Rhee’s “Radical”: Read and Reviewed

Thumbs down, Rhee

Radical: Fighting to Put Students First is a transparent and fantastical affirmation of Michelle Rhee; written by Michelle Rhee (Harper Collins, 2013). In my continuing efforts to be at least 8-12 months behind everybody else, I have finally read and reviewed this book.

I don’t believe there is anything self-critical or particularly reflective in here, other than to pause every now and then to reflect upon her correctness. Michelle Rhee is convinced that she sees everything in the right way and has made all the best decisions at every critical juncture in her career thus far. Her ability to always know what the right thing is and to act boldly creates a breathtaking spectacle of decision making prowess guided by an unimpeachable vision and uncommon levels of conviction and personal strength. Of this, the reader will have no doubt.

She’s fantastic. But how did Michelle Rhee become so awesome?

She walks us through it. The book is a personal, but mostly professional, chronology of Michelle Rhee so far. She talks about being the oddball as a young girl, growing up in a traditional Korean family in Toledo in the 1970s. She reflected on why her year spent in Korea with family helped her understanding why her parents were different from most parents in Toldeo:

I lived in a society where competition and excellence were rewarded, and attended a school that demanded hard work and dedication from every child. To do well was a symbol of your family’s commitment and accomplishments. To do poorly was a blemish on your family. Everything a kid did was a reflection of his family and nothing was more important than maintaining their honor (p.13-14). Editor’s note: Remember that.

She traces her developing interests and personality through high school and college and on to Teach for America in 1992. As an elementary school teacher for the next three years in Baltimore she really began to make a difference for kids. She was placed in a tough school in a tough inner-city neighborhood. But this wasn’t just tough. It was, like, super tough. I feel pretty sure that she re-watched some episodes of The Wire in order to write the neighborhood scenes.

Read this next part in the voice of William Conrad playing Marshall Matt Dillon in a 1956 radio broadcast of Gunsmoke:

We were in my car in front of the notorious Franklin Street housing project high-rises, one of the most dangerous places in all of Baltimore. Word on the street was that a dozen murders and scores of violent crimes had taken place in these towers in the past year. It was about 6:00 p.m., the sun was setting, and the situation at the towers was looking sketchier by the moment. I gazed up at the twenty-four-floor building with its grated and gated windows and walkways (p.3).

Editor’s note: Now read the same piece, but do it like you’re telling a ghost story at a campfire. Scary! Then try something like SpongeBob.

Michelle Rhee’s students came from tough circumstances. The set piece above tells us this. She wants to be sure that you know that she worked in a shitty ghetto school in a shitty ghetto neighborhood. She talks about her three years of successes and failures in this environment in a mix of what turns out to be mostly stunning successes.

Rhee describes learning and growing as a teacher and working extremely hard and creatively. She describes watching great teachers and learning from them. She describes the organic and truly collaborative relationships in which they experimented boldly with curriculum and classroom management. “Things were very fluid”, she remembers. That’s how we did everything; we were able to tailor instruction for each student” (p.50). It is, therefore, ironic that she and her movement have worked so hard to destroy the very fluidity in schools that she and her students gained so much from.

She became an amazing teacher in her second year in Baltimore. By her third year, she was unstoppable. This experience forged the Michelle Rhee of DCPS fame.

With the trained eye of a twenty-something, second-year teacher, Michelle Rhee was able to quickly see who at her school was a great teacher and who was not. By emulating the great teachers, and adding her own special sauce, Rhee claims that at the end of three years she would have put her poor kids up against kids from the best private school in Baltimore (p.53).

That would be remarkable…I mean, if her kids could do just as well, or anywhere near as well, as kids from the best private school in Baltimore…that would be amazing and we would have to regard her as an outstanding teacher. However, the competition was never to take place. So we don’t know what would have happened. We’ll have to take her word for it: Michelle Rhee was an outstanding teacher who, by what she did as a teacher, was able to singlehandedly raise the academic achievement of her students by multiple grade levels.

Editor’s note: We will put aside that Rhee’s claims of her teaching prowess have actually been debunked.

After all this dazzling success, it dawned on her:

“I realized that their low academic achievement levels weren’t about their potential or their ability or anything else. It had to do with what I was doing as a teacher, what we were doing as a school, and the expectations we set for them. That’s what it was all about” (p.53).

And she also realized that “some children come to school with problems that might seem insurmountable, but all of those obstacles can be overcome if you have an amazing teacher in the classroom” (p.171).

Do you remember anything about your trip to Korea, Ms. Rhee?

Then she had another revelation that would be much more consequential than the first: Since I know everything about how to be an effective teacher, I will make all teachers more like me.

And thus began the Time of Trials in American public education.

Come back later for Part II. Spoiler alert: Rhee’s ideas don’t work.

Mr. Teachbad

Editor’s note: Last time I asked people to “like” Mr. Teachbad on Facebook it actually worked a little. So let’s try it again. Like me. I like you.

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