The mantra goes, “You either love or hate Michelle Rhee.” In the education world, there is no figure as polarizing as the former chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, who famously warred with the city’s teachers’ union and left abruptly when her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost reelection last year. Since then, she has started an organization called StudentsFirst to push for education reform nationwide. She announced the group in a Newsweek cover story, and it raised more than $700,000 in its first week. Andrew Rotherham, an education policy expert, told me, “Do people say, ‘I [am] kind of uncertain about Michelle Rhee’? No way.”I have long had decidedly mixed feeling about Seyward Darby (as you can see for yourself with a quick keyword search). Her reporting and analysis of the education reform movement has been, to put it simply, bad (better than Chait's but still bad). She was overly eager to accept the movement's preferred narrative, credulous about its claims, negligent about digging into the research that called these claims into question, and dismissive of those on the other side.
Count me, then, as one of the uncertain few. To be sure, I am generally a fan of Rhee. The world of liberal education policy consists, more or less, of two factions: reformers, who support performance pay, charter schools, and weakening seniority-based job protections for teachers; and opponents of these ideas, who are often allied with teachers’ unions. Like most reformers, I greatly admired Rhee’s tenure in D.C., in which she closed failing schools, fired underperforming teachers, and helped raise student achievement.
But, in reading about Rhee’s recent moves, I’ve felt a nagging sense of disappointment. She is now advising several conservative governors who line up with reformers on certain issues but whose commitment to public education is questionable. Meanwhile, she hasn’t offered robust answers to some of the thorniest matters facing education policymakers. Last week, I put these challenges to Rhee directly. And I came out of our conversation much as I went in: with decidedly mixed feelings about her vision for the education-reform movement.
That last trait is still on display even now with the weasel-worded "more or less, of two factions... opponents of these ideas, who are often allied with teachers’ unions." The implication here is that the opponents are shilling for the unions. I don't know the alliances of everyone out there but I can tell you that I'm not allied with the unions (I never even bothered to join one when I was a teacher), nor is Joseph, nor is David Warsh, nor, to my knowledge are most of the people in my corner of the blogosphere. In my experience, it would have been more accurate to say "opponents who question the evidence presented by the reformers."
But there was no question in my mind that Darby is an intelligent, competent and basically honest journalist and that eventually the internal contradictions would start to get to her. One of the ways that people deal with cognitive dissonance is by convincing themselves that things have changed. Rather than question their original assessment and reaction, they convince themselves that they were right then but they are taking the opposite position now because things are different.
Michelle Rhee hasn't changed. She is constant as the northern star. Every point on her career trajectory is collinear. Those who didn't see her current incarnation coming either weren't paying attention or weren't being honest with themselves.
The rest of Darby's article is behind a paywall and I haven't had a chance to look at it. Perhaps something in the piece will invalidate something I've said here. If so let me know and I'll gladly make the appropriate retractions.