Ego, money and false promises: Michelle Rhee's big secret and the collapse of education "reform"

There's big money in education "reform," and now it's flowing to tech companies that want to disrupt public schools

Published September 19, 2014 5:55PM (EDT)

               (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

When Michelle Rhee left the center stage of the movement known as "education reform," inquiring minds wanted to know why.

Was it because "she didn't play well in the sandbox." Was it to solidify her and her husband's image as "the next Bill and Hillary Clinton?"

But here's one theory that no one seemed to consider: It was a good business decision.

Regardless of how you feel about Michelle Rhee, you have to admit she has been an adroit business person – tapping into a growing market demand, using a clever publicity campaign to reach celebrity recognition, outmaneuver her competitors (such as teachers unions), and amassing significant amounts of capital to roll out a formidable new "product," her organization StudentsFirst.

So it's not beyond reasonable to wonder if Rhee got out of the business of "education reform" while the gettin' was good and left StudentsFirst at a time when it has likely peaked in influence and may even be in decline.

If that's indeed the case, is Rhee's exit the first sign of a larger exodus from the reform movement soon to follow? Is the whole enterprise known as education reform starting to go south? And if so, where is all the big money behind it going to go to next?

Becoming the Bickersons

Perhaps Rhee realized, just in time, the reform venture was turning into a money pit, as forces and personalities dragged the effort down with inefficiency, contention and lack of productivity.

Take what's going on in the saga of lawsuits against teacher labor contracts.

In their eagerness to lower the professional status of teachers and dilute their job protections, lead plaintiffs in two New York City lawsuits against teachers' job protections are now squabbling with each other.

As Chalkbeat New York reported, a judge recently consolidated the two lawsuits into one, but the plaintiff in the first suit, Mona Davids, "made it clear that she wasn’t interested in forging a unified effort" with the person leading the second, Campbell Brown.

Brown, a "news-anchor-turned-activist" with a history of attacking teachers unions and challenging the due process teachers get when their employment is threatened, leads the group Partnership for Educational Justice. Her group contends, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, students suffer from laws “making it too expensive, time-consuming and burdensome to fire bad teachers.”

As Salon reported recently, Brown’s ventures are closely tied to TNTP, the group formerly known as The New Teacher Project. TNTP is another organization founded by Rhee that is strongly associated with attacks on teachers’ unions and job protections.

Brown may play well with Rhee and her colleagues, but the harmony appears not to extend to just any old "reformer."

As the independent blog site Eclectablog recently explained, Brown appears to have forced out the attorneys representing the Davids lawsuit, so she can remain the figurehead. In an interview with the blogger, Davids, and her associate in the lawsuit Sam Pirozzolo, accuse Brown of acting "like a playground bully." Davids and Pirozzolo contend Brown threatened "everyone who supported them to isolate them and leave them without resources so that she and her group could take over their suit once it was consolidated with hers."

When asked why Brown would do this, Davids and Pirozzolo stated, “She wants to be the next Michelle Rhee … This is all about her."

Brown's antics have also been noticed by Gloria Romero – another mover and shaker in the education reform movement, credited with creating what have become known as "parent trigger" laws to enable charter school takeovers of public schools.

Romero recently wrote on the website of a California news outlet that Brown's scene-stealing has become the norm now of "the politicized world of education reform and the power brokers leading it."

Not to be outdone in the ego department, Davids held a news conference to complain about the situation, where she handed out fake $100 bills with Brown's face on them. “It’s our lawsuit,” she was quoted by Chalkbeat. “We filed first.”

And to think that everyone was under the impression this was "all about the children."

Reforming What "Doesn't Matter That Much"

Egos aren't the only thing getting in the way of efforts to get rid of teachers' job protections. An effort in Missouri to create a state constitutional amendment denying teachers those protections was recently abandoned by the group leading the campaign, despite a very large donation from a major political donor in that state. A spokesperson for that campaign explained, "the timing is not right."

"Timing" in this case is being used as shorthand for "unpopular."

As a new poll – the second installment of the annual survey conducted by PDK and Gallup – found, "a majority of Americans (77 percent) continue to trust and have confidence in their public school teachers."

Further, most experts see any relationship between teachers' job security and student achievement as mostly a "red herring," which is how the economist Jesse Rothstein recently described these tenure lawsuits on the Washington Post's Wonkblog. "It just doesn't matter that much … if you got rid of tenure," he stated.

Writing at the Huffington Post, historian and professor Yohuru Williams observed, "The champions of corporate education reform insist that efforts to strip teachers of the procedural guarantees of due process embedded in tenure are somehow an extension of the Civil Rights Movement."

But then Williams detailed how it was tenure that actually protected black teachers from a backlash of racially motivated teacher firings after the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board that forcibly integrated public schools. "If not for tenure," he contended, "officials … might have succeeded in firing teachers as retaliation for involvement in Civil Rights activities or simply because of their race."

He continued: "When so called 'reformers' like Campbell Brown try to make the case that tenure extends teachers an unfair guarantee of employment unlike other public servants, she is more than stretching the truth. To be clear, when confronted with inequalities in pay and the denial of tenure to Black teachers, the NAACP did not argue for an end to tenure, but for the extension of the same basic protections of due process to Black teachers … The lack of resources, bloated class sizes, high stakes testing, and zip code discrimination are real problems – not teacher tenure."

So there you have it: a deeply unpopular campaign driven mostly by ego, money and false promises that in the long run "doesn't matter much." No wonder the wheels are coming off the reform cart.

Suffering From Over-Promises

Attacks to teacher tenure aren't the only reform venture proving to be a rough road if not a downright blind alley.

As education policy analysts Matt Di Carlo recently observed on the blog site of the Albert Shanker Institute, education reform suffers from a "fatal flaw."

He wrote, "This 'movement' (to whatever degree you can characterize it in those terms) may be doomed to stall out in the long run, not because their ideas are all bad, and certainly not because they lack the political skills and resources to get their policies enacted. Rather, they risk failure for a simple reason: They too often make promises that they cannot keep." (emphasis original)

Di Carlo recounted the "inflated expectations" of the reformers, particularly those made by Michelle Rhee when she led the school system in the District of Columbia. "Rhee predicted that her district would be the highest performing in the nation within five years," Di Carlo remembered.

D.C.-based blogger G.F. Brandenburg has gone into significantly more detail about Rhee's overreach on his blog. Brandenburg, a retired math teacher, has been painstakingly combing through "50 measured targets" Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, have pledged to achieve through their reform efforts. So far, he has found that "exactly one and one-half of the goals were reached … That is a score of 3 percent."

The reform movement's fatal flaw is not Rhee's alone. As Di Carlo explained, "The public is peppered with unrealistic promises or plans to 'close the achievement gap' within ridiculously short periods of time, slogans such as 'college for all,' and talking points, such as the ubiquitous 'fire the bottom teachers' illustration, that imply the potential for huge short-term improvements."

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan insisted his reform plan would “turn around” 1,000 schools every year for five consecutive years. Education policy leaders in Tennessee promised to “move the bottom 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent within five years.” State reform leaders still talk with a straight face about making all students "proficient," the goal of the now reviled No Child Left Behind law.

Now Duncan's plan, grandiosely branded Race to the Top, is widely viewed as a "flop," and a recent and comprehensive gauge on Tennessee student achievement – the state’s own assessments – shows that student performance levels have barely budged at all, even decreasing slightly in grades 3-8 for reading.

Whither "Reform"?

To prop up the faltering reform movement, rich private foundations – Broad, Bloomberg, Walton, and others – recently coughed up $12 million to start a new blog site Education Post to be led by, according to the Washington Post, Peter Cunningham – a former “communications guru” for Secretary Arne Duncan.

Cunningham announced that the purpose of his endeavor was to start a “new conversation” about education policy and reform – "an honest, open conversation … based on the facts.”

First, if Cunningham really wanted a "conversation" about education, it wouldn't take $12 million to start one. Lots of people are willing to engage in that for free.

Second, it's really doubtful that a mere $12 million – surely to these folks – is going to come up with a whole lot more "facts" and "honest" evidence than what the billions of dollars invested by the reformers have already come up with.

No, efforts such as Education Post seemingly amount to little more than a rear guard as the serious money heads elsewhere.

Get Ready for the Next Education Miracle

Judging from the latest report on the booming ed-tech industry, the big money headed out of school reform town is going to greener pastures. As ed-tech guru Audrey Watters observed on her own Hack Education blog, “Financing in Ed Tech has shown a clear upward trend, with consistent growth since 2010. Funding in 2013 represented a 212 percent growth in the sector since 2009. Deals have grown as well, with 334 deals occurring in 2013 representing a 35 percent year over year growth from 2012. Notably, 2014 is seeing funding and deal activity on pace to top 2013's previous investment highs."

In fact, ed tech companies raised $159 million in August alone, according to the website Edsurge.

Bolstering the bonanza are the very same think-tank cheerleaders who propped up previous education reform policy proposals with "research." As Waters noted, "Research conducted by Matthew M. Chingos and Guido Schwerd argues that Florida Virtual School students 'perform about the same or somewhat better on state tests' than traditional public high school students." Her prediction: "Expect these findings to be trotted out in future ed reform arguments."

Already, there are news reports in mainstream media promising these new education technologies will forever change "the classroom as we know it," ushering in a new era of "active learning" (while seated at a computer?) where children "absorb factual knowledge on their own time" (like you did when you were a kid?).

The fact that about 70 percent of America's elementary schools still rely on slow Internet connections – and many schools in rural areas can't get on at all according to the Hechinger Report – seems to matter little.

And there's already even a scandal, just like the ones education reform folks brought us. As the Los Angeles Times has been reporting, the new controversy engulfing that school district is a "$1.3-billion technology project" involving superintendent John Deasy and technology providers.

A report from a school board member found that the bidding process the district administration conducted to acquire new iPads and software "may have had the appearance of favoritism toward Apple, which supplied the iPads, and Pearson, which provided the instructional software. Soon after, district emails were released that showed Deasy and former Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino had begun discussing a possible contract with Apple and Pearson two years before the bidding for the project began."

No one but Deasy himself seems to doubt there could possibly be anything wrong with that.

So maybe it's time to stick a fork in education reform, and get set for what the shiny, new ed-tech industrialists are going to bring us.

No doubt, it's going to be great business.

By Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

MORE FROM Jeff Bryant

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Arne Duncan Campbell Brown Editor's Picks Education Reform Michelle Rhee Studentsfirst Teachers Union