A review of Michelle Rhee's Radical
Radical: Fighting to Put Students First
By Michelle Rhee, Harper, 286 pages
In 2007, Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty tapped Michelle Rhee to be chancellor of district schools and turn around the failing local school system. Rhee had already built a reputation as an uncompromising reformer, and the move boded well for the district’s children. But as she recounts in her compelling new memoir, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, the press conference at which Fenty formally announced her hiring wasn’t exactly a triumphant scene. A few attendees clapped, but most watched in puzzled silence. Rhee recalls thinking at the moment that “there would be no opportunity to mend fences or smooth ruffled feathers.” Rhee is a public figure with a fraught professional history.
Her observation of that day serves as an apt summary of her entire career, and Radical reflects Rhee’s uneasy effort to balance ideological strength of purpose against the necessities of politics. Rhee was born in 1969 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her parents had immigrated to the United States from Seoul because, she says, America “had become heroic” in her physician father’s mind “for preserving his way of life” during the Korean War. Her family eventually settled in Toledo, Ohio, where her father treated managers and workers alike in the union-heavy town. The Rhees were stereotypically strict Asian parents: As a child, Michelle was allowed to spend only one night away from home, and only until 11 p.m. “The main priority in our family was education,” she writes. “It drove every conversation, admonition, and decision in our household.” It was a commitment that Michelle began to appreciate once her parents sent her to South Korea for sixth grade. There she found “a society where competition and excellence were rewarded”—where academic achievement was a matter of personal honor.
The United States had also long boasted a competitive society, but by the time Rhee came of age, the American ethos was being squeezed between Lyndon Johnson’s expansive welfare programs and the more radical identity politics sweeping the culture during the 1960s and 70s. Rhee briefly flirted with the latter when she helped found a group called RAW—Radical Asian Women—as an undergraduate at Cornell. But she was also learning more useful lessons during her college summers spent managing a small restaurant back home. One such lesson was that “firing people never feels good, but there are times when you have to show an employee the door.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree, Rhee had to decide between entering graduate school or joining Teach For America, which recruits top college graduates to lead the country’s toughest inner-city and rural classrooms. It is a common choice for recent graduates these days, but in 1991 the organization had been around for just one year, and the achievement gap between poor students and their affluent peers barely registered on the national radar. But urged on by her public-minded father, Rhee joined TFA and decamped from Ithaca to Baltimore, where she was assigned to an especially difficult elementary school.
Rhee’s account of her TFA training and the three years she spent in a second-grade Baltimore classroom make for some of her memoir’s most engaging and enlightening passages. Nothing quite prepares an outsider for the wretched, demoralizing state of the nation’s worst public schools, and most of Rhee’s first year was spent trying desperately to take control of her classroom. Her students endlessly cussed, horsed around, and threw objects at each other. “Screw you, Chinese bitch!” they’d yell when she tried to impose discipline. Amazingly, however, the same students would behave like little angels when they entered the classrooms of the school’s most effective educators. It was an eye-opening realization for Rhee: “It’s not just about kids who come to school hungry, from families who don’t care about education, through streets with a gauntlet of drug dealers,” she writes. “I was creating the kind of environment where they could act up and be crazy….It was me!”
The conclusion Rhee reached—that, as leaders of their classrooms, teachers are the most important factor in whether the students under their charge make academic gains—is now a bedrock of the education-reform movement. Rhee kept that theory at the center of her work long after she left the classroom.
It is an idea that goes against everything teachers’ unions and traditional education schools stand for. The latter are awash in radical ideologies, propagated by the likes of the Marxist educator Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), holding that teachers and students should join hands as equals in the struggle against established authority. One can imagine how the professors who spend years marinating future teachers in such hokum might react to Rhee’s statement that, in fact, most children from poor communities are hungry for “rigid structure, certainty, and stability.”
Teachers’ unions, meanwhile, don’t like the idea that teachers should take ultimate responsibility for their classroom outcomes, regardless of where their students come from or what their home lives might be. Union leaders prefer to wield urban America’s social ills as a shield against claims of teacher malfeasance or the prospect of even modest reforms. All of which explains the cool reception of Rhee’s appointment in D.C. And soon after she became chancellor, a sign appeared in one of her elementary schools, reading, “Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do.”
Rhee recalls being “enraged,” and it’s a word that crops up throughout her memoir. Rage is what drove Rhee to fire hundreds of principals, assistant principals, teachers, and central-administration staff soon after taking over. Washington, she writes, had “one of the worst bureaucracies” in the country: The school year hadn’t started on time for many years; textbooks would pile up unused in storage; teachers remained on the payroll long after they’d left the district; under-enrolled schools drained resources; and the district’s dropout rate hovered above 50 percent. Rage was exactly what the school district needed. Rhee’s first year in office saw reading and math scores rise significantly. She closed under-enrolled schools by the dozens and ensured that enrollment was on the rebound.
Yet her most important accomplishment was the “grand bargain” she and Fenty struck with the district’s teachers’ union. By playing hardball with the local union and its national parent, the American Federation of Teachers, Rhee managed to secure a lasting package of reforms that has since been used as a template by reform-minded leaders across the country. Among them were the introduction of rigorous evaluations and merit pay for highly effective teachers. The latter was a concession obtained, to be sure, thanks to hefty across-the-board raises paid for by private foundations. And for championing reform, Fenty paid a price: By the time of the 2010 reelection, he was targeted by the unions in a particularly mendacious campaign that vilified him and his chancellor as insensitive to the needs of the district’s black community. Washington voters in 2010 drove Fenty out of office and Rhee along with him.
Rhee took the political failure hard, but it also sparked a new realization: The reform movement needs a grassroots political arm similar to that wielded by the labor unions. StudentsFirst, the organization Rhee founded after leaving the chancellery, has since grown into a serious political operation, recruiting and supporting reform candidates and targeting establishment ones. (News Corporation, which owns the parent company of the Wall Street Journal, where I work, is a donor to StudentsFirst.)
Rhee spends the latter third of her book setting out her political vision. It is in this section that her effort to match the square peg of her no-nonsense reforms to the round hole of leftist education politics creates an unworkable jam. “I am a Democrat and I support unions,” she declares at one point. Rhee calls herself “a political agnostic on matters of public education” and chastises conservatives for allegedly fetishizing free-market ideas. These attempts at evenhandedness are unpersuasive, since on most substantive issues—including school vouchers—Rhee ultimately sides with conservatives. She’d do well to leave the fences unmended and the feathers ruffled. It’s a piddling price to pay for the improved education of American children.
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.