Reformers have been obviously working on re-vamping their public images. People are tiring of their empty promises, their overly simplistic remedies, and their unwillingness to engage in an honest discussion about what is and isn’t working. So the reformer’s reformer, Michelle A. Rhee, my old acquaintance from when I worked with her at the 1996 TFA institute, announced that she would be holding three ‘Teacher Town Halls’ last month, one in Los Angeles, one in Philadelphia, and one in Birmingham.
I had read some first hand accounts from people who attended these, but I was compelled to also watch the entire video of the L.A. event which was posted on YouTube.
In Rhee’s opening statement she acknowledged the protesters outside and lamented that they would not come in a join in the dialogue. After suffering through the video of the nearly two hour event, I cannot imagine how frustrating of an experience it would have been for the protesters if they had taken Rhee up on that offer.
Everything about this event was carefully choreographed. The decision to have Rhee sitting between the other two panelists where Perry was the fanatical reformer and Parker was the union representative with the intent of Rhee playing the part of the moderate, rather than the ‘radical’ that she generally claims to be. In this way the trio were like three heads of the same being. Perry was the id, Parker was the ego, and Rhee was the, well, the superego.
Audience members were warned that they would have two minutes to say their questions, which were pre-screened, and that they would not even be permitted to hold the microphone. After the questions were asked, the panelists all got their turn to answer the way they wanted and to generally ignore the most important part of the question. The people who asked the questions had no opportunity to say “but that wasn’t what I was asking.” So this wasn’t really a dialogue at all.
I had heard about Dr. Steven Perry, but watching him speak, the most accurate word to describe him is ‘clown.’ One of his running ‘cute’ jokes was that he had to repeat third grade a few times, even while claiming that his great teachers were the ones who rescued him from poverty. But if the teachers were so great, why would he have been left back?
At about the 17 minute mark, someone from the audience brought up the fact that teacher accountability is generally based on test scores and the test scores are highly correlated with poverty. Perry answered, “If we’re going to say that poverty is the indicator of a child’s capacity then let’s shut down all schools and call it a wrap.” Then some people from the audience had the audacity to call out “but that’s not what he said” only to be rebuked by the moderator reminding everyone to be civil. Perry continued with “we can’t wait to cure poverty before we can teach a child to add, subtract, multiply and divide” and “the only way out of poverty is through access to education.” He finishes by implying that his own father was in prison yet he managed to go to an ivy league school without changing his parents or his zip code.
Rhee, at the 20 minute mark, again plays the moderate saying that poverty does matter. It makes things difficult, but not impossible, she says. Of course this is what reform opponents say also. “The best way to break the cycles of generational poverty is through education.” She says that a social program might feed a kid for one night, but it is not going to make sure that their kids will escape poverty.
Parker, when it is his turn, speaks about how his great teachers enabled him to escape poverty despite the fact that neither of his parents finished elementary school. But this sort of anecdote is really nonsense. Of course some kids beat the odds. What I would have like to follow up with if I were there, and if they permitted follow up questions, is “Did every student of that great teacher who saved you also go to college and break the poverty cycle?” If he could have answered and answered honestly, he’d have to admit that most of those students likely didn’t break out, thus collapsing his point about the power of ‘great teachers’ to accomplish this.
The next question was posed by the moderator and was about whether or not the reform movement was about privatization. Perry spoke about how he believes that ‘choice’ is the most important thing about the reform movement. Rhee followed up with the choice concept, challenging people opposed to vouchers by saying something like “if you are willing to have your own kids go to a failing school then you can be opposed to vouchers and choice, but if you wouldn’t be willing to do that, then you can’t be against choice.” This is one of Rhee’s most logical sounding arguments. Though it does sound reasonable, it just doesn’t work in practice. Since the problem of the ‘failing’ school has much more to do with the out of school factors, if all the kids in a ‘failing’ school chose to go to a ‘succeeding’ school, imagine that there was room at that school for all the students from the other school, then the ‘succeeding’ school would then become a ‘failing’ school. Sometimes I think that for our society, in a utopian sense, the best thing would to have no choice whatsoever — not even private school, and every school can have the exact same mix of rich, middle class, and poor kids. I’m not saying this is something that can actually happen, but in the ideal it would probably be the best thing for the cumulative education in this country. From a realistic point of view, however, instead of choice the thing to do would be to invest resources in the ‘failing’ school so that it can be more equipped to deal with the out of school factors and then nobody would need to choose to leave it.
The next question is so outrageous, you just have to watch it for yourself
So this teacher wants to see the union eradicated and tenure abolished. Rhee answers first with the old “if you have a pulse you have a job for life” argument. When someone from the audience got angry with the response, he was shut down by the moderator and the three panelists were basically laughing at the frustrated audience member. Perry then answers and says “If staying alive is tenure, I ain’t for that” which actually got a round of applause from the audience. Perry claims that he has to spend 30% of his day chasing around a bad teacher and documenting in order to get rid of that teacher.
Parker then spoke incoherently for about ten minutes. One of his points was about how when he was head of the union he would have board members in his pocket so that the union was running the school system, which he felt was an undeserved amount of power. He qualifies that ‘tenure’ is supposed to mean ‘due process’ but then says that we’ve allowed tenure to become something where teachers can have three years in a row of unsatisfactory evaluations yet keep their jobs. But the union should be fighting if the unsatisfactory evaluations are unfair particularly when they are based on half baked mathematical formulas based on standardized test scores.
A audience member asks how teachers who do not agree with their unions and how non-unionized teachers can get their voices heard by policy makers. Rhee says that after her speeches she is always approached by teachers who say they are “with her” but who are afraid to speak out. Parker describes this kind of teacher as a “reform minded” teacher and says that in his experience there are more “reform minded teachers than non-reform minded teachers” and says that when they did secret ballots, 80% of the teachers voted for policies, he implies, that align with StudentsFirst.
The next question is about standardized testing and whether or not it is fair for the test to be such high stakes for teachers when it isn’t such high stakes for the students taking the test. The woman asking the question makes a mistake (or perhaps she is a ‘plant’) by saying “the tests are the only thing that are factored into the evaluation”, and this is a mistake that Rhee pounces on. Rhee responds, correctly, that even the extreme reformers generally want test scores to count for 50% as part of ‘multiple measures.’ She then claims that the opposite extreme unions are OK with 35% because they agreed to that number in Connecticut. So to Rhee the argument is really just about the 15% difference between what the two extremes want. But as inaccurate as the growth measures are right now, with it labeling the same teacher highly effective one year and highly ineffective the next, in some cases, I, along with many others, think that 0% is the appropriate percent. If the cost of these tests wasn’t so much and if the stakes weren’t so high that schools are compelled to become test prep factories over them, I actually can see myself being OK with something like them counting for up to 10%, as it could serve as a way to motivate the small fraction of hard-to-motivate teachers while not really being a big risk in getting a teacher unfairly fired. But as introducing inaccurate value-added into the mix opens up such a “can of worms,” it is probably best to not use them as a factor at all, and to justify reducing yearly testing as a way to save scarce funds and to discourage schools from wasting time on test prep.
Perry is actually most sincere when he answers this question, as he admits that the test scores in his own school that had just come back two weeks earlier were a disappointment. He spoke about how poorly tests are created, administered, not graded in a timely manner, and also about how some kids individually went down by a lot, which suggested that they didn’t try very hard on the test. His frustration is similar to how teachers feel about the tests. But I suppose he would be a lot more frustrated if he were to lose his job over his test score drop at his school, which I don’t think is likely to happen.
The next question was about charter school accountability, and Rhee admits that many charter schools have not been held accountable, and that we should. I would like to see the day where a low performing KIPP is targeted by Rhee, though.
An audience member opposed to the StudentsFirst agenda spoke about how states with strong unions have the highest academic achievement while the states in the deep South have lowest achievement. Rhee avoids the question by pointing to California as a state that has strong unions and low achievement. But one example does not disprove the general trend that states with weak, or no, unions do have the lowest achievement in the country.
When the man asking the question tries to point this out, the moderator yells, “We’re not going to do a back and forth. For real, we’re not going to do a back and forth.”
With a ten minutes left, Parker suggested that they take one more question from USC student and rising education superstar Hannah Nguyen. The moderator said that it was too late for any more questions. Out of sixteen questions, eight were ‘answered’ or at least responded to. Then, with just six minutes left, Parker again requested that they break protocol to give her a chance since she was a student.
They agreed and Hannah lets loose with this speech, which has gone ‘viral’ on YouTube
Hi everyone, my name is Hannah, I’m a student… Just a few things though, I felt like this whole event was very much looking at these educational policy issues as a reformers versus teacher unions kind of issue, and as a student standing here and watching this battle it is really disheartening, because it’s a lot deeper than that, and these are everyday realities.
And this is more than a reformers versus teachers union battle, this is a social justice issue.
And there’s a lot of things brought up — going back to poverty — reformers say that poverty isn’t destiny, and that sounds great, and I believe in that, and that’s awesome. But you know what, if you really care about students, you should say that poverty shouldn’t be.
Yes, we need to work on in-school factors, and simultaneously we need to work on out-of-school factors and caring about the whole child.
Back to high stakes testing. I don’t know a single student — I’m sorry, I have a lot of friends, and I have friends at other schools too — I don’t know a single student who says that they learned something from a high-stakes test, and the way that their school is structured. They should be given the freedom to learn what they want to learn, open curriculum, well-rounded, arts, music, humanities….
I used to stand by reformers, I will admit it, I did. But after seeing the facts, and the data and everything, and my own lived experience. I cannot – I’m sorry — stand by what you preach if it has to do with high-stakes accountability, this “school choice,” which sounds great, you know, choice — who can argue against that? But, I don’t agree with the fact that charter schools, and how they push our certain students, and I’ve seen it happen.
My main point is, listen to the students. Listen to the students.
Now I am a big fan of Hannah and am thrilled that she and others from SUPE are giving this fight the energy that it needs right now. Sometimes when I feel like I’m running out of gas, reading about the efforts of Hannah and Stephanie Rivera and the rest makes me feel that the future is in good hands.
There were two other town halls. I’m not sure if the others were videoed. I don’t think they were, anyway. One thing about this town hall is certain, which is that it was not a forum for real discussion, but a staged and ultra controlled farce.