How Michelle Rhee is Like the Anti-Vax Murderers

Scott LeMieux does most of the hard work here, so I won’t go through a point-by-point rebuttal of this post by Matt Yglesias. But there’s a big point Scott didn’t address. Yglesias’ post is argued entirely from the perspective of how to deal with teachers:

Suppose we found out that LeBron James were taking steroids. I can imagine a whole range of responses to that revelation that reasonable people might take. What I can’t imagine is someone saying that LeBron James taking steroids proved that basketball players should be compensated on the basis of pure seniority rather than perceived basketball skill. Right?

That’s a great way of looking at the alleged cheating under Michelle Rhee if public education were about creating a structured environment for a competition where success or failure is measured by who has the superior score. That is, of course, pretty much how most “school reformers” see public education. Using this frame, it would mean just that someone cheated so they don’t win, but it doesn’t mean  the entire game is flawed.

But public education isn’t a game where someone wins and someone loses. Public education is about educating and nurturing children. Children in public schools shouldn’t be thought of like players on a court, but more like patients in need of the best available care, so they can grow, be healthy, develop their full capacity and thrive.

Matt reveals a lot about the mindset of most school reformers when he compares Michelle Rhee’s cheating to an athlete getting an unfair advantage. The problem isn’t just that it presents Michelle Rhee as better at her job than she actually is, or that she gains advantages such as higher pay, more prominence, and better jobs. It’s not just Michelle Rhee gets to declare “I’m better than everyone else at running schools.” It’s also a problem because it leads to the conclusion that everyone else should adopt Michelle Rhee’s methods, because her policies and practices have been proven to be superior to those previously dominant in public education.

Yglesias’ sports analogy doesn’t work, but there is a good analogy to the alleged cheating by Rhee: the case of Andrew Wakefield. The name may not ring a bell, but you know the story: he’s the former British physician who published fraudulent research purporting to establish a link between vaccines and autism. As covered in Yglesias’ own Slate, there’s a measles outbreak in the UK, created no doubt in part by the anti-vaccination conspiracies validated by Wakefield’s now repudiated “research.” But there was immediate harm as well. Here’s that same Slate writer, Phil Plait, from 2010:

The GMC (the independent body of medical regulators in the UK, rather like the AMA in the US) didn’t investigate whether his claims were correct or not — and let’s be very clear, his claims have been shown beyond any doubt to be totally wrong— only whether he acted ethically in his research. What they found is that his research (involving spinal taps of children) was against the children’s clinical interest, that Wakefield was unqualified to perform the test, and that he had no ethical approval to do them.

Even the most serious allegations against Rhee don’t involve the kinds of immediate and life-threatening danger to which Wakefield exposed his subjects. But if a curricula and radically different system of running schools was a failure, and if Rhee and her associations concealed or altered empirical results that not only would have revealed that failure, but presented it as a great improvement over previous methods, their actions were a threat to the cognitive, emotional, social and physical flourishing of the students funder Rhee’s authority. But the harm won’t end there. If she concealed and distorted data to fraudulently claim success, and that led to a widespread embrace of her policies, Rhee’s actions also threaten the well-being of all children in American public schools, for it validates practices–treatments, were it medicine–that are not improvements over current practices, and quite possibly could inflict avoidable harm on children.

Matt Yglesias is wrong here, but he’s not, to use one of his favorite lines, “history’s greatest monster.” And being wrong about school reform doesn’t have the immediate life-and-death effects of monstrously convincing parents to not vaccinate their children. But think about the willingness of a lot of people like Yglesias–smart, otherwise liberal people who end up thinking so much about the “scores” of teachers than they sometimes lose focus on doing what’s best for children–to remain immune to the evidence that the school reformers are charlatans, and see how Plait’s description of anti-vaxxers [emphasis in the original] could be used to describe those who embrace the hucksterism of “school reformers” like Michelle Rhee:

[T]he evidence was already overwhelming that Wakefield was wrong, just as it’s overwhelming that vaccines are totally and completely unrelated to autism. But the antivaxxers’ world is not based on evidence. It’s more like a dogmatic religion, since many of its believers will twist and distort the truth to fit their views, even, tragically, if it means babies will die.



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1 Response to How Michelle Rhee is Like the Anti-Vax Murderers

  1. Mark says:

    A few things for the record first.

    I am a public school teacher of 11 years, and I love what I do. I am grossly underpaid for what I sacrificed to get here (bachelors and two masters = less than 50,000$ a year in salary). Middle School 8th grade is not going to make me rich, nor should it. I am blessed to do what I do. Politically I don’t know what the hell tag I fall under but most of my views are probably not Progressive (I hope that is ok). I think I am a libertarian (I honestly don’t know), but I have a strong opinion on this particular issue. Please hear it out and let it display. I welcome criticism where I am lost and kudos where I get it right.

    Teachers should be measured by multiple factors (including test scores). We don’t need 15 tests (like some Texas districts had), but we need a few throughout the year for both the student, teacher, and community to measure what their tax dollars are paying for. I have no problem starting the testing in first grade. If public schools do well, citizens may be more willing to allow property tax caps to increase. Then I might get a raise. But that shouldn’t be a free lunch.

    Honestly, we have to accept the notion that it is ok to see what kids can do at early ages. If AT LEAST to dispel this ridiculous, fraudulent, deceptive, and destructive idea that all kids are bound for college. GOD HELP ME!!! They are not, ok. Some kids should only step foot on a college campus to fix a broken door or to collect the trash. There, I said it. A little reality folks.
    Public school doesn’t mean bound for college, and this fairy tale is driving up the ability for our colleges to charge rates that ruin it for those who NEED TO GO.

    That said, every child in a public school has a right to that chance for college, and teachers must attain a reasonable level of growth for as many students as possible. NOT THAT THEY ALL PASS (unfair and ridiculous) whatever state standard is set at, but that they grow. That is the key. Growth.

    Teachers should be held accountable by student surveys (plus test scores). Their feedback (aggregate feedback) gives a good window into what goes on in the teacher classroom. Bad teachers who get two sub-par evaluations in a row from both a direct supervisor and an independent evaluator need to go…screw tenure and screw other emotional arguments. Our kids are too important for excuses. We have too many idiots in the profession who are decent people and try hard but CANNOT TEACH. We must stop protecting those in our profession who aren’t up to snuff. We also have plenty of lazy teachers who know how to hide behind a union. Unions are invaluable, but in our profession they have been used perversely to protect our profession.

    I have a colleague (I use the term loosely) who teaches 7th grade history. In conversations I have had with her over the years she still thinks Nixon is alive and Afghanistan is in South America. Holy jumping shitballs. Other than perhaps medicine, I cannot imagine another occupation that requires more than teaching…we can do better than this (no I am not hostile to women…just this particular one because she is an idiot).

    Teachers, mostly, get paid below average compensation. This is the rub of course. I don’t know how to fix that, but the consequences are as clear as day. The “pool” of people who go into teaching are not always the kind of people who are the best qualified. Research the level of quality teaching in Finland and what tier of college graduates go into the profession in that country, and then research that same dynamic here in the U.S. It is frightening. I am by no means a superior teacher myself, but I do possess and intellectual capacity and content knowledge to challenge the students in front of me. I also get my kids to grow year after year (usually between 60 to 75% of them versus those that stay flat or decline 😦

    Yes, we have some real problems here in education, but you can only blame poverty, race, overcrowding, language barriers, and the Republicans deunionizing and charter efforts so much. Blame needs to go on the teachers themselves for the poor performance of our students were it is blatantly apparent. Teachers are the number #1 factor (five times more important than EVERY OTHER FACTOR) for whether the child will learn. Not poverty. Not race. Not broken homes. Not language issues. Not gang and drug involvement and urban menace. An average teacher can overcome some of that. A good teacher can overcome a lot of that (the research is clear no matter what environment we are talking about).

    Schools in urban wastelands create the biggest controversy because often they will be filled with kids in poverty, of color, of different languages, and surrounded by a less then optimal environment. As a teacher these kinds of schools truly test the ability to reach kids and get them to grow. But the facts…without dispute…demonstrate that entire swaths of our public are leaving these types of schools with nothing or very little. If charter schools and vouchers are not appropriate here, then what do the parents/kids get instead? Are their tax dollars providing them a fair service (failing school)? I don’t care if Bill Gates, The Federal Government, or Santa Claus has the answer but we need to change the paradigm. Since the 70’s these kinds of schools give Republicans the ammo they crave to destroy the public system.

    Kids can learn no matter where they came from, or what they deal with, or how drug infested their neighborhood is. No, not to the level of Albert Einstein. But growth and improvement is possible. That is what we get paid for. If the kid comes to school enough, it is our responsibility (white, black, latino, or otherwise) to do the job. If we can’t, and we resort to deflecting responsibility, we get what we have today. A public school system that is still great, but DOESN’T SERVICE ITS MOST VULNERABLE AND MOST NEEDY STUDENTS WELL AT ALL.
    Even if these kids have no shot at college, they deserve better. It is a moral and social imperative. Testing and teacher accountability are the only things I can think of that can be employed to remedy this situation until we come up with something better.

    Will every student grow. No. Common sense says AT LEAST 50% of the students should be at a bare minimum. I don’t know how to scale the rest but clearly the higher you go, the better you are doing as a generalization. If you ain’t hitting 50%, its time to go (after some chance to remedy the situation, get help in teaching, and get a second chance evaluation, of course). Teachers who can’t reach half their students are clearly not, in the majority of cases, probably good at what they do. Remember, teachers get the advantage of age-related brain and social development. So just by breathing and eating kids get some growth even without any manipulation from a classroom.

    Most teachers are caring, compassionate, and help kids in numerous other ways that “tests” don’t measure. We know these people are invaluable to the young children in front of them. THAT MUST NOT BE DISCOUNTED. It is not a slight to these people (I think I am one). But “we” get lost in understanding that these people might also be terrible instructors of content, reading, writing, and critical thinking. Let them volunteer in the school in other ways then. They should not be in front of a class of students. We have to stop fooling ourselves when they are allowed to be there for 35 years that the ripple effect of that isn’t devastating.

    Solution? Instead of framing this in the lens of entrenchment (Dems are wrong, Reps are wrong), we need to accept that there is truth on both sides and adopt policies that make sense. No Child Left Behind was a disaster, but it did raise achievement. Common Core may do the same (let’s hope). Public schools don’t need competition, but the profession DEFINITELY DOES. With a higher pay and better treatment from the media (we’ve been demonized since the 2008 economic collapse in many states), Republicans wouldn’t be so hostile to public schools if they performed better (or they’d have less bullshit to peddle on about with charter schools). Performing better will require a higher standard for our teachers. A higher standard deserves a higher pay. Higher pay means a higher quality teacher future teacher pool. I kind of like how that sounds, even if it is just a pipe dream.

    Thank you for creating a forum to allow me to share my ideas, however tinfoil and wackaloon they are.

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