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Ex-DC school chief talks about achievement gap

Joel Dreyfuss | 8/30/2011, 11:35 p.m.
The panel of experts that recently gathered on Martha’s Vineyard to discuss the achievement gap in public education included (from l to r): Lawrence D. Bobo, W. E. B. Du Bois professor of social sciences at Harvard University; Michelle Rhee, founder and CEO of Students First and former chancellor of Washington, D.C. Public Schools; James P. Comer, founder of the Comer School Development Program and Maurice Falk Professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine; Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University; Angel L. Harris, assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University; and Charlayne Hunter Gault, moderator. Mark Alan Lovewell

EDGARTON, Mass. — When Michelle Rhee joined a panel of experts on Martha’s Vineyard to discuss the achievement gap in public education, there was no doubt that she would be a lightning rod in the discussion.

She shared the stage with education historian Diane Ravitch, Harvard sociologist Lawrence Bobo, Yale psychiatrist James Comer and Princeton sociologist Angel Harris, and soon enough she was taking fire from all sides.The panel was sponsored by Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, which is headed by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

For the past 15 years, these summer seminars have been an annual ritual at President Barack Obama’s favorite vacation island, and they draw a cross section of vacationing intellectuals — black, brown and white. The president was a few miles away but, of course, did not attend.

Rhee’s 3½-year reign as chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools ended in controversy. She resigned soon after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was upset in the 2010 election by City Council Chairman Vincent Gray.

The conventional wisdom was that Rhee’s tough approach to the D.C. schools’ problems — including firing teachers and principals and closing schools — had alienated the city’s black middle class. Her claims of dramatically improved test scores during her tenure have since been disputed.

Soon after the elections, Rhee gave up Washington, D.C., for Sacramento, Calif., where her fiance, former NBA All-Star Kevin Johnson, is mayor. She also created a new organization, StudentsFirst.org, to advocate on behalf of kids in the school-reform debate.

She sat down for an interview in the basement of the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, Mass., right after last week’s panel discussion.

The name of your organization implies that children are not first in the minds of educators.

You have teachers’ unions. You have testing companies. You have textbook manufacturers. You have lots of people who are benefiting every day from maintaining the status quo.

If you go to any school board meeting anywhere across the country, the number of times that people mention children, or students, or student achievement is very, very few.

Most of the issues that are debated, that are at the forefront, are adult issues. If we took the stance of saying, “What is in the best interest of kids? What decisions would we make if we were just thinking about children and their families?” we would have a much, much different public policy.

The discussion got quite heated when you talked about removing poor teachers from the classroom.

 People on the panel suggested that if someone is rated as ineffective, let’s try to invest in that person. That’s nice if you’re looking at it from a systemic perspective. But I wanted to ask every one of those panelists: “Would you allow your child to be in that person’s classroom while we try to professionally develop them?”

There’s not a person on that panel or anywhere in the audience that would allow that to happen. So whose children are we expecting to be in the classroom year in and year out?