Anyone Who Disagrees With Me Must Be a Sociopath

12 Feb

Recently, I stepped into the middle of a battle I didn’t know existed. My only crime was that I had no idea how ferocious, how black-and-white it was. Given the subject matter, I really should have been familiar, but I guess I’m too sheltered, or too naive, to realize. It really makes you wary of the hidden gorges that dot the landscape of politics and policy. Sometimes you fall in, and only then realize how hard the walls are to climb; how unforgiving your attempts at bringing the gap.

I am now fully aware that there is a war between the “Diane Ravitch”s and the “Michelle Rhee”s. There is also, apparently, a war between those two actual people, but the more important point is that there are camps of zealots being drawn up on either side. Now, I’m an “education policy” person, so I really should have known all this. I realize that now. But I suppose the problem is that I had been “raised” in the belly of the beast–as a Teach for America teacher, with friends and colleagues who went on to the KIPPs, the YES Preps, the New Schools. I spoke “achievement-gap-ese”. I didn’t really know WHO Diane Ravitch was, until recently.

But the funny thing is that I’m not OF the TFA crowd. In fact, I’m uncomfortable with the TFA model–throwing teachers into classrooms with 5 weeks of training–which is why I’m interested in teacher training. I highly respect what KIPP has done for students, but I respectfully believe there are a few major gaps in their system that need addressing. And so, I didn’t understand that there was this animosity between the sides; this need to be either one or the other.

Enter a recent article from Education Next, which highlights this issue:

Tweet Thine Enemy, Education Next (no date), Michael Petrilli

In it, Petrilli tries to show how stark the divide is by counting how many Twitter followers overlap between Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee’s accounts. That was illuminating, but it turns out that the ideological overlap in ed policy may be better than in the political world writ-large.

From Petrilli’s article, I headed to Twitter, where I promptly followed both Ravitch and Rhee. While I was searching for Rhee, however, I noticed a tweet from Ravitch titled “Everything You Wanted to Know About Michelle Rhee” It lead to this blog post, from a blogger who is a long time public school teacher:

NCTQ Letter Grades and the Reform Agenda–Part VIII

Here are some choice phrases that describe this blogger’s description of Rhee:

If corporate reform bred with sociopathy, it would produce the likes of Michelle Rhee.

Rhee has become known for not only her cruelty to others, but also for the twisted ease with which she discusses such cruelty.

And Rhee doesn’t stop with callous perverseness in harming children.

Rhee describes herself as a “change agent.”

Hydrochloric acid is also a change agent.

Now–to be fair to the blogger, I must state a few things:

  1. I am not thoroughly versed in Michelle Rhee’s entire career. There may be many things she has done which I would not like nor agree with. I am open to learning about those things.
  2. What I HAVE heard of her manner at DCPS was, shall we say, aggressive–and I don’t feel that’s a good policy for making change, no matter how pure your motives.
  3. The story that this blogger recounts–the story which proceeds the mention of “cruelty” above–does indeed sound like an instance of very poor judgement on Rhee’s part, probably even one that should have gotten her disciplined. The blogger quotes Rhee as relating a story from her first year of teaching, where she told kids to put tape over their mouths on the way to the cafeteria, to encourage them to be quiet. When they took the tape off, their lips were bleeding. The blogger quotes a source who relates that Rhee said,”“I was trying to express how difficult the first year of teaching can be with some humor.

Rhee’s classroom management techniques here are definitely questionable. If I were her principal, I would have brought her in for a talking to–perhaps to figure out why this teacher was in such desperate straights, and how to help. But was Rhee TRYING to inflict “cruelty” on her students? Was she intending for them to bleed? I don’t believe so. There are people who believe in punishing children corporally for their misdeeds. There are real sociopaths, who actually LIKE inflicting pain on others. And then there are first year teachers who are so stressed out that they do dumb things. She probably should not be telling this story and laughing about it. But it’s also possible she’s still trying to get that moment off her chest, and it came across wrong. Whatever the case–this is not a reason to liken someone to “hydrochloric acid”.

In sum–I find this blogger’s tone entirely inappropriate–and damaging to the tone of ed reform. Disagree with Michelle Rhee–by all means. Point out her flaws. Argue with her approach. But don’t call her a sociopath. Don’t care her “perverse”. Don’t assume that every reform approach that you don’t like is funded by the “corporatists” that have some malignant interest in taking over education. You don’t like the language of the TFA-school of reformers? Here’s your breakdown of their priorities:

For reformers, it’s all about the numbers, not the people.  “Improving student achievement” = higher test scores. “Closing the achievement gap” = again, higher test scores, but higher scores for everyone despite the impossibility of all being “above average” on normed tests.  “Decreasing dropout rates” = traditionally graduate in four years with your “cohort” or you don’t count (and no GEDs, please).  “Increasing college enrollment” = numbers of graduates enrolled in college is all that matters, not trade apprenticeships or specialized training programs.   Only losers fail to attend college, and only loser teachers and schools “settle” for “second-rate,” “non-college” program completion as evidence of human success.

The points the blogger makes here are valid. We should start to question the value of test score gains, the purpose of a college education. But do not, as this blogger does, assume the worst of people who want those things for kids. Everyone I have ever met in the “TFA-like” group of organizations honestly wants what’s best for kids. They want evidence that kids are actually learning what they’ve supposedly been taught, and they want to give them a path into a better life via college. There are valid reasons to question all of those assumptions. But don’t question the good intention or moral fiber of those who advocate for them.

Now that I’ve read this blog post, I’ve seen the worst of the war face to face. We will never move forward with education reform if this world, too, sinks into a morass of name-calling and entrenched positions. Let us remember that we can come together over our shared desire to provide  ALL students with knowledge, critical thinking, and caring.



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