Former Washington, DC schools superintendent Michelle Rhee is a controversial figure. Originally touted (on both the left and right) as the person who could save the capital’s schools, her standardized test based decision making, and her apparent eagerness to fire educators, quickly earned the ire of the teachers unions. This fight with the Washington Teachers Union probably cost former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty his reelection, and it certainly cost Rhee her job.

Since then she’s founded Student First, a nonprofit devoted to “reform[ing] America’s public education and keep[ing] our best teachers in the classroom,” but closely identified with fairly transparent efforts to destroy collective bargaining rights for teachers.

Rhee has a new book out, Radical. Nicholas Lemann, dean Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a former Monthly editor, reviews it at The New Republic.


An interesting point that Lemann makes about Rhee’s attitude, and by extension that of many school reformers in the 2000s, is that her take on school improvement ignores, practically on purpose, the real history of public schools. As he writes:

But if the world of the more than fifty million Americans who attend or work in public schools is terra incognita to you, then the narrative of a system caught in a death spiral unless something is done right now will be appealing, and the reform movement’s blowtorch language of moral urgency will feel like an unavoidable and principled choice, given the circumstances. It is a measure of the larger social and economic chasm that has opened in the United States over the last generation that the movement has so little ability to establish a civil interaction with public-school teachers, a group made up of millions of people mainly from blue-collar backgrounds, some of whose leadership (such as Albert Shanker, Randi Weingarten’s mentor) was working aggressively and decades ago on the issues that concern education reformers now. The quasi-essentialist idea that teachers are either “great” or should be fired, which pervades Rhee’s book and the movement generally, may be emotionally satisfying, but it utterly fails to capture what would really help in an enormous system. Making most good teachers better, in the manner of Rhee when she was teaching, would be far more useful than focusing exclusively on the tails of the bell curve.

All of this has little to do with whether or not her reforms worked—I’ve pointed out before that she ran the DC school system for such a brief period of time that we’ll really never know whether or not she did a good job—but Lemann provides an important look at what her reforms are really about. And it looks essentially like an effort to carpet bomb America’s school system.

It’s worth checking out the whole review above, since it touches on many aspects of school reform, in a way that seems essentially fair to what Rhee is really trying to do. But an important point to emphasize is that today’s school reform movement is essentially ahistorical. As Lemann explains:

You’d never know from most education-reform discourse that anybody before the current movement came along ever cared about the quality of public education. (Remember that the reason both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush became president was that, as governors, they successfully established teacher-accountability regimes that were accomplished in ways that got them reelected and established them as plausible national figures. Rhee treats Clinton as someone who doesn’t have the guts to embrace the cause, and doesn’t even mention Bush.) You’d never know that unionization and school quality are consistent in most of the country (including Washington’s affluent Ward 3) and the world. You’d never know that the research results on charter schools are decidedly mixed. You’d never know that empowered and generally anti-union parents’ and employers’ organizations have been around for decades.

And yet, somehow, these people are all consigned in the Rhee storyline of school quality as just “the status quo” opposed to making meaningful reform. In fact, the history of American public schools has been one of continual reform in the hopes of achieving something better. Rhee, in fact, is just another one of those reformers, but is there any reason to think her tactics will be any more effective?

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer