Respect for teachers is the Key: John Thompson: Respect Is the Cornerstone of Teaching

John Thompson: Respect Is the Cornerstone of Teaching

Richard Whitmire’s biography of Michelle Rhee, The Bee Eater, is the story of a “bunch of Teach for America (TFA) rebels with ABSOLUTELY NO EXPERIENCE running a school district.” (Emphasis is Whitmire’s.) Though generally worshipful of Rhee, Whitmire agreed that she WAS RUTHLESS and ARROGANTLY CLAIMED THAT ONLY SHE PUT KIDS FIRST. (Emphasis is Whitmire’s.) Rhee was rude, saying “I will cut you off if you’re not making sense or it’s not a good use of my time.” In other words, “Michelle is someone who will tell you you’re wrong and then poke her finger in your eye to make sure you know you’re wrong.”

Rhee and her young followers “saw INCREMENTALISM as a curse word. (Emphasis is Whitmire’s.) Her biographer, however, is equally dogmatic. His “antidote to the failures of urban education” is teachers with “SNAP,” or “a certain quick twitch in their bodies, an urgency in their voices, and a devotion to pursuing a measurable end goal.” It does not seem to occur to Whitmire or Rhee that better results could be produced by educators with a quick twitch and urgency, who had learned through experience when to slow down, tell a joke, defuse intense situations, and to treat everyone with respect.

These reformers’ fatal flaw was revealed by their ridicule of former Superintendent Clifford Janey for claiming that teachers contribute only about 13 percent to the average child’s academic progress. Rhee needed someone in her inner circle to remind them of the large body of social science that confirms Janey’s statement. They also needed reminders to not get carried away and believe their own public relations spin. Whitmire, for instance, claims that Rhee “accomplished the unimaginable” by moving NAEP scores significantly upward. In fact, the progress of black 4th graders’ reading slowed under Rhee, as the growth in black 8th grade reading scores was reversed. Low-income and black 8th graders saw declines of two and three points between 2007 and 2009. Under Janey, increases in NAEP Reading scores were greater, and more equally distributed. Under Rhee, gentrification seems like the best explanation for her modest improvements.

Had Rhee considered the wisdom of Janey, she might have invested earlier in preschool for the poorest children. Instead, Whitmire describes how that proven strategy was tried in mixed-race, middle class neighborhoods in an effort to attract more whites in the D.C. schools. Had Rhee’s inner circle included dissenting voices, she might have started fewer unnecessary fights, like the battle over Hardy Middle School or firing her daughter’s principal. “In all these decisions,” reports Whitmire, “Rhee was backed by her top staffers.”

Whitmire clearly despises the union that opposed Rhee, but he makes it sound like teachers only played a supporting role in Rhee’s defeat. Whitmire keeps repeating the warnings to the Korean-American chancellor, such as, “The racial politics are going to be insane. You are going to get slaughtered.” Then he quoted Rhee’s African-American fiancee, Kevin Johnson on why she was rejected by the black community, “If you had to boil it down to one word it would be RESPECT.” (Emphasis was Johnson’s.)

Neither Rhee, nor her followers, are racists (or tools of special interests or conspirators who WANT to condemn poor children of color to scripted instruction. [Emphasis is mine.]) Whitmire especially blames black columnists like Bob Herbert, who supposedly played the race card by condemning her “take-no-prisoners approach” as “disrespectful,” and Courtland Milloy wrote that she, “spit in our faces.” Had the current mayor, Vincent Gray, not been black, would he have been less upset with the string of insults that started at 11 p.m. the night before Rhee was named as chancellor? Whitmire cites Rhee’s offer to John Merrow to film her firing a principal. Does the race, or even the competence, of that person matter in regard to how people are treated ?

Rhee and her followers believe that data-driven accountability is the key to teacher quality and to “reform.” I believe they are wrong. I know, however, that bestowing respect upon all humans beings is the cornerstone of schooling.