Michelle Rhee’s 5-City California Infomercial- Coming to an auditorium near you!
Last night, I drove over to the Shiley Auditorium on the beautiful campus of USD to hear Michelle Rhee talk about education reform, or as it should more aptly be called when it comes to Rhee, “reform.” San Diego was the first of five stops she is making in California as part of what she called a listening tour, or as it should more aptly be called when it comes to Rhee, a “listening tour.” But I’ll get to that in a minute.
I had planned to tweet the event, despite the signs that said “no texting,” but then I couldn’t get a signal on my phone. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks there was a jammer involved. After all, this was a university campus and I have a smart phone. But my friend, Grant who sat with me, laughed at the notion. He claims to be cynical, but perhaps he’s not cynical enough.
The un-tweetable event was touted in our local paper as “a series of education forums with California mayors,” so it didn’t seem outrageous to expect a conversation between Rhee and San Diego’s newly-svelt and rather handsome Mayor Jerry Sanders. But following a short welcome by Scott Himmelstein of the slippery San Diegans 4 Great Schools—the “grassroots” organization that would like to see four private citizens appointed to our elected school board—Mayor Sanders only offered a brief introduction before disappearing. His dinner was probably getting cold, as the event began 45-minutes later than scheduled.
So: No conversation with San Diego’s mayor. Instead, Rhee shared the stage with three non-mayoral panelists: two young and well-liked teachers who have each repeatedly experienced the annual pink slip, and a parent named Sally Smith who was clearly waiting for Michelle Rhee to up and walk on water. Her fawning made me avert my eyes, but the teachers were compelling.
(It should not be overlooked that there was another mayor present. The mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson, emceed the evening. But Aaryn, you may ask. Why was the mayor of Sacramento emceeing the Michelle Rhee “listening tour” in San Diego? Well that is an excellent question! Johnson is Michelle Rhee’s husband, a notable nepotistic fact given that Rhee and her organization—innocuously dubbed Students First—are elbowing their way into the California education morass. Aye, the rabbit hole is twisty. Johnson was a one-man cheerleader for his wife, the head Rheeleader if you will, interjecting an emphatic “awesome!” every time it was his turn to talk. He excitedly pointed to the audience as proof of how many people support his wife and her “reform” movement. Speaking of which, I did nothing more than RSVP for the event and was subsequently counted amongst their 900,000 supporters. Be cautious of numbers coming from Rhee.)
Aside from the delay at the beginning—which Johnson claimed was due to the large number of people trying to get in; it is difficult to fill a theater before curtain time, after all—the event was carefully orchestrated. Students of the teacher panelists were escorted to front-of-house reserved seats to the left and right of the stage. The front section was reserved for important grown-up revelers escorted in moments before the show started. Hmmm…could it be possible that the presentation started late because Rhee was in a meet-and-greet with powerful donors? No. No. It must have been the rest of us on-timers patiently waiting for the show to start.
When it did finally begin, the Marshall Middle School Chamber Choir plucked at heart strings like little angels when they sang a moving rendition of “God Is Watching Us” (you can hear it at the end of this post). They followed it with Jay-Z’s “New York,” and drove home the adorable factor when a little Asian boy with spiked hair sang the lead. It was contrived, for sure, but effective. I swallowed tears because a) the kids were so damned good and b) so damned lucky to have a music program. Unlike the kids at my daughter’s school where there isn’t even a locker room for them to change for PE class, let alone a middle school chamber choir. Unspoken message: It’s good to attend a school in Scripps Ranch.
After a short speech by Michelle Rhee and anecdotal stories from the women who joined her on stage, the listening part of the “listening tour” began. The AV folks brought microphones to three pre-selected audience members, because nothing says I’m-listening-to-what-you-all-have-to-say like choosing the voices you want to hear. Rhee knows she can’t be held to account if she doesn’t allow a real conversation.
Teacher Kathleen Gallagher said teachers and administrators in schools are at fault because they “don’t monitor the quality of instruction” in their schools. She said that “kids are bored out of their minds” and that teachers “need to be more accountable.” She didn’t mention the dreadful curriculum foisted upon teachers, designed to prepare children for testing, but her point was applauded. Shelli Kurth introduced herself as a parent of two kids and went on to say that “nobody wants to have the conversations that are uncomfortable.” I assume she wasn’t talking about the role of poverty in our education system. Another thing she wasn’t talking about during her staged moment at the mic, was that she is a co-founding member of Up for Ed, a local organization that sponsored the event. A little disclosure goes a long way. Finally, Christopher Yanov of Reality Changers spoke of the need for high expectations. His group is a non-profit but recently launched a for-profit “new social enterprise” called College Apps Academy. The association, to me, is curious. Also included were two similar audience questions written on note cards, selected by staff and read by Johnson. Generally speaking: What do we do now? Rhee’s answer: Join Student’s First. Awesome!
Of course, Rhee spoke of her time as the Chancellor of D.C. schools, citing dizzying statistics about her successes. She talked about once visiting a failing school where “kids were throwing desks out of windows” with “papers flying everywhere.” Sounds like fast times, to me. She then revisited later only to find the kids were “in uniforms, with shirts tucked in, ready to focus.” She did not mention the cheating scandal that resulted from her tenure. Rhee said that “schools need to be more welcoming to parents” and described the laziness of front office workers she witnessed “chatting on their cell phones” and “getting a cup of coffee,” instead of happily attending to “clients.” She said they needed to “smile” when parents come to visit a school. I know the office workers at my child’s school don’t have a lot to smile about right now given the prospect of their ever-increasing workload and always-pending lay-offs. And Rhee plugged a new feature film coming out in the spring, “Won’t Back Down,” as the counterpart to “Waiting for Superman,” which she and her husband cited several times during the one-hour-and-fifteen minute event as proof of something good. Never mind that much of it has been debunked as false.
And that was it. Rhee and her non-mayoral panelists fielded five vetted comments from an audience of several hundred. To be sure, much of what was said was the right stuff to say; the stuff many parents agree on: That kids should come first, that we need to get rid of the last-in/first-out policy, that all is not equal, that parents need to be at the table, that we all want something better for children in this city. But what wasn’t discussed—at all, nary a breath—were the solutions for which Rhee advocates. Solutions that continue to rely on standardized, high stakes testing as a legitimate and equal measure of all children; of test scores being used to determine a teacher’s effectiveness; the desire to dismantle the teacher’s union; the effort to close and privatize schools; the move to lift caps on how much public funding goes to charters.
It didn’t appear that Rhee wanted to talk about any of this last night. Then again, she was here to listen.