'Frontline': Schooling the System
There are arguably few places to go for quality long-form television journalism, and the PBS series Frontline is by far one of the most reliable sources. For 30 years, the series has consistently taken on the toughest and more complex issues in the news. The show investigated the racial divide brought about by the O.J. Simpson verdict, took a hard look at the 2008 U.S. banking collapse and most notably, reported on Al-Qaeda well before the 9/11 attacks.
The series kicks off the new year with The Education of Michelle Rhee, a story about the controversial school reformer and her tumultuous three-year stint (2007-2010) as chancellor of the District of Columbia public school system. It airs Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013 at 10 p.m. ET. (Check local listings.)
Frontline was granted full access to Rhee during her tenure, and follows her collisions with the city council, teacher unions, parents and her own central office — a bureaucracy often seeming more indifferent than responsive to the D.C. schools' ranking as one of the worst in the nation for test scoring and graduation rates.
Rhee came to the job in her mid-thirties, hand-picked by then-popular D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty. She says early in the documentary, "I am a change agent, and change doesn't come without significant push-back from the opposition." Said Fenty at the time, "This is the nation's capital ... we shouldn't have the worst school system, we should have the best."
Rhee was smart enough to know the environment she was in. The D.C. system was, in part, handicapped by the teachers' unions, which seems in footage more concerned about job security and teacher training than student achievement. She says to Frontline, "I think when you're doing the kind of work that I'm doing, when the lives and well-being of children are hanging on the balance, you can't play with that. It's not about keeping people in their jobs, it's about educating children ... if you are not performing, then you are not going to be here."
Among Rhee's controversial ideas: wrest the ability to hire and fire principals and teachers away from the school board; deploy the D.C. CAS (Comprehensive Assessment System) performance test for students; and close two dozen schools with low enrollment that she thought were draining away resources from others in the system.
Rhee — a key figure in the 2010 Davis Guggenheim documentary Waiting for Superman — became very much the crusader she envisioned that was needed not only to change the D.C. school system, but to show the nation how to transform education across the country. Her campaign even landed her on the cover of Time Magazine.
She says her experience as a middle-school teacher in inner-city Baltimore taught her the value of good teachers. "The parents didn't change, the home life didn't change, their neighborhood didn't change. What changed was the adult that was in front of them every single day in the classroom, who had the highest expectations for what they could do. And when you have those high expectations for the kids, they will meet them."
Evidence seems to support Rhee's assessment. One principal, Darren Slade, interviewed in the documentary, estimated that 20-30% of teachers in his school were under performing or unqualified.
But that's only the first half of the Michelle Rhee story.
As test scores rise throughout the system, Frontline reveals questions arising from some of Rhee's methods, which included annual cash bonuses to teachers and principals for increases in student test scores.
As the questions persist, and the backlash from the union and city council widens, in the end, Rhee's final results in D.C. aren't all that clear. We're left wondering if the title, The Education of Michelle Rhee, is more about her brand of schooling, or how she got schooled.
What does remain clear is her motivation. Rhee gives no other reason to believe otherwise when she plainly states, "What happens in our schools, when the kids are here, will make or break what their future looks like. So we should feel a tremendous amount of pressure around that."
Apart from Rhee's successes or failures, and whether you believe in her methods or not, The Education of Michelle Rhee is very much about the nature of government, and what it takes to effect change in organizations with tremendous internal inertia to overcome. And how, by nature, they resist radical change.
Even when they know they shouldn't.