A version of this piece appears in the most recent edition of Fordham’s Education Gadfly.
Last Wednesday in New York City, Michelle Rhee was awarded the Manhattan Institute’s 2010 Urban Innovator Award. In her acceptance speech, the former Washington, DC Chancellor discussed her new high-profile initiative, Students First, and its goal of raising $1 billion to advocate for “real change,” which she defined as putting students’ needs “before those of special interests or wasteful bureaucracies.”
Reflecting on her attempt to turn around Washington’s schools, Rhee said she ultimately learned that she was “playing the wrong game.”
“I would spend my time, as many education reformers across the country do, talking to politicians and trying to appeal to their sense of what is good and right for children and meanwhile you’ve got the interest groups like the teachers unions funding their campaigns. So at the end of the day, who are you going to go with? The nice little lady over here who says you can do good for kids? Or the people who are going to get you re-elected?”
Fordham’s Checker Finn see Rhee’s move from educator to advocate as part of a broader trend. There has been, he notes, a “profound shift” away from the research and education agenda of non-profit groups toward “political hardball—cash contributions to campaigns, outright advocacy of this candidate and denunciation of the other one, the shrewd use of paid lobbyists, influence-peddlers, campaign consultants, marketing experts, and public relations firms,” Finn wrote. It is, he observes wistfully, not an entirely welcome development.
“Part of me wishes this weren’t happening in education, as it has and is in just about every other sector of American life. Part of me wishes the old model would endure and in time prevail by virtue of its powerful analyses, moral superiority, and irrefutable arguments.”
After the Manhattan Institute event, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Rhee about my reform game –curriculum, teaching and learning. I wondered out loud whether it made sense to reach conclusions about the effectiveness of individual teachers who are poorly trained and have no say over their curriculum or, more often than not, no curriculum at all.
“I know you have a lot on your plate,” I concluded. “But I’d urge you to at least keep curriculum in mind.”
“The last thing we’re going to do,” she replied with a chuckle, “is get wrapped up in curriculum battles.”
A stunning reply if you think about it. The poster child for bare-knuckle reform, who moments earlier was urging her listeners to “embrace conflict,” has no stomach for a debate about what kids should learn in school. Is it that difficult or controversial, for example, to say that all kindergarteners should learn shapes, colors and to count to 20? Confronting the teachers unions on pay and tenure is worth a fight, yet it is too heavy a lift to say what third graders should know about American history, geography or science—or whether they need to know anything at all?
It is not my intention to single out Michelle Rhee. She is merely the most vocal and visible representative of a theory of change that sees structures, and increasingly political power, as the coin of the realm. I have no illusions: Education reform may be sexy, but curriculum is not. It doesn’t get you on Oprah or the cover of Newsweek. We are unlikely, now or ever, to see a bold initiative to raise one billion dollars to advocate for a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum for every child in the early grades, even though, for high-mobility, low-income children in particular, it would surely be among the most impactful reforms we could offer.
What I cannot accept, however, is that to focus on instruction—on curriculum and teaching—is to play the “wrong game.” To accept this argument is to believe that the educational outcome of Jose or Malik in the South Bronx or Detroit is more deeply affected by who wins a primary for a House race somewhere in California than what they learn in school all day. It is to believe that electing the “right people” matters more than what teachers teach and what children learn.
“For three decades, education has been driven by special interests,” Rhee concluded in her Manhattan Institute speech. That’s one diagnosis. Another one belongs to E.D. Hirsch, who points out in The Making of Americans that our schools have gone six decades without a curriculum. Earlier this year, at an Aspen Institute panel discussion, AFT head Randi Weingarten hit the nail on the head when asked why ed reformers aren’t concerned about curriculum. “This stuff is really important,” she replied. “And it’s really boring.”
Playing kingmaker, by contrast, is the best, most glamorous game there is. But it’s an expensive, time-consuming, long-term play. It does nothing to effect change today, and essentially writes off yet another generation of children to mediocrity and underperformance. It represents the fierce urgency of eventually.
It is the perfect right of Michelle Rhee and others committing their careers and their dollars to ed reform advocacy groups to play whatever games they wish, under whatever terms they choose. But forgive me if I don’t see this as the last word in “What’s Best for Kids.” The rhetoric is a bit of a sham, frankly, since a big part of what we know works best for children is a coherent curriculum.
Call it what you like, but don’t call it the wrong game.