Michelle Rhee Can't Clean Up Her Mess

By Pelto, Jonathan | The Progressive, May 2014 | Go to article overview

Michelle Rhee Can't Clean Up Her Mess


Pelto, Jonathan, The Progressive


Michelle Rhee is the patron saint of the corporate education reform industry.

Earlier this year, she tweeted:

"Hey Twitter! I'm around for a little bit, anyone have any questions for me? Please use #AskMichelle--Michelle Rhee (@MichelleRhee). "

And with that, Rhee stepped onto the social media stage only to fall face first into the orchestra pit.

Michelle Rhee's performance was an utter disaster. She was bombarded with questions about her role in the cheating scandal that took place when she was Washington, D.C., schools' chancellor, her recollections about taping children's mouths shut when she did a short stint as a Teach For America recruit in Baltimore, her role as education adviser for rightwing Florida Governor Rick Scott, and her connection to union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

"Is it a coincidence that state policies you rank as best have terrible outcomes and are radically rightwing?" Twitter town hall participant @SamKnightl asked Rhee.

"Do you think kindergarteners should take standardized tests?" asked journalist Sarah Jaffe.

"Why have you never come clean about the cheating scandal in DC?" chimed in @PrisonCulture. "You preach accountability, but take none."

"Do you feel any shame about using ideology rather than peer-reviewed research in your rhetoric?" asked No-MoreShrubs. And on it went.

Rhee responded by quickly exiting her own Twitter town hall. Her inability to defend herself says volumes about the whole test-driven "reform" movement.

Michelle Rhee burst onto the education "reform" scene as the shining figment of the imagination of businessmen like Rupert Murdoch, who infamously said, "When it comes to K-12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone."

Before Rhee began her career promoting a political agenda that includes bashing teachers and teacher unions and spreading the gospel of failure in America's public schools to pave the way for the corporate takeover of public education, she put in a short and apparently psychologically challenging stint as a Teach For America recruit in the Baltimore school system.

Rhee says she signed up for Teach For America because she was moved by a PBS documentary on the organization. After her five-week training, she ended up at an inner-city school in Baltimore.

Rhee later wrote about her second year of teaching: "I wore my game face. No smiles, no joy; I was all thin lips and flinty glares."

"My mistake the first year was trying to be warm and friendly with the students, thinking that my kids needed love and compassion," Rhee wrote. "What I knew going into my second year was that what my children needed and craved was rigid structure, certainty, and stability."

As an example of her newfound focus, Rhee describes how she successfully created the appropriate classroom atmosphere by making her students line up and march four times into the classroom, until they got it right.

In a meeting, Rhee recounted how she responded to her rowdy students one day by putting little pieces of masking tape on their lips for the trip to the school cafeteria for lunch.

"OK kids, were going to do something special today!" she said she told them.

Rhee said it worked well until they actually arrived at the cafeteria. "I was like, 'OK, take the tape off; I realized I had not told the kids to lick their lips beforehand.... The skin is coming off their lips and they're bleeding. Thirty-five kids were crying."

Rhee later claimed she was joking about what happened and, years later, thanks to the help of PR experts and some revisionist history, Rhee's biography highlighted her teaching experience as follows:

"Ms. Rhee's commitment to excellence in education began in a Baltimore classroom in 1992, as a Teach For America teacher. With the right teacher, students in urban classrooms can meet teachers' high expectations for achievement, and the driving force behind that achievement is the quality of the educator who works inside it. …

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