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Michelle Rhee’s message is kids come first, but is Michigan’s?

From Detroit Free Press

By Stephen Henderson

May 26, 2013

Depending on whom you ask, Michelle Rhee is either the Joan of Arc of the education reform movement — a relentless warrior whose inspiration is divinely and exclusively about the kids — or the devil.

Students First, the national school reform “movement” she founded a few years ago, claims more than a million grassroots members (many of them parents) and is lobbying hard in state capitols for substantive changes to public education.

But she has also been hounded by a cheating scandal that unfolded near the end of her tenure as superintendent in Washington, D.C. Her prolific battles with union leaders have made her the enemy of many teachers. And there has been much thoughtful criticism of Students First for its intense focus on teacher performance, sometimes to the exclusion of other reform issues.

When Rhee speaks to business, political and civic leaders at the Mackinac Policy Conference this week, the temptation will be to use her words to draw definitive judgment on her.

But the better play will be to look at what her vision of education reform means to Michigan, how her philosophy is or isn’t reflected in the way we fund, organize and structure public education in this state.

Michelle Rhee cares more about kids than she does about schools.

More about outcomes than she does about methodology.

More about innovation than she does about tradition.

And she’s unrelenting about those axioms, almost to the point of being close-minded, a zealot.

If you train that lens on Michigan right now, what do you see? I’d say not much to be inspired by, and too many instances of warped priorities.

It’s more than a little ironic that Rhee comes to Michigan just weeks after the state allowed an entire school district, Buena Vista, to shut down because the adults in charge spent money they weren’t supposed to. Kids missed two weeks of school — kindergarteners wrapping up their first full year, seniors preparing for graduation and college.

Gov. Rick Snyder said over and over again that this was the state Department of Education’s responsibility. The state superintendent and school board insisted it was the fault of local officials. Schools were reopened only after district officials agreed to a deficit-elimination plan.

Was that putting kids first?

Michigan is also locked in a bitter ideological battle over school governance, with Snyder and his supporters pushing to greatly expand untested and unproven charter schools while defenders of the public schools — and too often the public school status quo — resist.

The truth is that a student-centered policy would worry less about the structure of governance, and more on results. Which would mean pursuing charters where possible, but holding them accountable for their performance, and subjecting them to the same consequences (get better, or get closing) that charter advocates want for public schools.

It would also mean admitting that choices need to be part of a modern public school system, and that everyone who embraces choice is not the enemy. Rhee, for all the knocks she takes, has spent her time working — as a teacher and administrator — in public schools, not charters. And her advocacy is focused on public school systems. The assured future of those public schools, with a much sharper focus on the kids who attend them, should be everyone’s goal.

In at least one way, Michigan is poised to reflect more of that student focus than ever before.

An important work-group led by University of Michigan professor Deborah Ball has been devising a new way to evaluate teachers, with an emphasis on student performance. It’s controversial, because teachers rightly point out that so many factors in kids’ learning are beyond their control.

But there’s no question we should value teachers according to their impact on student learning — something that has to be measured and accounted for. The issue is how to measure it, and even Rhee struggled with that in Washington. Michigan is headed the right direction, though, and should continue to pursue ways to value teachers based on their value to kids.

Rhee’s speech at Mackinac will inspire some, and infuriate others. But far more important is the opportunity her appearance provides to evaluate how and whether Michigan is accomplishing the goal of putting kids before every other interest in public education.