Michelle Rhee’s Costly Agenda


Robin West in The Boston Review:

Radical is more than just a memoir studded with encomia to brilliant instructors. It is also an argument for her thesis that truly excellent teaching is not only necessary but may even be sufficient for students’ academic success. Once Rhee’s book turns to more contentious matters and her opponents take flesh and blood form, it becomes a manifesto for her approach to school reform. Readers are invited to take sides, and we should. Whether her agenda should be followed depends in part on the strength of her argument in its favor, and not only on her personal story, the tales of superstar teachers, or on the results she may or may not have achieved as a public official for a brief time.

Read as a defense of the claim that we should not only put students first, but that doing so requires a steady focus on ensuring excellent teaching and little else, the book disappoints. The argument for an aggressive anti-union program that will require firing teachers and closing schools and potentially result in losses for union-backed Democratic politicians will almost assuredly not satisfy Rhee’s critics, both in the teachers’ unions and more generally.

The fault for this does not lie solely with the critics’ self interest, as Rhee has protested in multiple interviews. It is not only the wrath of tenured mediocre teachers that is feeding the backlash against her reforms. It is also, I suspect, a far more justifiable sense that those reforms may not be so radical or so effectively put students first. Even for those who accept Rhee’s premise—that access to good teaching is paramount and that a recalcitrant educational bureaucracy stands in its way—there is too much that is missing from her prescription and not nearly enough engagement with that prescription’s costs.