Stories + Views
Michael Gove welcomes Michelle Rhee, one of America’s most controversial, infamous and questionable school reformers into British school
Michael Gove, in his Spectator speech the other day, said that he had been eager to find out more about educational transformation in other countries including Sweden, Finland, Singapore, Shanghai (not a country, but never mind) Florida and Michelle Rhee’s Washington DC.
I don’t know whether he has ever invited Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg over to introduce the Finnish model as one that he might take up, but he was not there when Sahlberg gave a talk at the House of Commons last month, despite being invited.
The Finnish of course respect their teachers and invest in a culture of support and encouragement in schools which goes a long way to explain why Finland is consistently at the top, or near the top, of international PISA rankings. Gove prefers the punitive and test driven virus that has infected American schools, so he yesterday welcomed into Britain – and endorsed the policies of – Michelle Rhee, a controversial American education “expert” who, during her tenure as Chancellor of Schools in Washington DC, sacked 1,000 teachers, closed more than 30 schools and got rid of two-thirds of the headteachers under her control in a bid to drive up standards. She also established big pay rises for teachers who helped pupils obtain good grades.
Rhee’s hard-nosed policies has earned her a number of accolades, including “Witchfinder General of the Classroom”, and is obviously much despised and derided by American Teachers’ Unions. Her approach may well have been justified if the examples of DC and the other charter-driven districts showed that standards overall in America have risen, but, alas, they have not.
Rhee claims to be a Democrat, yet she has allied herself with the most right-wing governors in America. Any governor who wants to cut teachers’ rights and benefits can rely on her support. A governor eager to dismantle and privatize public education? She is there at his side.
She frequently has her soundbite to hand: “Three great teachers in a row closes the achievement gap.” Teachers DO make a difference but Rhee has never provided any evidence that any district or school has actually closed the achievement gap by providing “three great teachers in a row” and she never ever achieved this feat when she was Chancellor in DC.
In fact, the outcomes of her punitive measures are highly questionable. Here are a few of them:-
The federal NAEP tests in 2011 showed that the DC public schools have the largest achievement gap of any city tested and that the D.C. black-white achievement gap is fully double the gap in the typical urban district.
Not only that, but USA Today famously uncovered a huge cheating scandal in the DC public schools during her tenure. At the centre of the scandal was a head teacher that Rhee had repeatedly singled out, rewarded and promoted. He resigned.
Punitive measures, results driven bonuses and a culture of fear is always going to lay the temptation to cheat at the feet of individuals and organisations bullied into keeping their schools open but she puts Gove’s bullying into the shade. Here are just two examples:-
She invited a PBS film crew to watch her fire a headteacher. She said to the crew: “I’m going to fire somebody in a little while. Do you want to see that?” They did and they filmed it.
In another incident, Rhee told an audience of young teachers that when she was a teacher, she controlled her restless class by putting duct tape on their mouths; when the tape came off, their lips were bleeding. She thought this was amusing.
Since leaving DC, Rhee has set up an organisation called StudentsFirst which sends out deceptive email solicitations asking the recipient if you want to see a great teacher in every classroom. Rhee’s name does not appear anywhere on the email. If you answer yes, you are registered as a “member” of StudentsFirst. Her organization allegedly has raised more than $200 million and is well on its way to raising $1 billion. This money will be used to attack teachers’ unions; to strip teachers of any job protections; to promote charters, and for-profit organizations that manage charter schools; and to fund candidates who want to reduce spending on public education and privatize it.
StudentsFirst does not release the names of its contributors but the rumours are that Rupert Murdoch is one of them. This has not been denied nor confirmed.
It is difficult to understand why Gove applauds a woman who thinks that students will learn more if their teachers live in fear, who wants to turn publicly funded education in a for-profit business and who wants to reduce teaching to a job, not a profession or even vocation but it is an ideology that he is more than happy to impose here, even though Rhee’s model has not raised standards for the United States.