An Open Letter to Michelle Rhee: In Response to the article in the December issue of Time

For the past four years, I have had the challenging experience of being an instructor in the Teach For America (TFA) Urban Teacher Master’s and Certification Program in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. While I have my doubts about the program and believe that it sometimes does more harm than good to recycle a model of inexperience in our nation’s most challenging schools, I have nothing but admiration for the generation of young people who have answered the call to bring about substantive change in schools and to make a positive difference in the lives of children and adolescents. The young teachers I have met through GSE/TFA have been some of the hardest working, resilient and committed educators I have met in my 35 years as a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia.

Jessica Simon, the author of the letter I have reprinted below is one those teachers. She is smart, committed and impatient to see the real changes that need to happen in schools across the country. And she like many of her fellow former corp members has made the decision to stay in her school beyond her two year commitment to TFA.

Her letter, which is addressed to Washington D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee, and written in response to a Time Magazine profile of the controversial figure, challenges Ms. Rhee and those who support her slash and burn, take no prisoners approach to teacher and principal accountability to think more deeply about the problems facing students in poor and underfunded district and the impact of the dehumanizing obsession with measuring the students in those schools through the sole use of poorly designed standardized tests. Moreover, the culture of disrespect for teachers and their knowledge that Ms. Rhee has created and fosters only exacerbates the problem of teacher retention.

I applaud Jessica and support her in her efforts to get her voice heard. Add your voice to the conversation. Send your letter to Ms. Rhee or to other politicians who have hijacked our schools and who currently hold our children’s and our county’s future hostage to a narrow and ill-informed vision of what is possible.

January 19, 2009

An open letter to Michelle Rhee: (In response to article in December’s issue of TIME)

As a Teach for America alumnus who is still in the classroom, I am deeply concerned about your approach to educational policy. The words you’ve used to describe teachers are offensive. The arguments that support your actions are just as limited as those that you abhor, and it is clear that you are not concerned nor do you value teacher retention and its relationship to achievement.

First, your first solution to the education crisis is higher salaries in exchange for test scores. Kids need to read. If poor kids could read, everything would be fine. Teachers who taught children for 30 years will be the first to tell you, if you cared to listen to them, that money is not what kept them in the classroom; children did. Even the kids who failed the class kept them there because children have lives, and teachers affect these lives. High salaries are helpful and necessary, but they are not a sustainability plan. My fellow Teach For America alumni who currently work for double the public school salary in “successful” charter schools like Uncommon Schools (where 95% of students from the same poor and minority backgrounds as public school students score Proficient or Advanced on state tests) are exhausted, frustrated, and want to quit teaching altogether. Numbers do not sustain teachers; kids do.

“Numbers will solve the problem” is your second argument. If all kids could just read, then they would succeed. Those who believe in this theory fail to take into account what happens when poor kids who achieve academically try to pursue a college degree. According to the New York Times, only 25% of those low-income students who begin college finish with a degree, with black and Latino graduation rates closer to 20%. The biggest indicator of who finishes four years of college is parental income. Creative projects like the documentary First Person, which chronicles the lives of six Philadelphia seniors, help to reveal why academic achievement of poor kids sometimes ends in tragedy all the same. Kurtis, a key character in First Person, is in the Temple University Scholars program because his achievement is high. However, he hangs out with friends who get into fights involving guns. By the time he is 17, he gets caught up in a fight and he is now locked up; test score and all. What stops a child from shooting a gun? Standardized reading textbooks? Poverty is not an excuse for why achievement does not happen; it is a reality that affects children’s lives, and the consequences of it are conveniently ignored by policymakers who have stopped talking to children about what their lives are actually like.

The featured student in the Times article about you, Allante Rhodes, was upset when you fired his principal; his “mother, mentor, and teacher.” It is possible that this “mother, mentor, and teacher” was one of the people who made him feel empowered enough to write to you about his education in the first place. My principal argues that “it is because of teachers like you who did what they wanted that got our children where they are today.” She means teachers like me who push for creativity and tolerance education in the classroom alongside of curriculum skills-based learning have caused low reading scores. It is noteworthy to point out that the author of the Time article only mentions in passing the racist perceptions Allante Rhodes had of you as “petite, foreign, and under qualified” as if this is not an education issue. Teaching tolerance in schools is not trendy in the policy world right now as it was in the 60s, but we as a nation, must still consider whether or not we want our children thinking all Asians are under qualified, all Black people are lazy, or that all the Jews run the Earth. Do we believe that once students pass tests, they will magically get rid of stereotypes? Whose job is it to teach students about treating people equally? Is it the parent’s job? If this is the case, we’re in trouble. I teach in a racially isolated neighborhood where I get told I look like Anne Frank because I am Jewish, and where the only Asians around are those who run the Chinese food stores. Where will my students be taught tolerance? However, under your policies, if I were to lead a workshop about racism and critical thinking that involved reading, I could be fired for not engaging my students in what you call “real work.” You are quoted in Time as lambasting “morning meetings” as not real work because these meetings don’t relate to skill-based learning. Morning meetings are done to build community and teach tolerance. Maybe if Kurtis had been involved in morning meetings throughout his education, he would not have thought guns were an acceptable response to anger.

So far in this letter, I have addressed skills and tolerance education as mutually exclusive goals. I have done this because skills are the only aspect of education currently supported by policy makers as valuable, whereas tolerance is left to the few who still believe in teaching it. However, these two educational goals are not mutually exclusive at all. I can teach active reading skills and have a discussion about why Hamlet does not commit suicide. Of course, my students may still fail the test! And then of course, you will say I have failed. I do not necessarily agree. If when my students’ parents both die of cancer when she is 20 years old, and if she thinks of our discussion of Hamlet, and remembers that maybe suicide isn’t the best option, I did not fail. I can guarantee that during hard times, this student will not remember that one page handout about oysters that I used to teach inferences. But she will remember acting out monologues in class, and writing her own about “To Be or Not to Be” speech about conquering tragedy.

Teachers teach because of student’s lives; not their numbers. Not because of 95% correct, or 4 brothers shot, or proficient according to 10 “education experts” in a room in Washington, or 5 friends pregnant, or 2 uncles dealing drugs, or 3 studies show teachers have no effect on children, or 10 classmates dropped out because no one knew their names, or 1 gay student beat up after school and left to rot. If you don’t understand this idea, then you don’t know why I teach or what it means to “do your job.” And it seems to me that you would fire me for valuing children’s lives over their test scores. What keeps a kid fighting to get a four year degree despite the odds? Can you measure it? What keeps a kid in school despite being beat up every day; can you measure it? What makes a student feel inspired? Since these things cannot be put into an excel chart, you, Teach For America, No Child Left Behind advocates, administrators under pressure, and principals and teachers about to lose their jobs push these issues aside as unimportant. Alternatively, those things we can measure are propped up as the solution to the “problem” of educating poor children. Once they can read, they’ll be fine. Calculations say it and the best experts say it so it must be true, right? Right?

Sincerely,

Jessica G. Simon

Jessica Simon is a Teach For America alumnus (2006 Philadelphia Corps) and high school English teacher at The Young Women’s Leadership School at Rhodes High School.

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  1. This post brings up so many crucial issues. I love that a beginning teacher can zero in on what matters most.
    If anything is predictable in public education it is that administrators like Michelle Rhee will come and go. I averaged about 7 principals in my 35 years; the number of district superintendents was about the same.
    Most of the time their direction, ideology, plans, schemes, philosophy, represents a huge disconnect from the reality of classroom teachers. No surprise, they average a few years in the classroom, simply not enough time to hone their skills and learn the craft.
    As long as these self-appointed “leaders” continue to confuse educating a human being with “productivity” and classroom atmosphere with appearance, they’ll come and go, but with their big salaries. So, I tip my hat to young teachers who get this early on. I too have issues with programs like TFA. I don’t blame the idealists, I identify with them. Trouble is, like most things worth investing a lifetime in, you’ve got to show up, a lot, over time. Maybe this troubled economy will help our culture re-prioritize and re-consider the whole notion of educating young people. Maybe not.
    Love your blog; great stuff.

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