Michelle Rhee leaving DCPS + Education Reform and Cultural Competence

This post reflects only my own opinions, not those of SPEA, EDPOSA, or any EDPOSA officers or sponsors.

In case you missed this, the wonderful Caitlin Baird sent me the following article from The Washington Post a couple of days ago: “Michelle Rhee resigning as D.C. schools chancellor.” Of course, this was right on the heels of the manifesto on how to reform American schools written by Rhee and several other superintendents of major urban districts (including Grier, the new superintendent for my old district). Since then, a variety of articles have come out about Michelle Rhee and her impact on DCPS.

As Rhee and Fenty (her former boss, the former D.C. mayor) say, in 2006, “everyone in the city agreed on one thing: the schools needed to be fixed.” DCPS had long been a troubled school district when Rhee took it over. So did she turn it around or, in Teach For Aamerica-speak, achieve “significant gains”? While she clearly had some successes, including requiring more accountability from teachers in the district, many of her long-term projects appear not to have come to fruition. For example, I am curious if someone can tell me what happened to the plan for a two-tier wage system.

So, was her approach the right way or the wrong way?

Again according to The Washington Post,

Fifty-nine percent of white voters say D.C. public schools have improved over the past four years, compared with 7 percent who say they have worsened. Among African American voters, sentiment is more fragmented. Thirty-four percent say that schools are better, 30 percent that they are worse and 26 percent that there has been no change.

Of course, voters do not define the entire population of D.C. But the article also cites another poll of D.C. residents: “in a January 2008 Post poll, 50 percent of black residents approved of her performance, a figure that has dwindled to 27 percent.”

I thought this article had a particularly interesting analysis about why African-American residents of D.C. might not be lining up behind Rhee, although the author is clearly n0t a fan of Rhee. These few paragraphs (which I have cut parts of for brevity’s sake…make sure to go back and read the original) are particularly compelling:

Rhee’s makeover of the D.C. teaching force is also racially fraught. Many of the young teachers Rhee is hiring, drawn from the ranks of Teach for America in many cases, bring a new energy and life into the schools. But TFA teachers and alumni tend to be mostly white, recruited from around the country, and rarely stay longer than three years….On the other hand, more of the veteran DC teachers are black. Many of them are dedicated educators who have held things together under unimaginable circumstances, earning them cultural capital in the communities they’ve served for generations. But other of the DC teaching vets, made cynical about the crushing challenges facing some DC communities, treat their jobs like babysitters punching a clock.
So at worst you have clock-punchers versus cultural tourists. Rhee is exchanging one mixed-bag for another mixed-bag, giving benefit of the doubt to inexperienced white teachers. This may be one reason why parental support for Rhee and Fenty falls along racial lines….In a city whose large black middle class was built on a legacy of generations of black women public school educators reaching back to Anna J. Cooper at the turn of the 20th century, the perceived disrespect toward veteran teachers is not going over well. For many D.C. voters, if the choice is between the black veteran teachers with roots in the community and the Teach for America cultural tourists, they are going with the vets.
As the Obama administration moves forward with plans to replicate this corporate education model, it should take note. If you can’t be bothered to include the indigenous public in your plans, you are essentially swooping into town to “fix” the “Other” like the Peace Corps, to which Teach for America has frequently compared itself.

 As a former Teach for America corps member, I view this column as very harsh but fair in some ways.  Although one of the central values in Teach for America is respect and humility when interacting with veteran teachers and administrators, most of the young recruits coming in to teach have very different backgrounds from their potential students, and many of them do not stay at the schools where they were placed. Although a kind of cultural competency training was incorporated into my orientation and summer institution work (something that is actually lacking in a lot of alternative certification programs), most of corps members did not come from low-income backgrounds, and some white corps members had little to no experience interacting with people of color. However, on the other side, I’ve had multiple low-income, Latino parents tell me about how much they love KIPP (which was founded by two TFA corps members and employs many TFA alum) and how involved they feel with the school.

I am not qualified to write much more on this issue, but I think it is an interesting one. When minority or low-income families appear not to support education reform, as in the case of Rhee, why not?  

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