The Zealot: Frontline’s Documentary on Michelle Rhee

I have not had much time to blog as of recently, due to illness and, far more positively, my student teaching!  It has been an exhausting but invigorating ride so far.   Unlike my job at the bank, I don’t have time to be bored, which is wonderful!

Anyway, per my interest in education, I was intrigued while searching the PBS video site to notice that Frontline did a piece on Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington DC public schools, education reform advocate, and one of the most polarizing and controversial figures in the debate over US education.

The documentary followed her term as chancellor of the Washington DC public schools, considered by some to be the worst performing public school district in the country.  She was hired by the new mayor of Washington DC, and had never run a school district before.  She hit the district with the force of a tornado, demanding principals raise test scores or face termination, and lobbying city counsel members to give her the power to fire staff members she deemed incompetent, and closing schools despite neighborhood opposition.  “It’s not a democracy,” she said in the interview.

When principals failed to raise test scores or improve school discipline within a year, she began firing them, sometimes even allowing camera crews to film her firing principals.  She provided cash incentives to schools and teachers for raising test scores and attempted to eliminate teacher tenure in the Washington DC schools.  When she found a furtive way to lay off teachers (something that is nearly impossible to do) she had gone too far, facing criticism not only from the teacher’s union but from the city council that she had defied.  When the city elected a new mayor, Michelle Rhee’s term as school chancellor was over.

What really bothered me about Michelle Rhee was the fact that as Chancellor of the Washington DC public schools, she decided to make an enemy of the community.  She walked in with the idea that she knew what was right, and she did not need the community’s help or insight.  All they needed to do was to get out of the way.

I heard a report once about an organization that decided to help poor people in the inner city by asking them what they thought they needed.  The people in the community were surprised and answered, “No one has ever asked us that before!”  I think it is wrong to treat the poor and the citizens of the inner cities as though they are children who need wiser people to come in and save them.

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