Wednesday, December 3, 2008

With Her or Against Her

In case there was any doubt, Michelle Rhee has officially hit the big time both in the world of education and in the wider world of magazine readers with her cover profile in Time Magazine. While I'm glad that issues of educational advocacy and reform are deemed worthy of being on the cover of Time, I'm not 100% sure that I like that Rhee is the face of the movement.

I was originally going to call this post "I Hate Michelle Rhee." It would be a much more provacative title, to be sure, but it also wouldn't be particularly accurate. In the first place, I don't know her, so saying that I hate her would be a little unfair. I don't even really hate what she's trying to do with the DC schools system. I mean, she's trying her best to fix problems that have seemed intractable for decades now. I even agree with some of her solutions.

What worries me about Rhee is her stylistic similarities to George W. Bush.

I know that seems like unfair criticism. After all, Rhee talks in coherent sentences, is clearly intellectually curious, and cannot fairly be called a lightweight for her job. But beneath those surface differences lies the core of sameness.

As Bush famously declared early in the war on terror, "You're either with us or you're against us," so too does Rhee paint a manichean picture of school reform. You're either with her version of how to change the schools or you're in favor of preserving the status quo of a failing system. As Bush was immune to criticism (or at least it didn't change his actions) Rhee writes off those who oppose her. As she says, "Have I rubbed some people the wrong way? Definitely. If I changed my style, I might make people a little more comfortable. But I think there's real danger in acting in a way that makes adults feel better. Because where does that stop?" Where Bush was content to basically go it alone in Iraq, Rhee is following the same course in the DC schools. And we know where that stops. Everyone needs allies and in her unwillingness to compromise on anything in order to make "adults feel better" she is alienating many of the people she will need if she actually wants to create real change in the system.

We've seen where a purely black and white worldview gets us in the world. There needs to be some acknowledgement that there are shades of grey. This isn't to say that Rhee should give up and capitulate to the forces of intertia, but that's not really the choice here. The choice is between working with people who share your goals (because who's really against providing kids with a good education?) but may disagree with your methods and choosing not to work with people unless they're willing to support you 100%.

I worry that Michelle Rhee, in choosing the path of most resistance, is setting herself up to be less successful than she could otherwise be. Given her prominence on the issue, if she fails it's going to have huge impacts on education reform for years to come.

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