And just like that, she’s gone. Michelle Rhee is stepping down as head of Students First, a group that she started to aggressively lobby for and back candidates who support an education reform agenda. The apogee of her influence had already been waning by the time the organization got started — soon after she lost her post as the chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s schools. But now she’s pretty definitively leaving the front lines of the fights plaguing American education.
While Rhee was at Students First, she remained a proxy for broader debates over structural reforms to public education. To agree with Michelle Rhee meant to agree with a certain approach to education policy, to accept that improving teacher quality can improve students’ educational outcomes, and that these things can be reliably measured. To disagree with her meant to stand up for the preexisting view of American education, a view that measures teacher quality by so-called “inputs”—whether teachers have advanced degrees or a bevy of years in the classroom—and throws up its hands at the notion that these could ever be expected to yield tangible results.
At her peak, Rhee sparked such fury in her opponents that she became a sort of strawwoman incarnate. They used her to tar all other reformers — she became the face of some heretofore unheard of “corporate reform” movement. For example, her apparent callousness about firing a Washington, D.C. principal on camera was tirelessly cited as proof that all accountability reforms must be a guise for the broader education reform movement’s secret hatred of educators.
But if Rhee’s departure feels like a surrender, her critics have badly misunderstood the state of American education debates. There are many ways to interpret her fall, but it’s hard to see it as a body blow to the project of education reform. That’s sort of how a proxy works: Rhee’s departure doesn’t so much alter the country’s education dynamics as remove a lightning rod.
For her admirers, Rhee was a tough ally. At her best, she was an unflinching advocate for the nation’s poor and underserved children. At her worst, she brought a tin political ear and Boeing-grade rhetorical baggage. The trouble wasn’t that she was sometimes one or the other—Rhee was always both. Her strengths and flaws stemmed from the same evangelical core: she brought conviction and passion and stubbornness and unapologetic focus, all of which worked to build and destroy her public capital.
But Rhee’s weaknesses were also serious assets in part because her story reveals the utter cynicism of powerful interests controlling the status quo in public education today. Rhee initially appealed to so many because she promised that American schools suffered from a simple accountability problem. That line of argument has been potent for decades in the United States, and it’s only become more powerful in recent years. She gave voice to frustrated educators, parents, and administrators who had become cynical after years of watching a stultified education system assign miserable teachers to its most vulnerable students. Which is simply to point out that Rhee’s forceful style was celebrated because it was a wholly logical response to brutal, obvious injustice. Dramatic, longstanding inequities demand clarion calls — not subtlety.
That is, the defenders of this system got in Rhee the opponent they deserved. She was a credible answer to their own intransigence. Upon hearing of Rhee’s decision, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told Politico, “While I respect Michelle Rhee’s passion and tenacity, I don’t agree with her approach to education.” Which is the sort of thing that Weingarten could only say on the occasion of Rhee’s sunset. She certainly wouldn’t have offered such conciliation during the period when the AFT was secretly funding a website attacking Rhee’s character and motives. If Rhee was inflammatory, if she was willing to raise the rhetorical tenor and transform education debates into a war, Weingarten and her allies willingly matched her blow for blow.
Indeed, as Rhee’s star faded, her critics quickly trained their sights on other education reformer — dismissing parent advocates to “a special place in hell,” accusing former CNN anchor Campbell Brown of being too pretty to be taken seriously on education issues, equating Rahm Emanuel’s attempts to renegotiate Chicago’s teacher contract with Scott Walker’s attacks on collective bargaining itself. Rhee may be leaving, but her opponents aren’t about to stop scorching the earth between them and education reformers.
That’s their prerogative — and somewhat predictable, given the state of education politics in 2014, but it seems like a tactic out of place. Very few of today’s reformers bring Rhee’s bluntness. It’s one thing to attack her naïveté after appearing on the cover of Time with a teacher-sweeping broom. It’s quite another to attack, say, frustrated parents stuck in permanently failing schools, or experts explaining carefully-crafted accountability models.
I’ve consciously used the past tense here, which makes this read like an epitaph. Perhaps that’s premature. Perhaps Rhee will find a new perch that renders her central to education arguments once again. (She was appointed to the board of Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. — a move teachers were already protesting last week.) Or perhaps because American education debates are evolving beyond her. Whatever Rhee’s flaws, she moved the debate from “reform or not” to “which reforms will we have.” Whatever her virtues, she couldn’t be a leader in that new conversation. Are her most ardent opponents nimble enough to adjust their own tactics?
Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @conorpwilliams.