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Does Rheeism Work? No, Except for Crushing Unions



Jonathan Chait wasn’t happy with my response to him last week, where I talked of his hackish Rheeist beliefs in destroying teacher unions and replacing them with charter schools. Of course, supporting these policies pays for his house since his wife is a charter school advocate, which he admitted for once.

For teacher unions and their supporters, Rhee remains the premier antagonist, where her name remains a curse word. Erik Loomis laments that the Obama administration still “believes in Rheeism.” Casey Quinlan, writing for ThinkProgress, castigates the Obama administration for citing D.C. reforms as a model. Bruce Vail has a whole article for In These Times lamenting the fact that Rhee’s successor, Kaya Henderson, has continued her policies (quotes from union sources: “[Rhee] is still here, but in the form of Kaya Henderson”; “It’s Rheeism without Rhee,” etc.)

But here is an odd thing that none of these sources mention: Rhee’s policies have worked. Studies have found that Rhee’s teacher-evaluation system has indeed increased student learning. What’s more, the overall performance of D.C. public school students on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) has risen dramatically and outpaced the rest of the country. And if you suspect cheating or “teaching to the test” is the cause, bear in mind NAEP tests are not the ones used in teacher evaluations; it’s a test used to assess national trends, with no incentive to cheat. (My wife works for a D.C. charter school.)

Does Rheeism work? Despite what Chait suggests, the evidence largely does not suggest that it does. Many studies suggest charter school students do no better or worse than public school students on standardized tests. At best, it’s probably a draw. But that’s not the only measure of whether a school is working. Like it or not, schools do more than just educate students. They also socialize and shape them over a period of thirteen years, counting kindergarten. And they really fail by those measures. These charter schools that Chait claim work so well suspend black and disabled students at rates higher than public schools. These schools have no tolerance for behavior that comes out of difficult home lives or disability and so they resource to punitive discipline. Instead, they talk about successful students having “grit,” naturalizing the problems that poor students face instead of facing the real problems students face. This is not an education system that works.

Let us also remember how often the pro-Rheeist studies prove to be methodologically flawed and influenced by the results the charter school advocates desire. Allow me to quote from my Boston Review piece on charter schools in New Orleans:

Time and again, test score fraud and false research has put the lie to many such claims about the benefits of charter schools. The Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, Cowen’s post-presidency lobbying group that aims to turn New Orleans into a giant experiment for charters, released a 2014 report lauding its success. However, the institute soon had to completely repudiate its own report for its flawed methodology. Despite well-funded charter industry “studies” claiming improved test scores, the nonpartisan Spencer Foundation and Public Agenda has found, “There is very little evidence that charter and traditional public schools differ meaningfully in their average impact on students’ standardized test performance.” On New Orleans schools specifically, the Investigative Fund has written, “seventy-nine percent of [New Orleans] charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education.” Moreover, it has chronicled how the emphasis on test scores and college preparation has led charter schools to eject low-performing students who would require additional help to overcome the tremendous class and race-based barriers that impede their educational success.

Let us also remember why Michelle Rhee left her job in Washington. Her tenure as a unionbuster shoving her agenda down the throats of parents and the community was so controversial that it cost the Washington mayor his job, forcing her to resign. I guess firing principles on national television makes Rhee look tough and independent and people like Chait love that, but that is a horrible and capricious managerial style that is disastrous in the real world.

What galls me in the end is the idea that bad teachers, or more specifically, teachers unions protecting bad teachers from being fired, is the primary reason for problems in education. This just makes no sense. First, teacher unions don’t want bad teachers either. What they want is for school districts to go through contractually negotiated processes for disciplining and then firing teachers. This is to protect teachers from capricious and tyrannical management practices. And that drives privatizers nuts because their own anti-union mentality simply can’t abide that workers would have any power. Second, the problem with public schools is the intertwined curses of poverty and racism. If you want better public schools, crushing unions does nothing to help these kids. What helps them is money, both in terms of jobs for their parents and in terms of more money in their schools. Suburbanization, white flight, and now gentrification have all contributed to these problems. Anything charter schools might provide these kids is just window dressing covering up the structural issues at the heart of the problem.

Third, I fail to see the justification in the entire testing regime at the heart of the privatizers and charter school advocates. The idea that teachers primary means of evaluation should be the test scores of their students has enormous implications for both teachers and students. First, it drives good teachers out of poor schools. Why would they stay in these schools when their jobs depend on bringing kids with difficult lives up to a certain standard when they could teach in the suburbs and get there easily? Second, it means that first graders are doing test prep classes when they could be at recess, fourth graders are doing test prep when they could be in art, sixth graders are doing test prep when they could be in band. But like the anti-liberal arts bias that now pervades higher education, these reformers don’t care about recess or art or band. They want test scores. This hurts children’s lives.

And if Jonathan Chait isn’t a unionbuster, he will be totally fine with charter school teachers unionizing. If he’s not, then fundamentally his goal is unionbusting.

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