Education Opportunity Network

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Michelle Rhee And The Relentless Marketing Of Education ‘Reform’

by Jeff Bryant

Is it over yet? Michelle Rhee’s barnstorming of America this week, to hawk her new memoir, taxed the stamina of even the most ardent education wonk. It was a relentless PR campaign that would truly be the envy of any tobacco executive or gun manufacturer.

In interview after interview Rhee recited a series of bullet points regardless of who was interviewing her and what the questions were – even sticking robotically to the same inflections in her pronouncements on the paramount importance of “eFFECtive” teachers, the “burEAUCracy” that “traps” families in schools, and her “COMMon sense solutions.”

It’s understandable that television program hosts complied with interviews that were generally void of even a hint of skepticism.

(With the exception of Comedy Channel’s Jon Stewart who managed a few doubtful observations on Rhee’s confidence in standardized testing, charter schools, and the ability of teaches to overcome the conditions of poverty.)

After all, the purpose of American television is to sell stuff, and we’ve all grown accustomed to the fact that the commercial space that exists between programs does not necessarily separate entertainment and information from marketing.

Marketing truly is the frame to understand what’s driving Rhee, in particular, and the market-based ideas behind the education “reform” movement, in general. (Full disclosure: I’m a marketing consultant.)

Any marketer worth her salt will tell you that good marketing has nothing to do with the quality of the product being represented. In fact, Rhee isn’t selling a product at all, as there are no schools that operate the way Rhee prefers them to – as evidenced by her organization’s Report Card that gave almost all American school systems a grade of D or F.

What good marketing does, among other things, is use all the tools of persuasion available to appeal to the interests and desires of a particular target market. Give education reformers like Rhee an A on this.

Achievement = Test Scores

Take their use of the word “achievement.” Rhee talks a good game of being all about “student achievement.” But no one ever asks her what she means by that.

Education blogger EduShyster noticed this recently too and recently wrote, “You know that word ‘achievement’? While it used to have something to do with heroic deeds and accomplishments, today achievement refers to one thing and one thing only: test scores.”

Schools she looked at put students “under virtual test-prep lockdown, practicing the art of test taking week after week,” all in the pursuit of higher scores that get called “achievement growth.”

“The big winner in this, ” she noted, “is the consulting group that earns as much as $25,000 per school to help boost ‘achievement.’” The name of the consulting group? The Achievement Network, of course.

Now that’s good marketing!

Effective Teachers = Fantasy Teachers

Another Rhee favorite, “effective” teachers, is yet again a term whose meaning is completely unclear. Rhee stated again and again that the most important thing that could be done to improve the education prospects of the nation’s children was to ensure that every child had an “effective” teacher in every classroom. Sure sounds good. But what does it mean?

The most ambitious endeavor, yet, to define how to tell an effective teacher from an ineffective one has been the MET Project, a three-year endeavor sponsored by the Gates Foundation. Recently, the “Culminating Findings” of the project were published, and math teacher Gary Rubenstein, an experienced statistical analyst, took a look at the results.

What Rubenstein determined was the MET Project on teacher effectiveness was much ado – a $50 million ado – about nothing.

Drawing from the reams of data produced by this endeavor, Rubenstein concluded, “according to test score gains, the vast majority of teachers are statistically ‘equivalent.’ It seems like 90% of the teachers are within .05 standard deviations of the mean. [The authors] don’t say how much extra learning the .05 is, but they do say that .25 is equivalent to one year. So I’d say (if I had to, that is, I don’t think ‘learning’ is measured in time units) that .05 would amount to a few weeks of learning.”

“This report will surely be quoted by ‘reformers’ as some kind of scientific proof,” Rubenstein stated, “But my examination of the same data . . . tells me that [the Met Project] really didn’t come up with anything we didn’t already know about the problems with these crude metrics.”

The unremarkable results of the MET Project aren’t isolated. New teacher evaluation and rating systems – the kind of systems Rhee has advocated for – have come up with equally unremarkable results. A write-up of the results in the education trade newspaper Education Week noted:

In Michigan, 98 percent of teachers were rated effective or better under new teacher-evaluation systems recently put in place. In Florida, 97 percent of teachers were deemed effective or better.

Principals in Tennessee judged 98 percent of teachers to be “at expectations” or better last school year, while evaluators in Georgia gave good reviews to 94 percent of teachers taking part in a pilot evaluation program.

One of Rhee’s favorite anecdotes she loves to bring up again and again is the dismay she felt when, as chancellor of DC schools, she found out that despite low student test scores, 98 percent of the school district’s teachers were rated satisfactory. Well, guess what. The teacher evaluation systems she advocates for conclude the very same thing she says she is against!

So yet another contention of the reform community – that an “effective” teacher is a known quantity that can be easily replicated – proves to be a fantasy.

School Choice = School Segregation

The third leg on the stool that props up Rhee’s relentless marketing campaign is the necessity for parents to have a “choice” in where they send their kids to school. Again, great marketing rhetoric. Who is against “choice?”

But like the other components of the reform creed, the hype can’t stand up to scrutiny.

America’s longest running trial of school choice-driven policy has been conducted in Milwaukee. That city has had a voucher program for over 20 years that allows parents to send their children to charter schools if they so choose. The latest look at the results of the Milwaukee choice program, published by the Forward Institute, found that choice hasn’t done anything to improve the education attainment of children.

Diane Ravitch highlighted the conclusions of the study at her blog: “There is no significant difference between the performance of public schools and charter schools. However, public schools in Milwaukee are more successful with the poorest students than are charter schools.”

So the supposed promise of “school choice” is a mirage. Furthermore, there are unintended consequences of school choice that are a matter of historical record. In fact, America has had its experiences with school choice. It was called segregation, and we as a society rightfully rejected it.

A Lexicon of Reform Speak

So looking behind the marketing hype of Rhee and the reformers we see that

  • Achievement = Test Scores
  • Effective Teachers = Fantasy Teachers
  • School choice = School Segregation

But the lexicon of reform marketing doesn’t stop there. A complete guide to reform speak is currently being compiled by the ever-useful Leonie Haimson, founder of Class Size Matters. Diane Ravitch, again, pointed us to this effort, summarizing:

One can tell if an organization is allied with the corporate reform movement by its rhetoric. For example, the use of such buzzwords as “transformational”, “catalytic”, “innovative”, “great teachers”, “bold”, “game changer”, “effective”, “entrepreneurial”, “differentiated instruction”, “personalized learning”, “economies of scale”, “informational text”, “instructional efficiency”, “college and career ready”, and/or the term “disruptive” used in a positive sense provide clues that the organization or individual is associated with the corporate reform movement.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong, per se, with using all the tools of marketing to advance a cause. People who oppose Rhee’s way of thinking probably engage in the same exercise.

What’s wrong is for people who call themselves “journalists” to unblinkingly accept marketing hype as fact and pass it on as “reporting” – and even worse, for people who call themselves “leaders” to make marketing hype a basis for public policy.

One day, there will be a popular awakening to the big lies being sold to us about our nation’s public schools and the education policies being implemented in them. That will be a news event truly worth taking on tour.

  • Michael McMurtrey says:

    Wow, as a student in a Educational Master’s Program all of the rhetoric is based on the corporate reform movement. Even our mission of being “bold” leaders seems like some sell job. Our program does not value theory or critical thought, only producing a status quo inquiry is the product we will be judged on. I felt it from the very begining when Fullan uses Monsanto Corporation as a morally driven company as an example of how we should be compelled to save education as we know it.
    Dismay.
    Michael

    February 14, 2013 at 7:27 pm