Why Michelle Rhee gets its wrong

I’ve been opposed to the use of standardized testing as accountability tools for a long time. Not as passionately and strongly as some but in principle, the use of one time testing to determine the fate of schools and students, isn’t the model of education to which I’d ever subscribe. Fortunately for me, I’ve lived in a province that has resisted them and even today would never acknowledge the use of them the way my southern neighbours and even western neighbours have. But that’s starting to change and I don’t like it.

Without going into the specifics and details of our provincial situation, I’m writing out of passion against articles like this that seem to validate an “improve your test score or perish” mentality. The article features Washington’s chancellor of education, Michelle Rhee and her relentless efforts to improve schools. I admire her passion. I’m not all that impressed with her perspectives.

“The thing that kills me about education is that it’s so touchy-feely,” she tells me one afternoon in her office. Then she raises her chin and does what I come to recognize as her standard imitation of people she doesn’t respect. Sometimes she uses this voice to imitate teachers; other times, politicians or parents. Never students. “People say, ‘Well, you know, test scores don’t take into account creativity and the love of learning,'” she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. “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.”

Rhee has fired a number of teachers and administrators who haven’t improved test scores. I don’t have a problem with firing teachers. I recognize that it’s very difficult in most jurisdictions to the this but the idea of having the best possible teachers is not arguable. What is arguable is how we find those teachers and how we determine who are best teachers are.

I’ve been in a number of schools of late and seen students whose reading scores are the least of their problems. If you’ve been in schools lately you know what I mean.  15 year olds, living on their own, coming to school high, 1st graders so full of anger they threaten classmates lives and the list goes on. These students do not need to see their reading scores meet or exceed grade level by the end of the year, they need “touch-feely” teachers. By “touchy-feely”, I mean teachers that have time, expertise and passion to help them function as human beings, never mind reading. Reading is priority number 236 in their list of needs.  I spent a few hours watching these at risk students building a canoe from scratch. Students who, for a change, were attending school, interacting politely with adults, finding a purpose. No standardized test in the world could measure this. But the gains made by these students because of “touch-feely” teachers is unquestionable. These teachers deserve a raise.

I’ve also been in schools with students who are so far above reading level and ability that the curriculum and classroom activities are laughable. They sit in their desks and hate it when teachers ask them to consider how they learn or what they want to learn, they just want to be told what to do because they’re good at it and have had years of success playing that game and are upset when a teacher wants to change the rules.m They need opportunity to show their creative side. They need to be teaching others.  They might ace a standardized test and the teacher might be seen as successful. I’m not sure the teachers or students have done anything worthwhile.

These two diverse groups of students are the reason standardized tests and Rhee-like one-size-fits-all education isn’t valuable. Again I applaud the efforts to improve but the hard nose, testing attitudes may demonstrate short term gains and look excellent on a spreadsheet but is it really making a difference for kids? Modern education suffers from the simple problem that we are driven by multiple outcomes and agencies. Ask 10 people what schools are for and you’ll get 10 different answers. Maybe not 10 but at least 3, that while may not be diametrically opposed, but certainly require very different approaches. Teaching someone how to read and write, someone else how to create healthy relationships and someone else how to design a well, require vastly different skills and different measuring tools. Currently the same person is often asked to do the same thing and use the same measuring tool for all three.  All three are equally important and while maybe not mutually exclusive, our schools are not currently structured to blend them.

Disrupting Class outlines the future and possibility of customized learning. It involves assessing students as individuals and designing customized learning for every student. Individualized instruction has been talked about for a while but today’s technology is making it more of a reality. Again, this is not just about technology but it is about reforming educations and schools to meet the needs of students, not arbitrary tests on reading and math as if those are the two most important things in the world.   Many have seen the Ken Robinson video and this quote says a lot:

But something strikes you when you move to America and when you travel around the world: every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. Every one, doesn’t matter where you go, you’d think it would be otherwise but it isn’t. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. Everywhere on earth.

And in pretty much every system too, there’s a hierarchy within the arts. Art and music are normally given a higher status in schools than drama and dance. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not? I think this is rather important. I think maths is very important but so is dance.

Is there anyone that disagrees with this? And in today’s world, I’d add character.

So if those like Michelle Rhee had a little broader understanding of education and want to improve schools, I’d be all over it.

  • Find the best teachers. These are teacher that in addition to experts in pedagogy and content, understand how to design customized learning and have the resources to find out who is best able to help every student.  Fire those that can’t or won’t figure this out. Good teachers don’t need accountability because they feel responsibility and would welcome an
  • Customize learning. Stop the assumption that reading and writing and math are the most important things everyone needs to learn.  Anyone who suggests reading is more important than art scares me.
  • Measure learning. Not with a ridiculously one time test but with a variety of assessments, over time, that actually measure what each student NEEDS to learn.

As it stands right now, I’m not sure Washington is any further ahead with leadership like this. Is it better than doing nothing? Maybe, but we can do better and from what I see in schools, we need to do better.