Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Un-self-awareness at the New Republic -- more Rhee-views

Michele Rhee has popped up in a couple of notable posts this week.

First Nicholas Lemann writing in TNR:
Rhee is not one for exquisite sensitivity. She closed schools, fired teachers, and (though she assures us that “I had never sought the limelight”) became famous. She was on the covers of Time (holding a broom) and Newsweek, and was one of the stars of Waiting for Superman. It is usually a fundamental rule of politics that a department head isn’t supposed to do anything to make her boss unpopular or to upstage him. Rhee did not follow this rule. She has a special scorn for “politics” and often praises Fenty for not considering it when making decisions, but this is both un-self-aware (Rhee’s policies were very good politics in white Washington) and impractical. We live in a democracy, so officials have to contend with public opinion and with groups organized to promote their own interests. Many American politicians over the last generation, including all of the last five presidents, have been able to push education policies in the same realm as Rhee’s in a way that kept their coalitions together. That is what Rhee and Fenty were unusually bad at doing, and Rhee’s insistence that “politics” is a terrible thing that only her opponents practice was surely a big part of the reason why.
Lemann represents the pivot phase of the press's relationship with Rhee, not quite ready to address painful topics, but moving away from the hagiography that until recently marked much of Rhee's coverage (particularly at the New Republic).

It is, of course, difficult to pivot gracefully so it's not surprising to see an awkward turn or two here. Most memorable is the description of Rhee's stated view of politics as "un-self-aware." Not only is the term itself good for a chuckle, but by this criterion Rhee's un-self-awareness would apply to the vast majority of politicians (think of all the times you've heard candidate express a similar scorn). It is the most standard of standard campaign lies, made all the more transparent by Rhee's relentless and ruthless political maneuvers (including reaching her current position by climbing over the still-warm corpse of Adrian Fenty's career).

The press is slowly coming to terms with how badly it was played by Rhee, but they are getting there. The question now is how will the fall of one reformer affect the movement? Andrew Gelman sees this as indicative of something bigger.
My impression is that there has been a shift. A few years ago, value-added assessment etc was considered the technocratic way to go, with opponents being a bunch of Luddite dead-enders. Now, though, the whole system is falling apart. We can learn a lot from tests, no doubt about that, but there’s a lot less sense that they should be used to directly evaluate teachers. We’ve moved to a more modern, quality-control perspective in which the goal is to learn and improve the system, not to reward or punish individual workers.

This shift may have not happened yet at the political level, but it’s my sense that this is the direction that things are going. The Rhee story is symbolic of the fallacies of measurement.
I'm not so sure. From the beginning there have been at least four major concerns:

1. Given the ugly nature of the data (confounded, nested, etc.) we would not get anything usable out of the two or three years of data window we would have to evaluate a teacher;

2. The test might give us an inaccurate or incomplete picture of what students were learning;

3. The system would be vulnerable to cheaters;

4. The tests would distort education priorities.

Rhee's crash drives home 3 but I don't know that it says that much about the rest which is troublesome because those are the ones that bother me more.

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