Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Time to call a lie a lie

One of the most effective rhetorical tools in the education reform movement is the "we're just in this for the children" chant. The implication, of course, is that the people who disagree with the movement's proposals must not be putting the children first. It is an obviously unfair suggestion but it done a spectacular job quelling potential criticism on the left.

Of course, the vast majority of people on both sides of the debate are there because of a concern for kids. I disagree strongly with Jonathan Chait and Ray Fisman (just to name two) but I have no doubt that both men are motivated by a desire to see young people get a better education. (For the record, that's a courtesy that many of those in the movement, such as Chait, have been reluctant to extend to the other side.)

This concern does not, of course, preclude self-interest. As functional adults we expect people to act out of a mixture of motives. When policemen lobby for more cops on the street or our dentists advise us to schedule more appointments, we know that their advice to us is also in their self-interest but, barring evidence to the contrary, we believe that they are genuinely concerned about us as well.

These two facts, that everybody has mixed interests and that their advice should still be given the benefit of the doubt, need be kept in mind during all debates. Acknowledging these facts goes a long way toward keeping things civil and, more importantly, honest. That's why, in the context of recent events, the behavior of Michelle Rhee has been so difficult to forgive.

Rhee has always played an aggressive game and has gone out of her way to portray her opponents in a negative light, but with the formation of her lobbying group StudentsFirst, Rhee has crossed the line into claiming that only she and her allies have pure motives.

Consider this quote from an interview conducted by the painfully credulous Guy Raz on Weekend All Things Considered:
"Over the last 30 years, the education policy has been driven in this country by lots of special interest groups, including the teachers union," she says. "I think that one of the missing pieces is that there is no organized national interest group that has the heft that the unions and the other groups do who are advocating on behalf of children."
The trouble with proclaiming your own purity is that someone will remember those proclamations when you have to make compromises. Rhee's recent role as an adviser/advocate for various conservative Republican governors has made some of these compromises unavoidable.

The recent debate over Florida's education bill provided an ideal example:
Among the amendments proposed and rejected as poison pills:
Requiring superintendents to offer a written explanation for denying a teacher's contract renewal, if test scores and evaluations make the teacher eligible for the renewal.
Let's take a minute and unpack this. First let's keep in mind that Rhee's philosophy is based on the assumptions that you can largely fix the current problems in education by putting better teachers in the classroom and you can accurately identify those teachers through test scores and evaluations. The teachers being denied these letters are, by definition, the same teachers Rhee says we need to keep in the classroom in order to save our school system.

Unfortunately, the main effect of denying that letter will be to force many of these teachers out of the profession forever. As I explained it before, the problem is asymmetry of information. It is incredibly difficult and disruptive to make staffing changes during the school year. This makes administrators very skittish about hiring a teacher who has been fired elsewhere. The administrators would, however, probably take a chance if they knew that the teacher got good evaluations and produced high test scores but was fired for something like budgetary reasons. In other words, that letter might have determined whether or not the effective teacher remained employable.

The effect here is two-fold: effective teachers who find themselves caught in this trap will have a great deal of trouble finding another job and may have to leave the profession; other effective teachers will see that competence and accomplishment cannot protect them from arbitrary career-ending decisions and will consider leaving the field as well. Either way, the law Rhee endorses causes us to lose more of the teachers Rhee says we need to keep.

To be blunt as a sock full of sand, from the students' standpoint this is all bad. There is no possible benefit. You simply cannot argue that causing effective teachers to leave the classroom is good for kids. Despite Michelle Rhee's titular claim, rejecting that amendment puts students a poor second.

This doesn't Rhee and the Florida GOP don't care about the quality of teachers (I'm sure they do), but it does mean that, in this case, other things mattered more. Things such as the money to be saved by firing teachers who are likely to max out the merit pay system and the power that comes from running the education department like a political machine.

If Michelle Rhee were concerned solely with the interests of children, she would have been actively lobbying for rules like the one in the amendment, rules that furthered her stated goal of having more teachers in the classroom whom she considered competent. But, of course, Rhee has to balance the interests of children against the interests of those she represents, an alliance that includes, among others, educational entrepreneurs who stand to make a great deal of money from proposed reforms and conservative Republicans who see the current conflict as a way of maintaining political power and moving back to a period when the country was on the right track.

I have no doubt that Michelle Rhee's concern for children is genuine. Rhee is a professional educator and it is exceptionally rare to find someone who has spent a career working in schools who doesn't care about kids. Nor does the fact that she has sometimes put other interests above those of students (including a particularly notorious case involving her own children) indicate a lack of concern -- making compromises is a necessary part of being an adult.

The sin here is in the lie, in claiming purity of motive and suggesting that only she was trustworthy. That was unfair to her opponents, provably false and terribly damaging to the discourse. Michelle Rhee should be ashamed of herself for saying it and Guy Raz and the rest of the press corps should be ashamed of themselves for not holding her accountable.

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