Michelle Rhee: More Mediocrity for American Education

The bad news about those mediocre new rankings of America's educational system is the complacency about fixing them

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America’s education system earned headlines this week when it showed, yet again, that compared to the rest of the world, our schools perform in the middle of the pack. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tested the math, science, and reading skills of 15 year-olds in 34 countries, and America failed to crack the top ten. Our kids finished 17th in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math— behind countries including Estonia and Poland, and even developing countries like Vietnam.

The rankings themselves are not reason for outrage. Instead, what should be appalling to every American is the reality that tomorrow, when the PISA rankings fade from headlines, many advocates will go back to defending the current state of this nation’s public schools. They will argue, as they always do, that our education system is not broken — despite the fact that it performs at the same level as the Slovak Republic where the government spends half as much per pupil, and the GDP is 171 times smaller.

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Many commentators suggested we should just ignore the results altogether, pointing out that American schools have always ranked in the middle of the global pack. That’s true. But is it a reason to not strive for more? That kind of complacency with mediocrity offends students, offends educators and offends the American spirit.

We don’t settle for 26th place in Olympic competitions. We wouldn’t be happy with a foreign high-tech company usurping Apple’s market position. And when the Soviets beat us into space with Sputnik, we rose to the occasion and put the first human on the moon. America has never been satisfied with mediocrity.

That’s where we’re falling short today. The naysayers are right that our schools aren’t worse than before. The problem is that while America’s scores have flatlined, countries like Ireland and Germany are leap-frogging us. These countries are taking bold steps to bring out the excellence in their students. We, on the other hand, spend so much time making our kids feel good about themselves, we’ve lost sight of taking the time necessary to make them good.

American children are just as capable of high achievement as their global peers. There is no shortage of talented and dedicated educators in our country. But the system is failing our kids and teachers. We need to fix that, because America is the greatest country in the world, and our children deserve the best education system in the world–one that lives up to our nation’s promise as a land of equal opportunity. That opportunity comes through hard work, perseverance, and an educational structure through which children from all backgrounds can excel.

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The stakes are higher than just test scores; it’s about competing in an increasingly global economy. The best jobs–indeed most jobs–will go to the most capable individuals, regardless of geography. Children in Sacramento or Detroit will not be competing for jobs against kids in Memphis or Denver, but in Shanghai and Seoul. That reality is fast approaching.

Perhaps America needs to hit bottom — 34th out of 34 — before we’ll truly embrace reform. That’s what happened in Tennessee and Washington, D.C. before politicians embraced change. Several years ago, policymakers in those jurisdictions had enough with ranking at the bottom of the nation. We raised standards. We implemented rigorous evaluations to identify and reward great educators, and help struggling teachers improve through professional development. We focused on students’ needs above the needs of all others — administrators, unions, politicians or otherwise. The result: the 2013 National Report Card showed historic gains for D.C. and Tennessee students. Those successes are early, and for them to take hold it will require a sustained commitment, but if reforms can improve those states, it can happen nationwide.

The countries that are excelling academically are doing similar things.  Setting high standards for all students. Investing in teacher effectiveness. Ensuring accountability at every level. That’s the recipe for improving American schools and putting them in their rightful place at the top of the international podium. Underpinning it all, we must first have a national desire to become the best, and our reaction to the PISA results will indicate whether that is the case.

Ms. Rhee was chancellor of the public school system in Washington, D.C., from 2007-2010, and founder of StudentsFirst, an education reform advocacy organization.

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18 comments
linda.j562
linda.j562

Yes, education in our country is definitely "mediocre" for many children. Research and common sense tell us that this is due to negligence in the home (i.e. many fathers and mothers who don't even live with their children) and teachers who leave the classroom for "greener pastures" after a year or two. Please support the people who put students first: custodial parents and dedicated classroom teachers.

archie36
archie36

I'm a retired C.E.O., have volunteered for various teaching activities during my career, and am now researching many possible areas of improving young student's performance. Does Ms. Rhee have any experience, or comments, regarding "Single Gender" classes, both boys and girls?  Thank you.


Phil Alexander

Marion, Iowa 52302

Corsicana
Corsicana

Hahaha! These are the consequences of the "we are the best we are the best" motto and the TOTAL lack of accountability in the US! Asking someone for actual RESULTS is a sin in America: Here is what this type of nonsense does! 

Making people feel good about themselves as the absolute priority, having a swollen head and an ego as big as Texas has never made anybody a good student, a good worker or a good person in any way shape or form. It just makes them arrogant ignorants. 

Now with regard to "the poor teachers"  who do not acknowledge responsibility (see the pervasiveness of this "I am not at fault" policy?) and who have a bunch of excuses (Bad genetics, bad family/social structures, drug, gangs, etc), this is absolutely ridiculous! How come Massachusetts does better? The last time I checked Massachusetts was still part of the US, right? And don't you think that other industrialized countries face the very same societal issues? I have news for ya: yes they do so this is NO excuse!

Now put this in perspective with how immigrants of the numerous countries that ranked way above America are treated by HR and recruiters in the US... They are brushed off, disregarded, ridiculed and under employed. Not a great proof of intelligence to me as our head is SO swollen that we deprive ourselves of a very qualified and very well educated workers!

Good lesson of humility but guess what? We are SO arrogant that this is going to be forgotten in a couple of weeks!

BillStevens1
BillStevens1

Wow.  Obviously Michelle must have had the poor education she purports that our children receive now because an analysis of her comment on the Slovak Republic spending half as much as we do with a GNP 171 less than ours - that  means they value edcuation 85.5  times more than we do.

ReilleyFam
ReilleyFam

Is it really fair to blame teachers for the failings of these kids?

How can a teacher overcome:

1. Bad genetics

2. Bad family structures, sometimes none exist

3. Bad social structures and horrible social influences in peer groups like drugs & gangs

No matter how talented and dedicated the teacher, no matter how much money we'd throw at it, kids from these situations are not going to succeed and it's beyond unrealistic to expect a teacher with 30+ kids at a time to overcome that. We just cant accept that beyond certain limits, we cannot reach or save everyone.

Also, for a poor kid &/or low academic achiever wouldnt having a viable non-college career option keep more of them engaged & hopeful?

ReilleyFam
ReilleyFam

When is the last time Michele Rhee actually taught a grade or even a single class in an actual school?

sfteacher
sfteacher

Why anyone gives credence to anything Michelle Rhee says is a mystery to  me.  The woman's resume is based on lies.  She condoned cheating as Chancellor of DC.  She is despised by most teachers and for good reason:  she disrespects them, she misrepresents them, she wants to degrade their profession.  She is nothing but a corporate shill and a charlatan.

StephenStollmack
StephenStollmack

Michelle Rhee was on the Chris Hayes show tonight. She is still using this argument that one of the main reasons why there is unemployment among our graduates is a job-skill mismatch, that is, American Employers can't find qualified graduates that have the skills needed for the jobs. This lie first made news by Coleman and Achieve in 2009 when they began the Common Core Odyssey. Coleman claimed that 3.4 million jobs were being lost every month because our graduates did not have the skills needed by American Companies. The 3.9 million came from a DOL Bureau of Statistics (BLS) report but the interpretation of the figure is wrong. The number represents the number of job openings at end of the typical month not the number that can not be filled. It takes an average of 1 to 2 months to fill a new opening and there have been 6 to 8-million openings announced in a typical month for the last few years. If 7 million jobs opened per month and it took 2-months to fill the average job, there would be an average number waiting processing of 3.5 million. The fact that that is pretty much what we have suggests that the job market is operating pretty efficiently. Can you do anything with this fact? I am going to send the comment to Chris Hayes if I can because he did not pick it up either. And the BLS lets it go without any comment on how their data is being used

boycottlove
boycottlove

So many of our issues can be traced back to one of the three key issues: education, overpopulation, and poverty.  Unfortunately, education manipulates the other two and in this case, it's not for the best.  I think we need to reevaluate our teachers, honestly.  As a high school senior, I have experienced my fair share of teachers over the years, both good and bad.  Bad teachers really can break you.  I think tenure needs to be abolished immediately.  It's basically a guarantee that a teacher will have their job (unless they burn down the school, but they still have a decent chance of not getting fired..) no matter what once tenure is granted.  I know for a FACT that numerous teachers have used this to slack off and, frankly, fail at their jobs.  In my eyes, if you're a good teacher, you don't need tenure because you're doing your job well.  

I'm not just being a whiny teenager, either.  I've had extremely atrocious teachers in my days.  Some decide not to teach the course material (despite the fact that it's on the final......), some straight up leave during class, others curse students out, others are rude (let's not forget the time one of my teachers told a student who was about to move that they should "just go already" and that "nobody will miss [you]"), and of course let's not forget the teacher at my school who has been convicted of two DUI's so they just transferred him! Great role models for sure, making me passionate about learning...

This is not to say that I hate all my teachers.  That's far from the truth.  But they aren't the problem, so I'm not focusing on that.  The problem is the overabundance of awful, low-quality teachers and the negative effects they are causing our next wave of leaders to face. 

mik.divad
mik.divad

I have been teaching in one of those countries that consistently rank very high and with no offense intended, the average student here do not impress me when compared to the average student I've grown up around in america. Granted, they do perform very well in tests but their knowledge do not translate well practically. now I'm not advocating complacency but I don't think we should look to other nations as a model particularly the Asian "giants" of Singapore and Korea. their education system is better at producing machines than people, mauve that assessment is harsh but all i am trying to say is that rather than try to change or education system to resemble more "efficient" models we need to look to change our culture that idolizes the "good life" if comfort and fun is my only motivation i am not highly motivated to be innovative and industrious. stop looking outward lets change who we are as americans by american methods of ingenuity and hard work, not some bozo scheme of changing our school systems to rewards mindless memorization and ruthless competition

Raggedhand
Raggedhand

The defining characteristics of the education systems of the top ranking countries are to promote creative thinking and eschew standardized tests, to support high quality teacher education and deny teaching certifications to non-professionals and hobbyists, to pay teachers professional levels of compensation and to promote public schools, especially the public schools that serve the poor and disadvantaged. 

Michelle Rhees wants more private and charter schools, more standardized testing and more fast-track teacher certifications that bring in inexperienced and unqualified teachers. She might want the US to be at the top of the rankings but she doesn't want to do what it takes to get there.

commonsenseforcommongood
commonsenseforcommongood

Looking past the trees of distraction into the forest of bottom line analysis, for a minute, doesn't the use of the word "complacency" belie the orchestrated steady disembowelment of the U.S. education system by the predatory corporate cabal that depends upon the ignorance  of most to continue it's long term, and ongoing, rape and pillage of the economy of the U.S. and it's citizens?

xpst
xpst

Is the issue really how the *average* student performs?  Distilling the performance of the education system down to average student performance is convenient, but it over-simplifies the argument.  

What is the per-capita Nobel Prize award rate of the Slovak Republic?  What is its per-capita patent rate?  How do they rank on peer-reviewed scientific publications, per capita?

If you really want to constructively influence the US public education system, you really must adopt more refined analyses.  The performance distribution matters.  You may not want to "leave anyone behind", but system reforms really need to be driven by more than just average student performance.


CaMaestro
CaMaestro

"And don't you think that other industrialized countries face the very same societal issues? I have news for ya: yes they do so this is NO excuse!"

Most of the countries that are 'beating' us have far less children in poverty conditions, and have far more homogenous populations in terms of culture and language.  Finland (widely reported as the 'top' education system in the world) has a population of around 5 million people - we have cities larger than that.  No, they don't have the same societal issues that we have.

CaMaestro
CaMaestro

I work at a high-performance public school that serves an affluent community.   There are plenty of over-achievers amongst our students - the interesting thing is that GPA  and test scores don't tell you everything.  Some of them are truly the best-of-the-best, in terms of academic ability, community involvement, leadership skills, etc.   A lot of them however, are fairly useless individuals, because despite their ability, they are mainly concerned with self-promotion.  They score high marks, but will not put forth one once of effort beyond that which will get them the 'A' that they want.  They involve themselves in activities not because of interest, but because it makes their college resume's look good.  They have very little loyalty, virtually no sense of commitment to a group, and their only concept of 'leadership' is telling other people what to do.



MartiWilliams
MartiWilliams

@mik.divad I expect teachers, in particular to be able to write correctly. after all they are supposed to be teaching the up and coming generation to read and write correctly. If this is the level of our teachers, then no wonder we are so bad.

CaMaestro
CaMaestro

@Raggedhand  

"She might want the US to be at the top of the rankings but she doesn't want to do what it takes to get there."


I disagree only in that I believe that she's willing to do what *she* thinks is necessary to get the US on top - the problem is that her perception of education is that it is ultimately a performance arena.  You know those straight A students who aren't really interested in learning the material - they only want to know what's going to be on the next test?  That's the fabric that her character is cut from.   High performance in the short term - but ultimately shallow in the long run.

RichardAB
RichardAB

@xpst Agree. On the other side, let's consider and remember few things.

First, the patents and the Prizes you mentioned are often produced, if not won, by people who are in the US but not Americans; or studied and worked in the US only from college, if not later. Second, if few people are way above the average but the remaining 99% are not... you won't end up building anything long-lasting, not in quality nor in quantity. Third, as long as we consider education only in a business-oriented way, it will never get that much better: culture is culture, business is business. More culture helps businesses, more business not so much, because you'd be a technician, not a problem solver.