If you saw the documentary film Waiting for Superman, then you know who Michelle Rhee is. If you didn’t, Rhee is one of the most important – and controversial – voices in school reform today.
Pushed out as head of the beleaguered Washington, D.C., school system despite gains in student achievement under her watch, Rhee recently announced on Oprah the creation of a new organization called Students First, which aims to put kids’ needs before those of adult special interests (read teacher unions).
Rhee, a former educator and founder of the New Teacher Project, is outspoken and loathes compromise. In fact, she can be downright harsh in her delivery of grim statistics about the quality of American education – particularly in the inner city. For those reasons (oh, and the numerous firings of principals and teachers in D.C.), critics are not hard to find.
Rhee spoke to a crowd of 300 people interested in education Monday afternoon at the Denver Athletic Club in an event sponsored by the Donnell-Kay Foundation.
EdNews Parent was there and asked her a pointed question about parent involvement in school reform because whether you agree with Rhee or not – her voice is sure to be at the center of any debate over the right way to fix the nation’s schools.
Here are some key points for parents:
U.S. kids losing their competitive edge
Rhee believes America has lost its competitive spirit and that is due, in part, to what happens in most every American home with children living in it. Children are endlessly praised for their work – even if they don’t have talent and have done nothing remarkable. Rhee even criticized her own parenting style and her own children. She told the audience her 8- and 11-year-old children play soccer, but that they aren’t very good. “My kids suck at soccer,” she told the crowd. (We told you she was not very warm and fuzzy). Still, her kids’ bedrooms are filled with soccer ribbons, trophies and medals.
“We’re so concerned about making all kids feel good about themselves,” Rhee said. “I try to say to my kids, ‘You’re not good. If you practice, you may be able to get better but you’ll probably never be the best.”
Rhee believes the perpetual praise is not instilling in children the competitive spirit they will need to succeed in the global economy as they fight for jobs against people from China, India and Japan.
Parents have a right to data on teachers
Not only is Rhee a fan of differentiating children and their skills and talents, she wants the same measures applied to teachers. Parents have a right to know who the good teachers are, and demand that their children are in those classrooms. To that end, she believes parents should have access to student achievement data showing whether an individual teacher has been able to move the bar for all students – including those from challenging backgrounds. Right now, that teacher-specific data is considered confidential.
Parents should demand districts get rid of ineffective teacher and promote and reward teachers who are getting the job done, she said.
“If you don’t believe a teacher can make up for deficits at home, then you shouldn’t be a teacher,” she said.
Rhee said parents must be armed with data and know what questions to ask at parent-teacher conferences or about the school in general.
“We need to empower parents. We need parents to act.”
Rhee said there is a perception that parents don’t care, that parents aren’t involved enough in schools, and that those are the some of the biggest barriers schools and teachers face.
“What I know is that that is absolutely not true. I have not met a parent yet who doesn’t want the same things for their kids that I want for mine.”
Reform-minded parents need to speak up
Parents need to demand more for their children, she said. And if parents support a major change happening at a school – such as a school closure or new program – they need to make their views known. Too often, it’s only the critics and naysayers who have a loud voice. It’s the people who have something to lose who do all the talking. The people with something to gain often remain silent.
“We have to have a balance to that,” Rhee said. “If we don’t, we’re not going to be successful.”
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.