least when the solution on offer is union-busting and shuttering schools. These two foundations have donated millions of dollars to DCPS since Rhee took over.

Rhee is known for backing up her argument about what’s wrong with D.C. schools by stating that the education experience students get in the poverty-stricken Anacostia neighborhood and wealthy Georgetown are radically different. She calls this a fundamental issue of social justice.

She’s right–but she refuses to acknowledge that the fundamental part of that difference is money. The PTAs for schools in upper Northwest DC schools have a long tradition of throwing money at the problem: they regularly raise tens of thousands of dollars to keep a teacher who otherwise would have been cut, or to maintain school libraries or arts programs.

For every statistic detailing the problems in DCPS, we have to respond by laying out the real crisis in Washington, D.C. — the crushing reality of poverty.

In 2005, in the capital of the richest nation on earth:

* nearly one in five D.C. residents lived at or below the federal poverty level, making D.C. the third-poorest jurisdiction in the U.S.

* 32 percent of children lived at or below the poverty, meaning D.C. had the highest child poverty rate in the country.

* over half of D.C. children live in low-income families, meaning families making less than 200 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four in 2005, that 200 percent threshold was $39,942–in a city where the median rent in 2008 for a two-bedroom apartment amounted to $22,800 per year, the highest in the nation.

Any strategy to improve D.C. schools and the education students receive has to look beyond classroom walls and include a fight against this crushing poverty — a fight for health care and social services, and for democratic control over D.C. schools and the city itself.

Jeff Bale is a former teacher in D.C. now living in Michigan. This article first appeared in Socialist Worker. Thanks to Alan Maass. Read other articles by Jeff, or visit Jeff's website.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Manuel García, Jr. said on May 21st, 2009 at 3:42pm #

    This and the companion piece (in DV today) from Seattle are sad testimony to the campaign to eliminate professional teaching. It is school privatization by another name. The assumptions on which our present day highly stratified class-system economics are based are that capital formation is the paramount goal, superior to any other consideration, and that labor is unnecessary (e.g., offshore it, computerize it, or just forget it) because production and service are equally unnecessary since superior profits are to be had with financial manipulations. Thus, the drive to eliminate “the expense” and “tax burden” on capital represented by the costs of maintaining production facilities and productive people: labor. My own thoughts on education are given here: Homework, Testing and Stealth Apartheid in Education, http://www.counterpunch.org/garcia04242009.html

  2. Eric said on May 21st, 2009 at 5:20pm #

    I was born in DC but live elsewhere. As an almost yearly visitor to the
    old home town I have watched the machinations of Michelle Rhee from afar. I am surprised that the residents of DC have put up with her this long.

    Rhee, Arne Duncan and Klein in NYC are cut from the same clothe.
    Destroy public education inorder to put public dollars into the privately owned charter school movement.

    Teach for America is an insult to students. Put persons with no education in teaching in charge of the education of children is a guarntee that the kids will get a defective education at best. This is an effort to destroy teaching as a profession. Michelle Rhee has no degrees in education. Her undergrad and graduate work is in government. That right even after she took over the DC schools she coundn’t be bothered to study education. Arne Duncan is Obama’s basket ball buddy and has a BA in sociology. Enough said. Klein is an attorney. Yes it only gets worse.

    Its also an effort to detroy Black professionals who are well represented in the field of education after many years of struggle. Many Blacks got the bachelors and masters to be teachers and adminitrators, only to be replaced by non-professionals. Bill Gates fought Black participation in the IT industry by bringing in immigrants on H1b visas. It not only hurt Blacks but, all older IT professionals as well. One day people will realize that Gates in a bane to working Americans. NYC, Chicago, DC the pattern is the same. I am surprised that Black professional haven’t noticed the pattern and stood up to oppose it.

    Parents must fight for the education of their children. The childrens future depends on it.


  3. lichen said on May 21st, 2009 at 7:46pm #

    What scum these privatization/standardization people are! Instead of paying decent wages to all teachers, intentionally trying to attract people who will manipulate and abuse kids into scoring higher on standardized tests with 100,000$ salaries is the most disgusting joke I’ve ever heard. This is why we need free schools, democratically run by the students, where they will be free to be creative and explore what they want to. I had bad and good teachers at school; the good ones were encouraging, inspiring, kind, empathic, and interesting; it had nothing to do with filling in little dots with a number 2 pencil, and that is not the way to measure a child’s worth.

  4. Rhonda said on May 22nd, 2009 at 7:44am #

    The people/parents of DC are supporting Rhee and Fenty on school reform measures BECAUSE they are fed up with the conditions their children face day in and day out at our schools. We should expect effective effort by our educators — and we should provide sufficient pay to reward their considerable and continue efforts and hours.

  5. beverly said on May 25th, 2009 at 8:00am #

    Placing blame on teachers is getting old. You can pay a Phi Beta Kappa type teacher 200k a year and provide every resource available to teach. But if the students and their parents don’t give a shit, there is only so much said teacher can do to produce a classroom full of A and B students. Yes, poverty and related social issues are factors affecting student (and parent) performance, but this is not the be all and end all excuse for much of the chaos and apathy run rampant in underperforming shcools.

    As usual, the state and its stooges like Rhee and Duncan love to slam the worker class – unions and teachers – with the goal of further elimination of govt obligations to its citizens (free, quality public education) and shift funds into coffers of private industry (charter schools). One exception: said stooges support ridding govt of obligations to spend on all public programs except for their own bloated staff and salaries.

    Any so-called education expert who advocates the standardized testing model of No Child Left with a Mind, er, No Child Left Behind immediately shows his/her ignorance and/or true corporatist colors. Rhee talks shit about children not knowing how to read. Spending the bulk of the school day with lobotomized drills aimed at passing standardized tests won’t produce good readers – or good scientists, engineers, artists, and even counter help at McDonald’s.

    Science, history, music, art, and even reading are taking a back seat to teaching to the test. Sure, the students may pass it, but what have they learned? Has a desire to read, to explore, to think critically, to have good oral and written communication skills been developed? Or have they simply memorized enough to pass the freaking test and still show up in the workplace and life in general as ignorant and uncultured citizens?

  6. Max Shields said on May 25th, 2009 at 9:10am #

    US problem with education follows the same systemic root causes as pretty much everything else in the empire. Big is better; and get efficiencies are king. So, we look to quantify and never balance these with quality.

    This issue is the same modernist problem we have with energy, transportation, farming/food, health care, and just about every other common need. We “attack” problems, call them “wars” and the results are the kinds of military/food/education/healthcare/etc. industrial complex we see across the gutted American landscape of throw-aways commoditization and consumption.

    It is the industrialization of our needs that has created greater poverty and hunger, in marched the American empire off to real or metaphorical endless wars.

    We’ve latched on to the dogma of quantity and the industrialization that produces it with little to no regard for quality, quality of life.

    We are by nature learning creatures, education’s role then is to guide that natural process and build on our curiosity and natural inclination to question (critical thinking). Instead we’ve destroyed those inclinations with the dogma of industrial education and the meaningless test scores that lead to the disasterous pathologies of a war/fearmongering empire. It is empire, hypergrowth and control, which seeps into our culture and is the price we pay for endless war…a long emergency of decay and collapse.

  7. bozh said on May 25th, 2009 at 11:49am #

    schooling of children wld of some value only if chidren wld not be rated per ‘performance’.
    and schooling must be controled by all people. I wld never be a school teacher that teaches plutocratic curricula; i.e., education fit for serfs.

  8. Deadbeat said on May 25th, 2009 at 12:53pm #

    Max Shields writes ….

    It is the industrialization of our needs that has created greater poverty and hunger, in marched the American empire off to real or metaphorical endless wars.

    I disagree with this conclusion. “Industrialization” like anything else can neither bad or good. The real question is who controls these institutions and who is setting the policies. Efficiencies are neither bad or good. Once again it is efficiency in whose interest. Clearly without industrialization you wouldn’t be on a computer participating on DV. In fact there would be no DV. In fact industrialization is not the cause of poverty and hunger. Capitalism is the cause of that because of allowing for the privatization of the means of production rather that its socialization. There is plenty of food to feed the world several times over the real problem is the maldistribution of resources and the lack of distribution of the surplus.

    So the real issue once again comes down to the lack of power rather than industrialization.

  9. Max Shields said on May 25th, 2009 at 1:43pm #

    Industrialization as we know it is what I’m talking about.

    The purpose of industrialization has always been to leverage efficiencies through mechanization. Industrialization is about maximizing outputs. It sets in motion efficiency over effective use of all material, and produces commodities for consumption.

    Certainly, industrialization can be minimized, reduced to be something it is not intended to be, but that is really beside the point. Industrialization and economies of scale go hand in hand; and as such they help to promote growth/quanities/commoditization.

    There use to be something called sustenance farming. Much of that has been largely destroyed by….you guessed in modernist industrial farming. We need to begin to deindustrialize our food system. Yes there is great quantities of “food” but the price in external costs are vast, because to produce those quantities agribusinesses and meg-farms needed to be implemented. Surplus, today, comes from this industrialization and together with imperial trade laws US subsidized agribusiness “food” is dumped undermining sustenance farming and creating poverty, hunger and needless death in its wake.

    The internet is not an example of industrialization per se. It is a technology which was created by public investment.

    Lastly, industrialization is part of a mind-set which is closely tied to a conventional militarization of problem solving. Yes, it provides great quantities but at even greater expense.

    The industrialization of our eduction follows the same pattern. The outputs are trained minds/hands to do the work/occupations for jobs which are owned and determined by “markets” which are at best vague. Even under the best conditions it produces a routinization of thinking; a focus on a “paying job” not on a quality of life. It has been that way for at least a century and continues to be so. Obama’s charter schools provide no real alternative. His Secretary of Education is not about connecting children to community but in furthering the institutionalization of education as a place where child should spend even more time rather than in the life of the community.

    That is the mind-set of an industrialist, or modernist. It is stuck in post-WWII industrialization.

    As far as manufacturing, that’s a bit of a different story. Manufacturing can be light, done using intermediate or appropriate technologies, and scoped to to economies by to scale. This is a far better localized approach to manufacturing that does not belittle the worker, and ties production to a sustainable balance between quantity and quality.

  10. Max Shields said on May 25th, 2009 at 1:48pm #

    Correction: As far as manufacturing, that’s a bit of a different story. Manufacturing can be light, done using intermediate or appropriate technologies, and scoped not to economies but to scale (economies of scale). This is a far better localized approach to manufacturing that does not belittle the worker, and ties production to a sustainable balance between quantity and quality. Add to that a workers’ cooperative model and you can begin to have a democratically organized workplace. But that is NOT industrialization.

  11. bozh said on May 25th, 2009 at 3:16pm #

    DB, yes,
    it’s not things or nature which have deleterious effects on society as a whole and on the weakest among us moree so, but solely us.
    i am not saying that floods, cancer, etc., is not caused solely or largely by nature.
    i am talking solely about the structures of society which are strikingly similar or even the same in probably all lands.
    and the structures of societies, and thus governances that emerge from multilayered societies, are extremely evil.
    once we have a layered society from hobos/prisoners to working , midle, high, and very high class, iniquities arise.
    we manufactured knives, bows, spears, etc., but even then we had twolayer society; one very wicked and the other obedient, hardworking, etc.

    people of low class work in perilous conditions and places. The top class push paper or dictate to a steno. They have no fear of getting cancer, losing a limb or life, etc.
    it is ok to have classes, if that’s what people want but we need the classful society with a human face and one where classes are blurred.
    we cld easily eliminate hobo class. To eliminate the highest class and thus most evil class n-weapon may be used or threatened to be used. tnx bozhidar balkas vancouver b.c.

  12. Max Shields said on May 25th, 2009 at 3:24pm #

    Look we are the problem, that is for certain, but, let’s not be too thick on this simple issue of industrialization. WE created industrialization. Just like WE create guns. They’re harmless so long as we don’t use them; but the point is they are made to be used. (As Napolean once said ” we don’t make bayonets to sit on them.”)

    Industrialisation is an economic and social organizing principle. It is not simply something we can be gentle with and put it in the right hands. Who are the right hands for maximizing efficiencies and producing massive amounts of stuff? That’s what industrialization does. If you don’t want that than you need an alternative.