Cory Roush

Dissonance and tension plus reflection and resolution equal intellectual growth

Students First, Michelle Rhee?

Michelle Rhee. She's been a polarizing figure for years, but I've always tried to avoid making her the villain of the increasingly dramatic conversation taking place around education reform. I cheered for her as she stood up to status-quo administrators, parents, and teachers who focused more on job security and convenience than effective teaching. I cringed as her attacks became less accurate, landing blows upon effective teachers who also wanted their paychecks to be based on more than their students' scores on a flawed assessment system. I held back my disgust as she appeared on Oprah with John Legend and starred in "Waiting for Superman", triumphantly praising teachers in charter schools and Finland while chiding American public school teachers already facing media criticism. I didn't call her the Boogeyman because I was confident that, deep down, every action she took was for the benefit of the children in her schools.

Well, now she's really made me angry.

By now you have already heard about her ambitious quest to raise $1 billion to push her education reform agenda forward, Students First. Upon visiting the website, you’ll be greeted with the following message:

America’s schools are failing our kids. While some people blame the kids, or simply want to throw more money at the problem, we know that real change requires a better system – one that puts students’ needs before those of special interests or wasteful bureaucracies.

Inspiring, right? It echoed my own personal feelings too, and it’d be hard to find a forward-thinking educator who didn’t agree with its call to action. But it’s one thing to loudly proclaim what you believe, and another thing entirely to practice it. What role does Michelle Rhee believe students should play in their education? According to a recent interview, they should be playing the role of competitor to China, rival to South Korea, and Singapore’s worthy adversary. That’s a lot of pressure for a student, don’t you think?

Take as a counterpoint South Korea, where my family is originally from. In Korea, they have this culture that focuses on always becoming better. Students are ranked one through 40 in their class and everyone knows where they stand. The adults are honest with kids about what they’re not good at and how far they have to go until they are number one. Can you imagine if we suggested anything close to that here? There would be anarchy.

Yes, Michelle. Let’s imagine what it would be like if we suggested an education system in America based upon that of South Korea! As Valerie Strauss in The Answer Sheet pointed out, South Korea’s schools are run by a rigidly centralized government administration, which wouldn’t really fit into Rhee and Davis Guggenheim’s fantasy world where anyone can start their own charter school and set the rules for how and what their students learn. And further, just how much of a child’s vibrancy is sacrificed to perform so well upon those tests? An article in Asia Times Online describes a typical South Korean classroom:

What the stats don’t tell is how [dreary] authoritarian classes often are. Flair and creativity are rarely rewarded. Instead, teachers drum into students a ton of stuff they must learn by rote so as to jump through hoops leading up to the all-important university entrance examination.

America: Where we show pride in our freedom by wishing all the time that we could be more like authoritarian governments in Asia.

Why was Rhee being interviewed for the Marketplace public radio show? To give her thoughts on competition, and how it is apparently more vital to our children’s well-being than, well… their well-being:

We’ve lost our competitive spirit. We’ve become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves that we’ve lost sight of building the skills they need to actually be good at things.

I can see it in my own household. I have two girls, 8 and 12, and they play soccer. And I can tell you that they suck at soccer! They take after their mother in athletic ability. But if you were to see their rooms, they’re adorned with ribbons, medals and trophies. You’d think I was raising the next Mia Hamm.

I routinely try to tell my kids that their soccer skills are lacking and that if they want to be better, they have to practice hard. I also communicate to them that all the practice in the world won’t guarantee that they’ll ever be great at soccer. It’s tough to square this though, with the trophies. And that’s part of the issue. We’ve managed to build a sense of complacency with our children.

Yes. A competitive spirit, by itself, is not a bad thing. Many personalities thrive upon competition and it drives them towards achievements beyond my wildest imagination. However, the kind of competitive spirit that Michelle Rhee and her allies at Students First want to promote is the kind of soul-crushing, life-draining, time-wasting rat race that we put our kids through in the name of performance. It’s a culture of high-stakes, high-pressure education that is only going to succeed at two things: 1) eliminating our students’ love for learning and 2) turning away talented, passionate, enthusiastic teachers who don’t want to spend the rest of their lives preparing children for a single standardized test.

That’s the opposite of what we do here in America. We see education as a social issue, not an economic one. And what happens to social issues in times of economic hardship? They get swept under the rug. We need to change our national conversation on education and our national culture on how we encourage kids. I think what’s becoming clear with all of this, is that if we don’t start to shift our perspective, we’ll never regain our position in the global marketplace.

If Rhee was truly putting students first, she wouldn’t be able to make comments like this without asking herself what kind of seven year old cares about his position in the global marketplace.

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