I have never met Michelle Rhee. Like many people in education, I’ve seen her speak on panels and at conferences, and I’ve read about her extensively. And let me say clearly, immediately and unambiguously that I support most of what she stands for. Furthermore, I am in absolute agreement that a profound lack of patience is the only reasonable response to a failed and sclerotic urban school system. I get it.
Michelle Rhee is starting to make me nervous. I don’t mean giddy-excited nervous, but wincing, “uh-oh” nervous. With her appearance on the cover of Time Magazine this week, she’s now officially the face of education reform in the U.S.
That face is wearing a scowl. America, say goodbye to Wendy “One Day, All Children” Kopp. Meet Michelle “I don’t give a crap” Rhee. Education reformers, say hello to your new cover girl:
In many private encounters with officials, bureaucrats and even fundraisers–who have committed millions of dollars to help her reform the schools–she doesn’t smile or nod or do any of the things most people do to put others at ease. She reads her BlackBerry when people talk to her. I have seen her walk out of small meetings held for her benefit without a word of explanation. She says things most superintendents would not. “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.”
Saying ”the thing that kills me about education is that it’s so touchy-feely” is kind of like saying, ”The thing that kills me about accountancy is that it’s so detail-oriented.” I’m as data-driven as the next guy, but education is now and always will be — must be — a people-driven enterprise. People are the product. The desire to successfully develop the capabilities of others is what gets teachers out of bed in the morning.
Even people who work for her seem to agree. By coincidence, the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews has a piece in today’s paper about Brian Betts, Rhee’s hand-picked principal of Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson. And Jay has him sounding downright touchy-feely.
Students and parents told Betts that many teachers they knew at Shaw and Garnet-Patterson didn’t care about them. “Nothing that I have ever seen trumps personal relationships at this level,” Betts said. “The kids in this building who can be absolutely horrible in one person’s class can be angelic in another because they have formed a relationship with that teacher.”
Full disclosure: I worked at Time Magazine long enough to know that a taste for “thesis journalism” is practically stamped on newsmagazines’ genetic code. Maybe that’s what’s happening here. The reporter decides the direction she’s taking the story, and piles on the quotes and anecdotes to paint the picture of Michelle Rhee, hard-charging, no excuses type. See Rhee scowling at a teacher; see Rhee walking out of a meeting punching text into her Blackberry without so much as a “good day.” She’s on a mission, dammit, and niceties aren’t on the agenda! Even the cover — especially the cover — See Michelle Rhee with a broom! She’s the new broom!
Here’s what worries me: accurate or inaccurate, fair or unfair, the increasingly confrontational, impatient, blunt, even rude public persona that’s affixing itself to the Washington, DC schools chancellor runs the risk of getting in the way of what Michelle Rhee wants to accomplish. I’ll put it bluntly: piss off enough people whose help is essential to your success, and your failure becomes inevitable, a consummation devoutly to be wished. Then for years to come, the answer to the reforms anyone proposes becomes, “Oh yes, we tried that in Washington under Michelle Rhee and you remember how that worked out.” If she fails, Michelle Rhee’s failure will not be hers alone. At worst, she runs the risk of damaging the ed reform “brand” for a generation.
The bottom line: Most people want to see Michelle Rhee succeed. But some would like nothing more than to see her go down in flames. It’s important not to upset that balance and add boxcar numbers of people (you know, people and whatever) to the those who are already sharpening long knives. That’s not being touchy-feely. It’s being pragmatic. A lot of other people’s dreams, plans and hard work are riding with Michelle Rhee on that broom. And it’s a long way down.