On August 7, 2012 Michelle Rhee and Kevin Johnson spoke at a University of Hawaii event co-sponsored by the William S. Richardson School of Law, and the Shidler College of Business on the topic of “Ethics in Education”.
We were as shocked as you are at the title of this event, which approaches a level of surreality that might have caused Andre Breton to do a double, or triple take. Although the event was not billed as a partisan promotion of a specific ideology there were no other presenters or perspectives. The only perspectives on educational ethics the audience of about 200 heard were those of Rhee and her husband, Sacramento Mayor and and former NBA athlete Kevin Johnson.
As we entered the venue, there were notecards and pens for people to write questions on. We suspected immediately, and correctly, that this was a way to weed out questions the moderator did not want Rhee and Johnson to have to deal with. Sure enough, every single question asked at the end of the evening was either framed in a pro-Rhee way, or an anti-union way. For example: “How can one teacher make a difference in a system protected by the union?” And then there was: ” How can we do in Hawaii what was done in Washington D.C.?” The latter sent a shudder down our spines, but their answers even more so. Rhee and Johnson noted that in Hawaii, there is only one school district for all public schools, which makes the political structure more conducive to “aggressive” reforms. They stated that since Hawaii is “at the back-end of reforms” one way to move to the front end would be for Hawaii’s Governor to invite Rhee’s “Students First” organization (as other states’ Republican Governors have done) to push through reforms. Johnson noted that Hawaii has a strong presence of Teach For America (TFA) teachers, (big round of applause) which should translate into TFA school board members, principles, and political candidates at “every key position” where they could shape policy.
TFA’s concentrated efforts in districts with high drop out rates have only exacerbated the teacher attrition rate in those struggling districts’ schools. TFA programs and their accompanying accelerated teacher preparation programs have received tremendous financial backing from anti-union foundations in Hawai’i. The majority of TFA candidates are not from Hawai’i but have a genuine desire to help the poor. Imagine the political climate that manipulates their goal to add TFA experience to their resume, their genuine altruistic notion (and youthful naiveté) that a two year commitment in a poor community benefits a struggling school, and their willingness to undermine labor gains made by traditionally licensed teachers. This scenario positions TFA candidates as unknowing union-busters within a neoliberal framework. The Hawaii DOE has guaranteed 80 teaching jobs to TFA candidates, in addition to 32 more Special Education teaching jobs over the next two years. Local teacher candidates who are paying tuition and taking additional education courses in traditional teacher preparation programs at the University of Hawaii, Chaminade University, Brigham Young, Hawaii Pacific University have not been guaranteed jobs within the DOE system, and will be competing for the remaining positions.
Both Johnson and Rhee promoted the anti-union film “Waiting For Superman.” When Johnson asked how many in the audience had seen the film, only about 20 of 200 raised their hands. Rhee told the stories of children in the film trying to get into better schools, and how their parents struggled with this, to make the point that vouchers would have paid the needed tuition. This concern over parents’ powerlessness over their children’s educational options led to a promotion for another upcoming film, this one funded by the Walden Foundation (Walmart), called “Won’t Back Down.” This film deals with the “parent trigger” in which parents can step in to privatize a failing school (by NCLB standards) have the faculty fired and reapply for their positions en masse, or create some other type of charter. No mention was made of the fact that in Los Angeles, it could in reality end with the closure of the community school, nor that chain charter schools actively recruited parents to do this. Sadly missing was any reference to the research that has determined that, although great teachers can make a difference in students lives, the “teacher effect” is a relatively small part of student achievement, rendering efforts to blame and punish teachers as the singular or main cause of low student achievement dubious at best, and transparently political at worst. (See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-ptsrdyxBE&fb_source=message)
Rhee gave several examples of a “parent trigger” scenario. One was in Los Angeles, in which the parents were threatened with deportation, although she did not indicate how the teachers or unions would have been behind the threat. In Sacramento, Johnson said there had been a 161 point gap in student achievement between Latino and Black versus White students. He said once the school was chartered the gap vanished, due largely to students, teachers, and parents signing a contract to turn a school around. We were not able to find the documentation of this incredible sounding turn around, but are open to seeing it.
Johnson pointed to several factors for the success of his charter. Teachers could be called at 8 or 9pm to help with homework, and that every party was committed to helping students in any way possible. No one in the audience chafed at the idea of a teacher being on call during any and all of their waking hours, and many were nodding in approval at this idea. Rhee also promoted the idea of teachers being assessed by how many extra-curricular unpaid “community contribution” hours they put in, for example, math tutoring after school, coaching a sports team, or other unpaid service after school hours. This would be combined with value added assessments utilizing standardized scores to determine how “effective” teachers are. Rhee explained that they had corrected for economic, social, and other aspects that could be factors in why some students did better than others, in order to leave these value added assessments as purely reflective of the effectiveness of teachers. It was never explained how this works, what research backs up their model, or what institutions or studies support their methods.
The moderator, Will Weinstein, who created the “ethics” series of which this presentation was a part, fawned over Rhee and Johnson all night long. His sarcasm was apparent whenever he asked a “tough” question of the couple. They obviously charmed him and the audience, made up seemingly of law and business students and faculty. This was apparent, when, after about an hour of their promoting union busting, attacks on collective bargaining, and their marveling and wonder at why Republican politicians seem so much more supportive and knowledgeable about their progressive school reforms, Weinstein jokingly asked them why they were “such right-wing conservatives” eliciting a ripple of knowing chuckles throughout the audience. They responded that they had been given a bum rap, with Michelle playing the victim of political Democrats who were in bed with unions.
This was a major theme of the evening, the obstruction that unions present to meaningful reform. Johnson gave a powerful telling of his work to convert Sacramento High from a public school a charter. He stated that the unions stepped in to oppose this, spending vast sums of money to fight against it. No context was given as to why, leaving the audience to assume it was because they opposed poor and minority children receiving a quality education. The flip side of the demonization of unions throughout the night was the way in which the actual results of Rhee’s programs were blatantly whitewashed, or barely addressed. No mention of a D.C. test cheating scandal, of the lackluster performances of charter schools, of the billionaires that back up Rhee’s attacks on teacher unions, of the lack of effective teacher training for TFA graduates (who are assumed to be better than the “bad” experienced public school teachers), and no mention of the corporate funding of the anti-union films they were promoting. Rhee also promoted the corporate model of merit pay for the “best” (according to flawed assessment models) teachers, and punishment for the bottom-performing percentile. This corporate model known as “stack ranking” or “rank and yank” is a perfect example of how Rhee sees schools as indistinguishable from businesses. She and her husband both portrayed themselves as progressive liberals stating that charter schools needed to be heavily regulated and that failing charters needed to be closed. This qualification was obviously too little too late to establish any semblance of “balance” in their ideology.
For all their talk of accountability, no one thought to ask them who holds them accountable to prove their claims of miracles, turn-arounds, or the selfish agenda of kid hating unions whose one desire is lifetime tenure. If anyone wrote that question for them, it was not asked.
The night ended with one final anti-union joke when Johnson asked if they were out of time. Weinstein smugly responded that the Moderators Union had called and they had to wrap it up, audience applause.
The authors of this report-back are among the founders of a new annual event called LaborFest Hawaii, a celebration and examination of working class and labor history and current events, and a place where working people can assess present conditions to better organize. Our first event will focus on education with a screening of the Grassroots Education Movement made documentary “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman.” This film is a counter-argument to Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” which targeted teacher unions and pushed privatization, charter schools, and the business model of education. Guggenheim advocates the same austerity-based, anti-union, anti-teacher, and ultimately anti-student reform regime championed by Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and others.