Education Reform: Why Michelle Rhee Is Wrong About Everything

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Back when I was a igh school senior in 1995, I fulfilled an elective requirement with a BASIC-programming course. We spent about 45 minutes every day writing rudimentary and basically pointless computer programs. I think I escaped with a C-.

I was bored to tears by the assignments and couldn’t quite master BASIC in the manner expected. So instead of struggling though busy-work assignments, I built, refined and rebuilt a program to calculate weekly take-home pay from my after-school job. Slowly and surely, it incorporated much the coding elements the course was intended to teach and I managed to build an accurate and efficient payroll program. Of course, since I was busy working on it, I didn’t do much of the assigned stuff.

Nearly 20 years later, I couldn’t, and I doubt 90% of my former classmates could, tell you the first wit about writing programs in BASIC. However, I did take away from that throwaway senioritis elective an understanding of the logic and flow of computer code. I can perform CSS hacks on a WordPress or Movable Type theme or manipulate HTML code in a blog post. This is an essential skill in the digital journalism world — something that didn’t exist in 1995 — where I now work.

I tell this story because, despite what the report card said, I learned quite a bit in that class. Yet, there existed no metric or system of evaluation to properly quantify that learning.

Actually I tell this story because if self-styled education reformer like Michelle Rhee have their way, we’ll be less likely to develop a way to evaluate unorthodox but effective ways to learn. So they gave me a C-.

Failing Grade For Rhee

I doubt Rhee would understand the point. To people like her, learning is only real when it can be quantified with bubbles filled-in with a No. 2 pencil.  From private school to Cornell to Harvard, Rhee’s academic progress is that of someone who never strayed from the directed assignments. It’s hard to imagine Rhee ever questioning a teacher’s direction, ever offering an original thought about a lesson, or ever coloring outside the lines.

In fact, her entire educational reform agenda — disemboweled recently in The New Republic — is basically this: Children are coloring outside the lines. We must make the lines thicker so they can’t stray!

There exists very little difference between her “reform” scheme and the broken system she seeks to fix. Both sides of this argument seek to reinforce a one-size-fits-all educational program that, to quote The Simpson’s Superintendent Chalmers, prepares the next generations for “tomorrow’s mills and processing plants.”

Thrive in a school envisioned by Michelle Rhee and you’ll likely make an ideal Secretary of State employee or insurance claims adjuster.

Education-Industrial Complex

Granted, society needs those people. The education system should offer a track for people who thrive within highly structured systems. It already does. These kids aren't the issue.

What we need, what the future demands, is an education system that nurtures those students who chafe under too much structure, who constantly ask -- but rarely get a valid answer -- why they need to know algebra or Shakespeare, who piss on tedious computer programming assignments to learn BASIC in their own way.

We need to do this because the clerks and bureaucrats and workhorse employees created by the educational-industrial complex (personified by Rhee and tenured teachers who no longer give a damn) can only maintain a social and economic status quo, for better or worse.

Give a young Mark Zuckerberg to Rhee and her cronies and he would have ended up writing code for Hotmail landing pages. Condition Henry Ford to succeed at standardized tests and he’d have probably spent his life as a railroad brakeman or yeoman farmer somewhere. Frank Lloyd Wright or Picasso, subjected to such a pedagogical regime, likely would've been as miserable as a gay kid at a Bob Jones high school.

Great persons of history, aside, there are tens of thousands of productive and innovative citizens who thrive in real life simply because they don’t value only what can be quantified on a standardized test. 

Dropouts Who Create Start-up Success

These are the people see no value in becoming yet another graduate of a second-tier law school and instead start a business or write book or otherwise strike out on their own creative and productive endeavor. They’re the ones who drop out of school to help build the next multi-billion dollar Silicon Valley start-up. They’re also the ones who, as Peter Drucker once suggested, look at something and ask, “if this wasn’t the way we’re were already doing it, would we start?” Our education system must work for these kids as much, perhaps more that, it does for the Tracey Flicks of the world.

However, education as envisioned by the Michelle Rhees of the world aims to stifle the color-outside-the-lines ethos that drives all great innovations and reforms.

The great irony, of course, is Rhee’s champions are the same people who endlessly consternate about our society’s supposed inability to innovate.

If we require more innovation to create jobs and prosperity and derpity doo. you know the rest — and we kind of do — then why are we exalting this educational “reformer” with bureaucrat’s soul and the apparent desire to so constrain the educational process that it can really only produce two things— drop-outs and bureaucrats.  

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