Friday, October 15, 2010

Michelle Rhee isn't Superman

She gave it her best.

My daddy always thought unions for white collar work were anomalies. Even the pitbull Ms Rhee is no match for unions. I am so sad. She is quitting, leaving the superintendency of Washington D.C. schools for her fiancé and maybe California. (This proves she is sane.)

Saw "Waiting for Superman" this week. I was defensive walking into the theater, but I really liked it, even though many didn't--click HERE for a link to an article outlining why by Washington Post guest blogger Rick Ayers. Its premise: that public schools are broken. (My colleague says it's a bit dramatic to make such a sweeping statement in light of the ambitious goal of American education--to teach EVERYONE--and the fact that our colleges are full and we still have doctors and lawyers and mayors and so forth. Among his many objections, one is that almost every other developed nation sends kids to tracked schools such as voc. ed. schools as early as middle school, instead of trying to prepare EVERYONE for university.)

The film offers charter schools as the answer. Yet the film itself notes that only one in five charter schools is better than public schools; some 40% are worse. The film fails to mention the high turnover rate in these high performing charters (it keeps costs down since teachers leave before retirement pay, benefits, or raises get too high).

I teach public school and I totally support charter schools. I just think it's shortsighted--nah, just plain stupid--to think they are a panacea. Especially the ones featured in the film. If you feel special because you won a coveted spot in a charter, hmmm, if your parent(s) are involved enough in your education to pursue a spot in a charter along with the time and requisite paperwork it takes to apply....hmmmm: consider the effects on the student body, student motivation, parent involvement, etc etc. Kind of a positive snowball effect, really.They aren't really comparable to public schools, neither the good nor the evil.

It kills me that public schools are uneven, that there are bad teachers who are so tough to fire, that in the same district there can be de facto segregation and inequities. I find tenure deplorable. Even so, God bless public schools. We take them ALL, from the blind to the mentally ill to the supergeniuses to the average pimply self-conscious child of a single mom who works the night shift to children of the Cosbys to those with Down syndrome. We take the ones who hail from traditions without a written language (the Hmong), the homeless, the pregnant, those in foster homes, those in gangs. We take the ones kicked out of other public schools, ones who have been to jail for hitting teachers. Heck, this year I even have a student with albinism, African American at that--my first white black person. (No Michael Jackson references, please; I never taught him.) We make it our goal to teach them all the same rigorous curriculum. If results are uneven, who is surprised? Who?? When was the last time that person set foot in a local middle school classroom for an hour?

My personal experience as a student has been bell curvish--most of my teachers were ok, kinda blah, mediocre...a few beastly ones and a few diamonds. Even Geoffrey Canada admits in the film that he was sucky his first few years (would Rhee have fired him before he had a chance to develop into the father of an amazing charter school?)--who isn't?

Maybe it's a coincidence that my experiences echo the law of averages, maybe not. Maybe as budgets tighten and teaching spots become scarce and there is greater competition for spots, the quality of teachers will rise.

Or maybe people in college will pursue options that have better press and better pay--especially math and science folk. And schools will have to remain the takers of the two kinds of people who go into teaching: those who come for the fabled and probably doomed two month's vacation, and those who come for love. Because no one comes for the cash.


  1. Thanks for this post. I think it's sane and balanced and real. I like that. Are your feelings common among most teachers you know, or are your opinions on the fringe?

  2. Thanks, Melissa. The teachers I know mostly agree that charter schools are good for some students (students learn differently), but that they are no silver bullet, and that comparing public and charter schools is extremely difficult and mostly unfair. I'm definitely on the fringe where tenure and unions are concerned, though!