Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Obama: DC Supdt. "Wonderful"

I was disappointed in Obama's lack of leadership on the issue of education during this campaign. While Bill Richardson and then Hillary Clinton came out against the federal education regime (an idea that is almost inherently unconstitutional), Obama was quiet. Eventually, he moved to favoring "reform" of No Child Left Behind, a word that can mean essentially anything.

This distressing lack of interest, much less progressive advocacy, on the issue of education continued with Obama's recent praise of Washington, DC Superintendent Michelle Rhee. Rhee is a divisive, controversial figure to be sure, though how to label the camps she creates depends on what you think of her. Rhee has a grand total of three years experience teaching within a government program, and was brought in to "shake up" the chronically staggering DC system. During his 60 Minutes interview, Obama declared Michelle Rhee "wonderful".

A recent profile in the Atlantic Monthly paints a pretty full picture of Rhee. She's praised for her responsiveness to parents, her ability to cultivate a strong image, her high demands of her staff throughout the district, and implicitly for her smooth management of the media who come to see her. Of course, at no point during this profile is Rhee ever described as entering a classroom. She certainly seems competent, and boy does she look to be making changes. But the author inadvertently sketches a hired gun meant to clean up a mess with no knowledge of how it got there.

Not that Rhee's lack of experience prevented her from firing 250 teachers, sight unseen. Apparently "the data" -- typically as reliable as Karl Rove's 2006 "math" -- told her everything she needed to know. Mind you, that was for starters; at this point, Rhee is gearing up for one of the most spectacular union-busting efforts in America.

A note for sanity's sake: of course there are tons of teachers weighing down the Washington, DC system who should be let go. Some of them are ensconced in tenure, and burnt out. I would like to see the union offer more in these negotiations, and install smarter, longer-lasting evaluative measures. It should be possible to fire more teachers, but it shouldn't be "easier" -- a codeword for "look at student scores, and fire the bottom 10%". In ham-handed fashion, Rhee is looking to unilaterally tear up contracts and obtain for dictatorial powers to fire anybody who rubs her the wrong way (she had it in for her child's principal -- probably one of the few staff member who she ever say in action). Or failing that, to encourage ideological clones such as L. Burton Nelson to do the dirty work for her.

There's no long term plan, and firing workers with no better alternative in the workforce is dumb management in any sector. I've yet to see where Rhee plans to get her replacements, because she clearly doesn't have a plan. However, firing lots of people looks like action, and that's what Rhee wants.

And for Obama to praise somebody who is busting unions and crashing through a large structure in a field in which he has evinced little real interest is a shame. I've seen enough to know that education isn't going to be a big priority in Obama I -- that goes to health care, macroeconomics, and foreign policy. But if he's only going to say a little about it, I wish he'd say things in accord with liberal values. Here's hoping for better as we go on.

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