Just the other day, I got an email from studentsfirst, the education lobby group launched by education activist Michelle Rhee. It told of a state by state policy report card performed by the group, based on whether state laws are giving schools the tools to do the best job for kids. No state got higher than a B-; North Carolina got a D.
That's the kind of tough-mindedness that has earned Rhee a reputation as a no-nonsense leader. It's also the kind of thing about Rhee that turns a lot of people off.
While watching Frontline's excellent "The Education of Michelle Rhee" (10 tonight, UNC-TV), you'll see both of those groups represented. Frontline was given broad access to Rhee during her three years as chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools, documenting her highs and lows and her laser focus on trying to build a better school system for the District's children.
Correspondent John Merrow observes and interviews Rhee as she begins her tumultuous term as chancellor, appointed by former mayor Adrian Fenty. She makes clear from the beginning that she's coming on board to make change, change that could cost Fenty everything. Without apparent hesitation, Fenty pledges his full support. (And it costs him everything, politically.)
Rhee goes to work, firing low performing teachers, closing empty schools and angering parents and union members. She gets support from the city council that gives her even more power. And test scores improve.
Rhee believes strongly in tying teacher performance and test scores, and that, it seems, is where things start to fall apart. Schools show dramatic increases in test scores under Rhee, but the tests at several schools also show high erasure rates -- in other words, a lot of test answers seem as if they were erased to correct answers to raise scores. Indeed, the Frontline report has reopened a look at the investigation into the possible cheating.
Someone in "The Education of Michelle Rhee" calls her a zealot and that about nails it. There's no doubt that she cares about children and has a profound sense of what education means to their lives. She knows teachers can't ever phone it in; helping kids learn is too important.
But the report also shows Rhee's flaws. She seems unwillingly to see that there's more than one way to get to the success she wants for students. She shows tremendous passion and care for children, but often treats adults cavalierly. She allows the cameras to show her firing someone; their face isn't shown, but still.
You've got to give Rhee credit for letting the cameras stick around as things went South. One wonders if she regrets it, and after seeing this, if she'd allow that kind of access ever again.
What the Frontline report reveals is a complex portrait of a woman who just might have great contributions to make to the nation's educational system, but who might get in her own way in her attempts to make them.