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What you didn’t hear on Oprah yesterday (Part I)

September 21, 2010

I am sincerely disappointed in the one-sided coverage presented on the Oprah show yesterday. It’s really sad when trusted media personalities like her advance a one-sided narrative on an issue as complex (and important to her core audience) as education. It appears she’s doing a follow-up show on the issue in which people can participate. Though framed in a really problematic way, perhaps the focus will shift if enough people send in better ideas, or point out why the logic is flawed.

Anyway, in the interest of offering some important information that went unmentioned yesterday…

California teacher leader Anthony Cody takes issue with some of the big arguments that went unchallenged on yesterday’s show (emphasis added):

And why are these schools so hopeless? Because they have bad teachers that are impossible to fire, that’s why. Michele Rhee describes teacher tenure as “a job for life.” Oprah says “After two years you have a job for life and you can’t be fired! Who does that?”

Davis Guggenheim, the movie’s producer, intones “Everybody gets it. It’s automatic. You show up for two years, you got tenure.”

That is a flat-out lie. In my district, which is known for a strong union, teachers do not get tenure unless their principal wants them to. Many teachers are released at the end of their first or second year. Tenure is by no means automatic. And there are indeed ways to get rid of tenured teachers, who do not have “jobs for life,” but rather have rights to due process. In fact, a few moments earlier, we were told “Michelle Rhee has fired a thousand teachers and principals,” many of whom had tenure. We do need to improve our evaluation systems, and I have written some suggestions here. But this is a lie, and it should not have been presented without a challenge.

Oprah tries to reassure those of us who might be having a reaction to this.

Everybody knows I love good teachers, and there are so many thousands of you great ones in this country, so we’re not talking about you, if you are a good teacher. Okay? So save your time gettin’ upset. And what I know is that you who are the good and great teachers out there, you also want good and great teachers, because you really care about the kids.

Here is the problem, Oprah. We do not trust the ways that are being cooked up to sort the good teachers from the bad. Especially the methods that rely primarily on test scores, which is what Ms. Rhee relied on to make her determination. As Linda Darling Hammond pointed out this week,

Unfortunately, as useful as new value-added assessments are for large-scale research, studies repeatedly show that these measures are highly unstable for individual teachers. Among teachers who rank lowest in one year, fewer than a third remain at the bottom the next year, while just as many move to the top half.

It is not that we “good teachers” want to protect supposedly “bad teachers.” It is that we fear a witchhunt based on test scores will have disastrous consequences for ourselves, our peers, and the students we care about.

Teacher Stephanie Sandifer’s open letter, “Dear Ms. Winfrey” offers a wonderfully balanced response to the one-sided nature of the discussion surrounding Waiting for Superman and Michelle Rhee’s brand of school reform.

The problem is much bigger than it was presented on your show or in the film Waiting for Superman.  The problem does not lend itself to easy solutions like just firing ineffective teachers or opening more charter schools.  In fact, many of the current solutions being put forth by our policy makers (more high-stakes testing, teacher accountability tied to single test scores, etc.) will not solve the problems.  The problem is much more systemic and involves the broader community – it is not confined only to the four walls of the classroom.

Teacher Magazine blogger Susan Graham’s post “A Star is Born – But Who Gets Burned?” points out the hypocrisy in the attempts to paint Rhee as a savior of children or public education, and highlights some particularly disturbing stories from Rhee’s short stint as a teacher. (You can listen to Rhee telling this story herself here. She actually laughs as she describes children bleeding and crying as they peel off the tape she put over their mouths to stop them from talking in the hallway.)

…someone has to protect children. Michelle told Oprah

The reality is that we have some ineffective teachers, some bad teachers, who are in classrooms every day who are doing a disservice to our children. The data shows if [children] have three highly effective teachers in a row versus three ineffective teachers in a row, it can literally change their life trajectory.

In a recent address to new DC teachers, Rhee related some horrific examples of the kind of criminal ineptitude that cannot be tolerated. She told of a teacher who put masking tape on the mouths of 35 children to keep them quiet on the way to the lunchroom – and how their lips bled when the tape was ripped off. This same teacher took children on a field trip without collecting parent contact information. When one of them didn’t know her address at the end of the day, this teacher eventually dropped the little girl off with someone in the neighborhood who recognized her.

It is outrageous that this teacher, who had spent only a few weeks in training to develop instructional skills, was not fired on the spot. Yet she continued to teach in a Baltimore school for three years. What is worse, the DC Public Schools hired her for an administrative position.

That incompetent teacher is Michelle Rhee. She shared these personal first-year “war stories” with her new teachers a few days before they went into the classroom for the very first time.

And do you know what they did?
They laughed.

A D.C. teacher wrote to Oprah prior to the show, also expressing his concern about the stark contrast between Rhee’s public persona and the reality in D.C.’s schools:

All this [is] a platform for educational reform – or at least the kind of reform that Rhee claims to make.  I hope you will ask Ms. Rhee a few harder questions about her “accomplishments” before you give her such a huge stage on which to tout herself.

Even better, you might come down to the district and record some observations by the people most affected by her “miracles”.  You could start with the teachers.  How about asking us what it feels like in our buildings, the level of stress, the resentment that is growing in our buildings from IMPACT and the way it is used, the lack of real support that we are not getting, the false claims that Rhee makes about scores and what she has done while she fires too many of our worthy colleagues (meanwhile leaving the very type of teacher she claimed she wanted the system rid of still in place).

Talk to the students in our various schools.  Talk to the students at Eastern and Anacostia High Schools, talk to the students at Hardy, talk to students in many of the schools where Rhee has left anger and frustration because she ignored the community of that school and did what she wanted.  Ask her why she has put educators in prominent administrative positions at Hardy Middle School who lack the proper credentials to be in our schools.  Ask her why she focused on already successful schools, removing their principals on the shallowest of reasons and ensuring the failure of those schools by her actions.

When she talks about the “tremendous gains” we have made you need to ask her where exactly those gains are since over 34 of our schools did not make AYP on the last testing cycle and many of those schools had never failed to do so in the history of those schools. Ask her how that is progress.  You should also maybe talk to Chris Bergfalk.  He is a teacher here in DC who can show you the real statistics that Rhee does not want to admit to. Statistics that show that our gains were made merely by shedding our system (either by attrition or by keeping them off the test) of our lowest performing African American students.  This is like saying you lost weight when you took off your clothes.  Ask Chris, and then ask Ms. Rhee, about the fact that the gap between white students and students of color has WIDENED under Rhee.  The very students we should be helping the most are not being helped. Exactly how is this covered under “tremendous gains”?

Other important myth-busting posts include:

  • These dissections of key Rhee-era reforms, and other critiques of her leadership by retired D.C. teacher G.F. Brandenburg
  • Did Michelle Rhee lie about her record as a teacher?” a 2008 post at D2 route asks important questions about the lack of evidence for her story about turning around her students’ low test scores in Baltimore
  • A 2008 series in the Daily Howler dissects a number of issues related to the media coverage of school reform and the framing of certain issues related to then President-elect Obama’s choice of education secretaries. They also highlight the verbal sleight of hand associated with Rhee’s teaching record, noting instances where the story has changed in different media outlets.
  • Say what? As we have repeatedly noted, Rhee has always made a much more grandiose claim about her success in the classroom. Indeed, when Rhee was tapped to head DC’s schools, the Washington Post quoted the claim from her professional resume: “Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/07).

    That’s what Rhee had always claimed—and this highly implausible claim was ballyhooed by the hacks and the marks who love happy-talk about low-income schools. But in Time, Rhee’s claim has been ratcheted way, way down. As of June 2007, ninety percent of Rhee’s students had scored at the 90th percentile—or higher. Now, Ripley cites a vastly different claim. The majority of Rhee’s kids were at grade level, this new account modestly says. The down-sized claim is still taken as a sign of Rhee’s genius, of course.

More to come…

17 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2010 10:58 am

    Thank you, THANK YOU, Sabrina, for starting to set the record straight. What Oprah doesn’t tell you, in her largesse, is that DSST doesn’t accept more than 45% low-income kids. DPS has something like 70% low-income (free/reduced lunch) kids.

    The larger point to make is that “high performing” doesn’t actually mean that kids know anything two years down the pike. All it means is that they tested well, which makes adults feel better but is no real measurement about what they retain. It’s a fake descriptor.

  2. September 21, 2010 11:34 am

    Thank you Sabrina for keeping things honest. No one is buying their lies anymore. They can make movie after movie. They can lie on every talk show there is, but teachers and parents are not buying their lies. They have no data, and like all tyrants before the fall they simply tell bigger lies. Every tidal wave begin with one single drop of rain, and I see a growing tidal wave of resistance coming,

  3. Alan Gottlieb permalink
    September 21, 2010 11:34 am

    Oh, please, Andrea. It’s not true that DSST “doesn’t accept more than 45% low-income kids.” They hold a dual lottery to get at least 40%.The school strives for integration. Why tie yourself in knots trying to downplay DSST’s success? It’s an excellent school, not a threat for goodness sakes.

  4. Drock permalink
    September 21, 2010 11:57 am

    Thank you Sabrina.  NYC parents are beginning to confront Bloomberg and chancellor Joel Klein regarding their manipulation of student testscores.  Their desperate attempt to show progress where there has been no progress under their leadership is criminal.  When Bloomberg and Klein didn’t like hearing the truth, that their reforms have been a failure, they just lowered the score necessary for students to pass.  Lying made their reforms, like more charter schools and testing, look successful.  The press has been going along for the ride.  Meanwhile, untold thousands of students have gone without the help they need because of the mayor and chancellor’s lies.  See for yourself how parents are fighting back:

  5. September 21, 2010 2:08 pm

    The “gap” in educational achievement is of concern. But a larger concern is ideologically-driven ignorance in the GAP–the Government-Academic-Publisher triangle. Parents give schools the best kids they have. Kids and teachers do better than one might expect, given the mindless mandates and feckless teaching tool that the GAP imposes. Of course, there is variability in the GAP, just as there is in el-hi. The National Academy of Sciences, for example, has warned that none of the four pillars of the Race to the Top has any scientific or technical foundation. But the warning has been ignored. Not smart.

  6. September 21, 2010 2:26 pm

    Awesome post. It shows how compelling our points are when they’re assembled coherently.

  7. September 22, 2010 7:19 pm

    The manipulation of assessments, class grades and school-based testing is yet another reason to have a federal standard course curriculum and exams, replacing the disastrous system of social advancement through largely meaningless grades. Measuring students who are effectively kept marching in place says nothing about them or their teachers. In fact, it is completely beside the point. We should allow students to instead be independently certified for mastery of individual courses, in which they have an interest, and leave teachers and student tutors the task of assisting those who need help in acquiring that mastery.

  8. September 23, 2010 7:27 pm

    I join the others who commented with a heartfelt THANK YOU! Thank you for your blog, your insight and your major truth-telling!

  9. September 23, 2010 7:41 pm

    Aww, thanks for reading, Alev & everyone else!

  10. carmen dorsey permalink
    September 26, 2010 6:16 am

    Thank you so much for this website.
    I was so saddend by Oprah’s choice to use her beloved spiritual show to begin to promote a propaganda agenda against hard-working and sincere teachers who care about our children. In her attempt to “fix” failing schools, her program did not address the violent, drug addicted environment that permeates most of the neighborhoods that many of our students of failing schools live in today. There is such a gap in society from the true knowledge of how many of our children are living. Teachers are more intimate with this problem than anyone. But no one even spoke of this issue on her show or even alluded to the fact that this horror is the true cause of poor education. I do not believe that Oprah has any credibility when she is willing to use teachers for scapegoats instead of addressing the true sadness that befalls our chiilderen which is lack of parenting, violent environments, drug addiction, anything goes TV , starvation, lack of warm clothing and all out poverty. Oprah, please try to fix them first.
    Most of our public school teachers are doing everything they can to try and help the students in this environment. Unfortunately I do not see them getting support. Without that support, Oprah, you expect me to believe that you care about our children? What happend to the Oprah who used to present spirituality on her program. I am saddened and ashamed for you. You have lost me as a viewer and a support sytem.
    It is not the bad teachers who are angry, Oprah, it is the good teachers who are broken -hearted for losing you who at one time were one of our greatest advocates. As we went into these very difficult situations , we believed we were making a difference and that the country was behind us as we gave everything we had. Now I know how the Vietnam Veterans must have felt.
    Why not have a program about how bad the soldiers were since the Vietnam War is no longer a popular one?

  11. carmen dorsey permalink
    September 26, 2010 6:20 am

    No excuse for bad typing errors ….I apologize

  12. Cathy permalink
    November 1, 2010 8:33 pm

    I’ve been wondering where the teachers’ voices are in this debate. Alas, my niece, a 4th grade teacher sent me this: An Upset Educator’s Letter to Oprah……

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