Thursday, January 10, 2013

That Bee Eater Rhee Business

Watch The Education of Michelle Rhee on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

[Was meaning to get this posted yesterday but ran into time issues...]

Michelle Rhee is widely regarded as a grifter and con artist among segments of the educational community.

Her tenure as the DC public schools chancellor was tumultuous and divisive. This Frontline episode gets in to the tumult and divisiveness, but it barely explores the upshot of her brief sojourn in DC: becoming a national political player through her lobbying outfit, "StudentsFirst," which is closely aligned with the public school privatization efforts underwritten by the likes of the Arnolds and the Kochs and others of their ilk.  It may or may not be of interest that she is married to one of the headliners of public school privatization, former NBA player and current Sacramento, California, mayor Kevin Johnson. His St. HOPE and other charter school efforts remain deeply divisive in his own home town.

Though I have never encountered La Rhee myownself, I have had some dealings with KJ, and I would say "grifter" and/or "con man" is something of an understatement. What makes it kind of weird, though, is that it's not because he doesn't provide any value from his end, it's more because the way he sees it, everything is a Deal, and the Deal is his ostensible reason for being.

He seems to have conned a lot of people into doing things that they otherwise might not and somehow he winds up with lots of money in his pocket in the end -- or in the cash box of one of his innumerable for- and non-profit enterprises -- and that makes him happy. Well, judging by his overly toothy grin anyway.

I notice La Rhee has the same sort of massive-toothed grin -- when she gets her way. When she doesn't, oh dear... pout...

From the indications in the Frontline piece, Rhee is in it for the Power, and if it looks like her wings are going to be clipped, she's out. Buh. Bye. For her it's not so much the money, it's the control of the money, what she can do with the money. Her tenure in DC was tumultuous because she was high-handed, obsessive, intentionally cruel.... and often wrong. This last barely comes through in the Frontline piece, but while she claims huge gains in student achievement as measured by test scores when she was cracking the whip, in fact, it appears that while there were gains, they were modest at best, and the "massive" gains were bogus, either through direct manipulations of the test scores (which hasn't been officially proved) or some other means. Once security protocols were in place which limited or eliminated the possibility of cheating, test scores fell to more likely and modest levels.

In other words, the gains she touted under her strict -- and some would say demonic -- rule were actually quite small and might have been achieved through other,  more humane, ways.

Her educational theories might be relatively reasonable or they might have been naive or crackpot, but it is her personal hostility and utter lack of human compassion, as demonstrated by her treatment of DC school employees, as well as students, officials, and the People of DC, that primarily put her at odds with practically everyone in DC and got her out on her ass in the end.

She defends her cruelty in much the same way that the usual neo-liberal suspects do -- as something necessary for the Revolution they espouse. It is a revolution of privatization more than anything.

Rhee uses the rhetoric of Revolution proudly -- as do many neo-liberal ideologues -- but it seems to have missed the notice of many observers and commentators. Or if they notice, they tend to like it. Perhaps in the end, they might profit or be able to wield immense arbitrary power over others, even the power of life and death if they play their cards right. This sort of power or the money that makes it possible is intoxicating. A Revolution that is going to give you that -- or that you believe will -- is hard to resist. It's a very different animal than a People's Revolution as conceived in the many resistance movements around the world that seek to better the human condition for everyone.

As for public education... it is a battle ground, isn't it? And so it has been for nearly all of its existence in this country. Public education has been deeply resented, feared, denounced, and often interfered with by a vocal and sometimes very powerful minority throughout its history. I'm a product of California public education primarily in the 1950's and 1960's, during a period of extreme expansion and the accompanying growing pains, and any honest assessment would acknowledge both good an bad in kind of education we received. The major benefit of the kind of education I received is that I learned how to learn. It's not something that seems to be taught any more.

But public education in my day was fraught with fads and propaganda and all sorts of nonsense, including infamous episodes of witch hunting and Red baiting, and of course toward the very end of my high school days, it was fraught with student rebellion which ultimately led to street battles with Authority and all the social and cultural upheaval the '60's are notorious for.

Much of the information we were fed was straight-out propaganda about America The Wonderful, including many lies and distortions about American history and the Evils of Communist Russia. The truth, or something like it, would come out eventually, because it was still possible to learn how to learn, and primary research could still be undertaken with few restrictions.

Schools were not prisons in those days and they were not run like prisons. One didn't feel oppressed in school -- at least I didn't. One wasn't surrounded by suspicion, searches, surveillance, armed guards, high fencing, razor wire, locked gates, intricate permissions and so on. "Security" was barely thought of.

Despite a media obsession with Juvenile Delinquents (it was intense), there was actually very little of what we were supposed to be so very afraid of -- Youth Running Wild In the Streets, gangs of Young Toughs, and all the rest of it. There were Toughs, yes, and there were nascent Gangs, but they were rarely if ever what they were made out to be in the hyperventilations of the media of the era. "Style" is not the same thing as "action." A hair do is not a gang fight.

On the other hand, one wasn't treated like a Precious Treasure by parents or school authority. Far from it. There were certain general expectations of both behavior and educational accomplishment. Failure to meet them could be and sometimes was harshly punished -- though not necessarily physically.

The social melieu was that of the aftermath of the Depression and World War II; it was still highly, some would say rigidly, militarized, organized, and characterized by enforced conformity. Physical punishment wasn't typically necessary under the circumstances. Psychological persuasion was quite effective in enforcing a certain level of adherence to social and cultural norms.

One thing to keep in mind is that the differently abled were not necessarily accommodated in public schools at all. Sometimes they were, but it was rare. There was a separate and not necessarily equal system for the blind and the deaf and the crippled and the defective (as they were known in those days).

Schools were not necessarily racially integrated, either. Sometimes they were (such as some of the elementary schools I went to), but often they weren't. In the South, of course, racial integration was a huge and divisive issue, but it also affected public schools in the North and West, and it's not wise to pretend otherwise. There were riots over it, and not just in the South.

There were private schools, primarily Catholic. I don't recall anything about them until I was in high school, and they didn't seem to be all that different -- except that nuns taught the classes, and students had to do certain religious rites and rituals during the school day. No big. I heard about corporal punishment in Catholic schools, but no one I knew ever reported being subjected to it.

I'm one of those who claims that public education promptly went to shit after my high school class graduated. It's not so far from the truth, either, because Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California the year I graduated, and he set his people to work transforming and undermining public education (which he was politically opposed to in any case) as soon as he was inaugurated. His vow was to crush the student rebellions then under way and to make them impossible ever again in the future.


Here we are, eh?

Of course Rhee and KJ and all the rest of the Edumacation Reformationists (ie: those neo-libs intent on privatization) are too young to know anything about this. They are the product  of the period after the transformations of public education put in motion by Reagan. What they believe is what they were taught after the Reagan Revolution.  One of the intentions of the Reagan Revolution was to destroy public education.

Oh yes.

So. They have nearly accomplished their goal, and if Rhee's "StudentsFirst" lobbying outfit is successful, it will mean the final end of what we used to think of as "public education" in this country.

If they had something decent to replace it with, I might have a better opinion of the effort, but they don't, so I don't.

Grifters and con-artists rarely offer anything better, do they?

[When I get some time, I may add some additional links...]


  1. The villainous Michelle Rhee. So much to write about her and so little time. Here's a link that's interesting:

    Frontline mails it in about Rhee!

  2. She's such an ideal demon-witch, and she clearly loves the attention. I've long been of the opinion that she's what Rhoda Penmark would have grown up to be if it weren't for that nasty encounter she had with a lightning bolt on the end of the pier. (Of course in the book, Rhoda survives...)

    It's almost a sport to denounce the Rhee. Of course she doesn't care, and the billionaires who are funding her don't care. As long as they can and do wield power they don't have to care, do they?

  3. I think the Hayes Code did in the movie version of Rhoda, poor thing. "Crime does not pay," well, in those old movies at least... it pays rather handsomely in real life.

  4. You know, that's a lesson more and more Americans (among others) are coming to internalize these days...