Thursday, September 16, 2010

Michelle Rhee and education reform . . . . .

Well I am very glad to say that Washington DC mayor Adrian Fenty lost his bid to serve another term and as a result School Chancellor Michelle Rhee will also lose her job. Now normally I wouldn't relish seeing a fairly progressive mayor and democrat, as mayor Fenty is, lose his office. However, the actions of his Chancellor Rhee were so disturbing to me that I must cheer this loss regardless of Mr. Fenty's generally perceived political leanings.

For those unfamiliar with these events, Michelle Rhee is one of those people who came into the Chancellorship of the School board with the intention of "cleaning-up" the situation and making heads roll. She was fond of saying that DC children were getting a "crappy" education and portraying herself as the solution to this problem.

Now normally I like the idea of making some reforms in education and believe that, at least in the upper grades, public education in many North American school systems is abhorrant and little more than baby-sitting. However, I was not impressed with Ms. Rhee's solutions to this problem. Like so many so-called reformers Ms. Rhee targeted the teachers and their union as the problem with education. She managed to bribe the teachers out of tenure with a large pay increase and then promptly fired 250 teachers with no explanation in most cases except with the claim that they didn't conform to her standards. In other words, Ms. Rhee took the attitude that individual teachers were at the heart of the problem. This is like blaming foot soldiers for losing the battle.

Like so many contemporary "reformers" Ms. Rhee was keen to create standardization and measurability into every aspect of the education system. This is part of a corporatization of education and society in general and a colonization by technical thought in areas where such thought simply doesn't belong. Not everything is measurable despite the desires of a new generation of neo-conservative thinkers. And the idea of 'rating' teachers by some standardized process is fraught with political and social dangers that will ultimately undermine the whole notion of education. But neo-conservative ideologists are not actually interested in education, they are interested in job-training and seek to reduce the entire system of education to a large job-training program that spits out obedient little drones with a minimum of general knowledge but specific skills that will please employers. Despite all their talk of better education, what is really going on here is a race to the bottom of the international capitalist barrel in which economies are little more than mechanisms of capital generation by large corporations. Job-training attitudes toward education create populations that are entirely incapable of the innovation and creativity necessary to go forward into a better future. Rather, such a strategy can only hope to prepare people to take advantage of the market to amass capital.

If we really want to improve education, and make our schools more than just job-training houses for low paying and unfulfilling employment, then we don't need standardized testing or teacher merit scales. These efforts do little more than determine who is good at testing and which teachers are smart enough to create the illusion that their students are learning. What we really need to do is improve the education of teachers themselves, improve the institutions of teacher colleges and empower teachers themselves to be able to create an atmosphere of excitement in learning, cooperation among students, and education plans tailor made to fit the particular students and classes. Instead, educators like Ms. Rhee disempower teachers, reduce them to little more than skills trainers, and create a disenchanted group of educators who feel that they can do little more than cram children's heads with small snippets of standardized information for particular exams, information that is quickly lost anyway.

Creativity and innovation are not measurable properties. Short-term results testing tell us little about the long-term value of wide-ranging generalized education among the population. Social values can not be reduced quantification.

No comments: