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Rhee-Defining Collaboration

Is it just me, or is it disturbing to watch Michelle “my-way-or-the-highway” Rhee continue her attempt to rehab her image, and present herself as someone who promotes open, honest collaboration?

By way of reminder: this woman burst on the national scene after posing on the cover of Time magazine with a broom, visually asserting that she believed her employees– the flesh-and-blood educators of Washington, DC– were trash she planned to sweep away. She laughed while describing how, as a new teacher, she taped children’s mouths shut to silence them. She invited a camera crew to film her while firing a principal; her visible excitement over the opportunity to humiliate one of her subordinates was described, charitably, as “stunning.” (Now, how exactly does that kind of callous behavior promote cooperation?)

And what about the rest of her record? Well, she lied about her achievements as a teacher, claiming to have moved students from the 13th performance percentile to the 90th, with no evidence to back it up. She eventually had to walk back the whole story, though she continues to distort her record as Chancellor in DC. For instance, the achievement gap barely budged– and for poor vs. non-poor students, actually grew– on her watch. She put so much pressure on principals and teachers to raise test scores that a massive cheating scandal erupted under her watch– and then she and her allies used every loophole and trick in the book to try to minimize it and ensure it was never adequately investigated. She can’t legitimately claim to have done more, substantively, than earlier DCPS chancellors, but that has yet to stop her from cashing the $50,000 checks she gets to preach her brand of school reform to wealthy special interest groups around the country.

But now, she’s on a media tour promoting Won’t Back Down, and trying to position herself as someone who believes in countering misinformation (she could start with her own record!) and bringing people together to improve schools. For instance, last week while on the Kojo Nnamdishow, she called in from the Republican National Convention to talk about education politics, repeatedly mentioning how she’s a lifelong Democrat but applauds the “bipartisanship” reflected in many recent education policy issues. She also got audibly ruffled when pressed to answer two of my tweets about the bias toward privatization reflected in many of these policies, rattling off a comment about “misinformation” before returning to her talking points about “bringing people together.”

As someone who actually works to bring people together to improve schools and communities, I find it offensive to watch chronically deceptive people like Rhee attempt to co-opt the term “collaboration”– especially in light of her well-publicized hatred of the very concept! What Rhee is promoting right now, with “bipartisan” support, is policy that makes sense to people like her: privileged people who haven’t taken the time to listen to different viewpoints or understand the problems struggling communities are facing (or the role of privileged people like themselves in perpetuating those problems), bankrolled by ideologues and corporate interest groups who stand to profit as these policies take root. Some may honestly believe they’re doing a good thing (apparently plugging their ears to the protests of the actual communities involved), but surely we all remember what the road to Hell is paved with.

This version of collaboration is about misinforming the public, then enlisting them to sign off on failed policies, generated by corporate interests, to give them an air of popular legitimacy. But, again, we’ve tried high-stakes testing, and coercive “choice” schemes, and pay-for-test scores, and mass firings, for years now. These policies do not work, no matter who pulls the trigger on them.

Meanwhile, the kind of collaboration that actually improves schools comes from working with theschool communities themselves. It’s not top-down, one-size-fits-none, cookie cutter stuff shopped from state to state. It’s what happens when educators, families and community members come together and look at the specific barriers that hamper their students’ achievement, and address them. Whether it’s offering services to students struggling with mental health problems; or finding child care for teenage parents seeking a second chance; orrebuilding a community’s infrastructure to help stabilize families and lay the groundwork for better education; or helping teachers collaborate to rethink their instructional practices, these bottom-up approaches actually build student success. They’re not quick, easy or glamorous, and they don’t get their fair share of PR. But they’ve worked all over the world, and they could work across America, too– if we’d fund and support them.

But how will that happen if people like Rhee, who hog the spotlight and much-needed funding, keep crowding the public space needed to highlight real solutions, and real collaboration?

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Sabrina Joy Stevens

Sabrina Joy Stevens is a teacher, writer, and activist who has worked with students in struggling communities in Philadelphia and Denver. She recently helped to o...