How Oprah’s Love Affair With Michelle Rhee Misleads

December 7, 2010  |  

What is it with Oprah’s love affair with Michelle Rhee?

After anointing Rhee as the second coming of Educational Christ during the episode featuring the “Waiting for Superman” documentary, Oprah invited her back to her holy grail of platforms once again, this time, to announce the launching of an organization called Students First, an interest group that will lobby for her brand of education reform.

But of course this will not be any regular special interest group but one that will “take the lessons, which Rhee has learned in D.C. and imply it to the rest of the nation.”  Hmm, and what would those lesson be? Not quite sure but according to the video clip, it involves the word “change.”

For some reason Rhee, who has about three years of actual teaching experience and another three years of leadership experience, has become the face of school reform in America.  Beside her reoccurring stint on Oprah, she has also graced the cover of Newsweek magazine.

She is even the face of her own Students First movement. Check out the website and you’ll see on the main page, Rhee sitting comfy on Oprah’s big fluffy couch next to Bill Gates and Davis Guggenheim, director of “Waiting for Superman.”

One of the major goals for Students First is to raise $1 billion dollars in the next year or so, which Rhee said will be distributed to school districts across the country.  How and what criteria will be used to distribute the money is again an open ended question.  But according to the Students First donation page, paid membership would give the special interest/lobbying group the power needed “to combat special interest groups and bureaucracy that stand in the way of progress.”

While Rhee’s mission of her movement remains unclear, one may find clues to her actual motivation within her past performance as D.C. School Superintendent where she instituted a number of business-driven school reforms, which promoted high-stakes standardized tests, the expansion of charter schools and alternative teacher certification, which centered on usage of staff with non-degrees in education.

And despite the changes being highly praised for the increases in D.C. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), some reports suggest that those results were related to the changing demographics of the school district and therefore, those reforms did not result in any real improvement in the quality of education for D.C.’s poorest and neediest students.

The undertone of Rhee’s Manifesto on fixing schools, which was originally published in the Washington Post, was the belief that fixing schools means solely relying on creating more charters and firing teachers, which is too simplistic. There is no hard evidence that suggests that charter schools are actually better than public schools, despite the hype. In fact, public schools still peform better, overall, than charter schools.

Even Dr. Arlene Ackerman, superintendent of the Philadelphia public school system and whose name was signed to the now infamous Manifesto, renounced much of Rhee’s reliance of charter schools, stating that real school reform must happen through collaborative efforts, with the start and end goal of providing quality educational opportunities for all children who attend public schools.

But Oprah has given Rhee her gold plated rubber stamp and is convinced that she is the answer to what will change this county’s educational system around.  And if the Big “O” said it, then it must be true. But if Oprah happens to be reading this: Girl, I love you truly but stick to picking “our favorite things” and leave politics and policy alone.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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