By Larry Lee
It was billed as a “Teacher Town Hall” and since teachers are usually the forgotten voices in any discussion about education, I headed to Birmingham on a recent Thursday night to look and listen.
The event was put together by StudentsFirst, a national organization operated by Michelle Rhee, one-time chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C. To say that Rhee is controversial is an understatement of the highest order as many feel her credentials show more expertise in getting publicity than in demonstrating a genuine understanding of education.
But since a town hall is supposed to be an opportunity for honest and civil discussion between participants with all viewpoints given consideration, I was hopeful that my trip would be time well-spent. In hindsight it was–but only because it fortified my conviction that way too much of today’s “education reform” agenda is being driven by something other than a concern for kids.
There was no discussion. No chance for people to ask follow up questions and seek accountability from panelists for statements they made. Rather it was mostly an audience being preached to, instead of being engaged.
At the center of the event was Rhee and Dr. Steve Perry, principal of a magnet school in Connecticut and George Parker, a former teacher and union official from Washington, D.C. The most impressive to me was Parker who has far more pure education experience than Rhee and, who, unlike Rhee and Perry, seemed more a voice of reason than someone trying to get off a “sound bite.”
For example, he said that principals should be leaders, not bosses, that they should be encouraging teamwork, rather than nitpicking actions of teachers. I don’t know any teacher who wouldn’t agree—and many who wish they worked for such a principal.
Unfortunately, there were not many teachers in the audience to hear him. Each chair had a clicker where attendees could immediately register their profession. Only 24 percent said they were teachers. However, there were probably 150 Alabama Education Association members in red T-shirts silently protesting outside.
At some point Rhee called attention to this and said that “the people in the red shirts should be inside.” I wanted to ask her why she didn’t step outside before the event and talk to them if she was genuinely interested in dialogue.
And in spite of Rhee’s insistence that AEA was invited to attend the session, Anita Gibson, president of the group, told me that neither she, nor AEA, received an invitation or notification in any form or fashion.
In her opening remarks Rhee said that one of the goals of the meeting was to call for more dialogue and less polarization from all involved in the on-going battle as to what education in this country should look like. No rational person would disagree. However, StudentsFirst got $8 million last year from the Walton Foundation and seeking moderate positions or common ground has never been on their agenda.
In another exchange, Rhee said that we need more transparency from local school systems as to how they spend money. But if she is in favor of transparency, then why is she so secretive about where she is getting the millions and millions of dollars to run StudentsFirst? When her group spent $200,000 in Bridgeport, CT trying to get voters to do away with an elected school board and give the mayor total control over education, why didn’t she tell the public where the money came from?
As the evening wore on I couldn’t get it out of my head that Rhee was chancellor in Washington D.C. for less than four years, a system that has the lowest high school graduation rate in the country and a system where fourth and eighth graders have lower reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests than their counterparts in Alabama.
Back in February Rhee released her book, Radical, Fighting to Put Students First. According to Amazon it now ranks number 31,708 on books sold. Obviously I’m not the only one who questions her creditability.
And I couldn’t help but liken her coming to Alabama and telling us how to have a great school system to be a bit like her telling Nick Saban how to be a great football coach.
Larry Lee led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues.