Government Reform

Waiting for Superman Becomes Waiting for Godot

Telling tales about the demise of education reform in D.C.


She was the superintendent of 168 dysfunctional schools in a mid-sized city, but Michelle Rhee managed to become awfully famous. She began her tenure posing for a controversial Time magazine cover with a pushbroom, a symbol of her intent to clean up D.C. schools. When she resigned today, the reformist ballbuster went out on the heels of the premiere of Waiting for Superman, an Oscar-fodder documentary by the director of An Inconvenient Truth which features Rhee declaring that D.C. schools are giving kids "a really crappy education."

In recent weeks, a narrative has congealed around Rhee's chancellorship and the Democratic primary defeat of her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty. The story Fenty and Rhee lovers and haters alike are telling themselves is that while the dynamic duo of reformers had a lot of the right ideas, they had the wrong personalities. They were too brash, too peremptory, and insufficiently concerned with building consensus.

The new Baltimore teachers contract going up for a vote today is being cited as an example of what can happen when personalities are less flamboyant and everyone plays nice. And folks like blogger Dana Goldstein are right to point out that the Charm City contract includes some worthwhile reforms. But they are minute; steps so small that they are barely visible to the naked eye. Teacher evaluations are barely gestured at. There are some elements of merit pay and promotion, but teacher tenure (read: near-guaranteed lifetime employment, regardless of skill level) remains untouched. And while there is additional autonomy built in for individual schools, it seems to be mostly with regard to the length of the school day (something I have argued elsewhere is a red herring).

Goldstein and others believe that Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers and the villian for both Waiting for Superman and my article about education reform in D.C., has gotten a bad rap. They note that she is friendlier to reform than any of her predecessors and has shown a willingness to try new things. This is true. It's just that what she's willing to do is nowhere near enough. America's public schools are on fire, and bystanders are giving Weingarten credit for meandering over from next door with a watering can, while yelling at Rhee for rudely barreling up the block in a large, noisy red truck.

At The Atlantic, blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests that Rhee and Fenty just didn't try hard enough to make nice with the city's black parents either, whom he thinks should have been easy to peel off from the coalition of teachers unions and education bureaucrats that failed them for decades. He writes that "we should be really careful about signalling the death knell for school reform. A smart mayor, would find a head for D.C.'s schools who could build on the good work that Rhee has done, and convert those natural community constituencies for school reform into allies. We'll soon see if Vincent Gray is that mayor."

But Vincent Gray will never be that mayor. At a smiley-nicey press conference, a close associate of Rhee was appointed as interim chancellor and everyone promised that reforms would continue as planned. But Gray rose to power by campaigning against Rhee and Fenty. The American Federation of Teachers spent $1 million on Gray's campaign. The same union sued to restore virtually every teacher Rhee fired. Gray owes his position to the belief that he will not be "that mayor."

Instead, Gray's tenure will likely see the private donors Rhee brought in to fund her radical merit pay proposal fade away, and possibly even the loss of federal Race to the Top funds, which D.C. won on the strength of Rhee's efforts to implement teacher evaluation programs. Transition-time rhetoric aside, there is no reason to think that this mayor or this union will continue what Rhee and Fenty started. And there is every reason to think that they will act together to gradually remove most of the evidence of Rhee's short tenure in the city.

It won't be hard. Rhee has been dragging a boulder uphill, and despite all the hullaballoo, she had made very little progress. And it will roll right back downhill when she leaves. The teacher evaluation system she implemented, IMPACT, will probably stay in place. But the reason she implemented it was so that she could know who to fire. Without firings, the system will do little more than guide a few pay increases to better-performing teachers. Not nothing, but not much. As with President Obama's Nobel Prize, the attention that Rhee got was more about what she might do. Obama has two more years to retroactively deserve a Peace Prize, but Rhee is out for the count.

Rhee was trying to make D.C. schools into a racehorse, and now the best the city can hope for is to realize the old saw about the horse designed by committee; if we're lucky, we will wind up with a camel. As long as school reform remains in the political realm, too much assertiveness will you get booted at the next election cycle, because results can never be swift enough to win over your doubters. But too much consensus-building means little more than baby steps and backsliding. Faced with this seemingly impossible dilemma, and the disappointing outcome of Rhee's remarkable efforts in D.C., the much-awaited Superman starts to feel more like Godot.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

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  1. Status Quo preserved! End zone dance!

    1. Status Quo needs preservation. They’re all about 70 or so now.

  2. She was the superintendent of 168 dysfunctional schools in a mid-sized city[…]

    Plus she’s Asian hence she’s hot!

    1. She’s definetly got a serious case of ‘hot asian’ going on, which makes that horrible picture they selected all the more disappointing.

  3. The teacher evaluation system she implemented, IMPACT, will probably stay in place. But the reason she implemented it was so that she could know who to fire.

    Evaluating a performance of an employee, to know if the person is fulfilling his part of the deal? Why, that’s so criminal! That’s so slave driver! So bourgeois!

  4. I guess you could call being an Asian and firing a bunch of black people who needed firing having the “wrong personality”. But I would call it racism. This is flat out racial tribal warfare.

    1. By that I mean that Rhee’s critics are racist not her.

      1. No, she’s the racist, for not firing her people!

        – What do you mean “her people”?
        – What do YOU mean “what do you mean her people”?
        – Uh?

        Tropic Thunder…

        1. Yes, but how is it applicable?

    2. No, John. They did the same thing to Fenty. Don’t go down the Joke From Lowell path.

      1. Fenty was half white. And he spent too much time paying attention to white people.

        The truth sucks Tulpa. Most of the blacks in DC are racist as hell. They refer to the place as “chocolate city” because they think of it as being a black city where only black people have power. That is just the truth.

        1. Seems to be working out really well for them.

        2. It is sad. I’m an Afro-Caribbean/Canuck who just moved to the District. I had a funny conversation with my apartment manager. I was talking about potential young white females moving into the neighborhood and that I would be happy because I am the whitest black chick around and he told me not to say this aloud. I was like WTF? Everyday you hear blacks here claiming that whites are racists and shovelling them out of DC, but blacks are as racists, not only towards whites, but also immigrants

  5. She was great on Battlestar Galactica.

    1. Which frakking version?

    2. Haha! That’s exactly what I was thinking. I guess I’m a sucker for hot Asian chicks that are pushy.

      1. OMG, I thought that too.

    3. There was nothing great about Battlestar Galactica.

      1. It could have been great on HBO or something. When I see 100 naked Grace Parks I think I ought to see 200 Grace Park ta-tas, not some goddamn shadow-from-nowhere! Fook Yu SyFy!

  6. Why the fuck do teachers even have a tenure system to begin with?

    It’s justified in higher education by academic freedom, saying that the job security allows controversial ideas to flourish, which may have actually been true sometime somewhere.

    But what controversial ideas is a kindergarten teacher going to be coming up with that justifies tenure?

    1. Why the fuck do teachers even have a tenure system to begin with?

      It has something to do with teachers being protected to teach “truth” and philosophically controversial subjects. Normally this can make a certain amount of sense in a University system. What the fuck it has to do with anything in a modern public school system, I have no idea.

      1. Who would have thought that geometry was such a controversial topic that teachers needed the special protection of tenure?

      2. No, it is a historical anachronism. Back when teachers were paid like the part time employees they are, there would be years at a time when inflation would go up 4-5% and they would not get a raise, or a raise that wouldn’t keep up with inflation.

        The alternative compensation was to give them extra days off and to do things like tenure. This basically bought a decade or so or no job actions during the late 60s and early 70s.

        The problem is now that teachers are paid like full time workers, they still get all the perks of part time work, the extra days off from their part time work schedule, AND tenure.

        The fundamental problem with teacher compensation is one of money spent vs work product delivered. We pay a teacher $40-50K/yr plus benefits. We pay RN’s about that. No one thinks RNs are overpaid because they generate full time work for full time pay. Teachers ARE over paid because of the elements of the old contracts that keep being brought forward without any discount against their current pay rates.

        If you want to pay them as much as an RN, then make them work 48-50 weeks a year, like RNs do. Then you can dump tenure as a condition of going back to the cushy part time schedule.

        1. We pay a teacher $40-50K/yr plus benefits.

          In the Central Bucks School System we pay teachers up to 108k plus the perqs.

          1. For 7 hour days, and 185 day work year.

            They get paid that much?

            My central point was that when teachers got paid little, they got the lack in cash made up for with time off. Now they get the cash and keep the time off and the tenure. Time to make them pick one or the other.

    2. Well, if she reads Heather has Two Mommies to her kindergarten class*, there’s a chance that in some districts she would be fired.


      1. And she would deserve to be fired.

        1. No she wouldn’t, you faggot.

        2. No she wouldn’t, you faggot.

    3. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that compulsory education begets compulsory hiring – indeed it was the whole point of compulsory education to begin with.

      1. There may also be a cost-containment reason behind tenure. For the most part, the job is so demeaning that the only way to attract live humans to the job for more than a few years is to guarantee them an income for X years. Naturally this will mostly attract dullards, the gullible, and sociopaths, but it’s only children.

        1. The answer to that issue is not “guaranteed Job for Life”, but rather “Higher Yearly Salary”.

          If you cannot get good teachers, pay more for them. Too many teachers with the skills you want? Prices go down.

          Tenure is like renting an apartment and signing a lifetime contract with the landlord. They might be awesome, but are you really going to risk them staying that way?

        2. 6 hours a day, no weekends, good salary, great benefits, three months off, plus numerous extra days off. I’ll take some of that “demeaning,” please.

          1. Ahhh but you forget Old Man, that they have to babysit our brats for those 6 hours a day. And some of the little shits out there who deserve a slap will never get it from a teacher for legal reasons. If only those kids that were too unruly (I’m not talking about the “slow” students here, just the asshole kids with “ADD” who generally pass their time through bullying) could just leave and start working as day laborers or something…but alas that option has been legislated out of the realm of possibility.

            But you are right about everything else. I’d kill for 3 months vacation at this point. And they wonder why year round schooling is impossible to implement in this country.

            Either way my kids will not be going to private school, or I will take the time to “unschool” them as much as I can.

            1. I’m a teacher and I love your brats:)

          2. I happen to know many teachers and I can tell you that 6 hrs a day and summers off is a joke. After the 6 hours at school most teachers spend 3-4 hours a day grading papers and planning lessons for the next day. They also have after hours meetings with parents and attend (and work at) weekend school functions like spring and fall festivals. They have to put up with ignorant parents that demand special treatment for their spoiled little darlings.

            There is no way I would ever take that job. It’s a hell of a lot harder than most people think.

            1. BTW, they don’t really get 3 months off. In Georgia they have to work past the end of school and go back 2-3 weeks before it starts in the fall. Also, if they want more pay, they have to take courses or go for advanced degrees in the summer at their expense. Most companies will pay for your continuing education, but that doesn’t happen in school districts.

              1. Oh, so two months off. A nine hour work day still seems worth it for 2 months off plus random holidays other jobs don’t receive. And besides, more schools are adopting the “Fall recess” that is the autumn equivalent of spring break.

                Teachers don’t have it easy, but don’t try to tell me it’s torture either. Unless you live in a good community where the school board and teachers unions work more or less at an equilibrium, most teachers get paid way too much including benefits. And I don’t like having to admit that because my mom and three of my cousins are teachers.

              2. We also spend a nice chunk of our own money on school supplies. For instance, I recently got into a fight with the school board office because they bought us super-duper new printers. The problem? Ink cartridges for the printers were $80 a pop and we had to buy them ourselves. Black ink is a hot commodity around here these days.

                1. So do you think things would be worse or better if the system was dumped in favor of privatization?

              3. Is that you, Randi?

    4. There is no public justification for the practice in K-12.

      1. Tenue must have a differant meaning in states with teachers unions. Not so in Georgia. Tenure means you can’t be terminated without documented cause.

        1. Or with documented cause.

          My brother had a teacher who abused her students, verbally and sometimes physically. The parents went to the principal who told them that they were the only ones complaining. Toward the end of the school year when the parents started talking to each other, they went to the county and found she had a file over an inch thick with complaints.

          She was still teaching the last I heard.

        2. It is you, Randi.

  7. Sucks to be a kid in a DC public school. Love the post mortems – “if they were just better/nicer/more accommodating/listened better” – whatever. I don’t think so. It’s over. Sad.

    Watch out below, kids! Sisyphus just let go of the boulder again!!

  8. Waiting for Superman contained nothing not easily found on H&R. Seriously.

    1. I don’t think WfS was made for you or me though. This movie was made for the hordes of liberals that usually worship at the alter of unions, to show them the destruction unions have wreaked on our public education system. And since the message was being delivered by Mr. Global Warming, it’s authentic, or something.

      It had a strong emotional appeal, which I hear works for some people. Personally I would have liked to see a lot more charts, graphs, and numbers.

      1. And it was rejected by them because it criticized unions, at least among my wife’s colleagues in public education.

  9. Heh heh heh. You’ve just been Rheevoked.

  10. “Tenure” in primary/secondary education is pretty much the same deal that all non-exempt government employees get once they have passed their probationary employees. They can only be discharged for cause, and only after receiving a hearing. Of course, the definition of “for cause” is usually pretty lenient for teachers, especially in a hellhole like D.C.

    BTW, D.C. makes a very good argument for abolishing public schools altogether.

    1. RACIST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Are all DC public schools crap? What’s the cheapest private school in DC?

    It feels like some taxpayers believe public education is literally free and so they accept a shit return on their money (that they don’t realize they’re spending). Maybe it’s time for a $2,000 “deductible” to send your kid to public school. No means testing.

  12. alt text: “no boom boom with soul brother pack alot of meat too beaucoup!”

    1. We have some brand new ARVN rifles, never been fired, only dropped once.

      1. I wanted to be the first kid on my block with a confirmed kill.

        1. How can you shoot women and children?

          Easy, you just don’t lead ’em as much.

  13. “the best the city can hope for is to realize the old saw about the horse designed by committee; if we’re lucky, we will find up with a camel.”

    I agree. Regardless of the camel you find up with, DC public school kids get screwed.

  14. Meeser Superman no here.

    1. She doesn’t know what ‘mister’ means.

    2. Hees geetting lemon pledge.

  15. Public education is a racket, from the Schools of Education to the Neanderthal teachers’ unions to the corrupt incompetent bureaucrats who are charge of the schools. (Yeah, there are yuppie neighborhoods where the students learn calculus and French literature, but that ain’t what we’re talking about.)

    That said, schools are not the problem. The problem is worthless parents who don’t care about the education of their children. The problem is the social breakdown that occurs when people are taught by government and their leaders that the taxpayer owes them a living.

    1. Yeah the whole thing is a feedback loop death spiral once the system is entrenched. A person is born, the government exists and allegedly has a safety net out for that person. That person, having been imprisoned in the moron factories that are public schools for around 12 years, never sees the need to really save, or plan, or what not because his Leviathan brother has his back and just gets buy, consuming to distract himself. This person eventually has kids, but is too overworked, since a third of his paycheck evaporates to the government to pay for schooling (and to piss off foreigners? and to create the illusion that everyone will be taken care of when they are old), to actually get to know said children in a meaningful sense. The children are then sent to school, to learn about how great this social democracy thing is. Developing a subconscious resentment of their parents for letting them be shuttled off to prison every day, these children either latch onto to their new parent: the State or rebel completely. Either way the results can be disastrous on personal (some of the rebels rob, rape, and kill) and societal levels(State worshippers help perpetuate the machine that confiscated their brains). Rinse, repeat for about 50-200 years. Society collapses, and the survivors eat the brains of their fallen enemies out of their hallowed skulls.

      1. But on the gripping hand, when America turns into “The Road”, the well-armed will get their choice of catamites and real baby-back ribs. Yummers! So don’t act like there’s no upside to the death-spiral.

    2. The schools don’t create the problem, but they and the unions prevent improvement.

  16. if we’re lucky, we will find up with a camel
    Blame my public school education, but this statement made no sense to me.

    1. er… a camel is a horse designed by a comittee…..


      1. You can tell by my spelling errors that I went to public schools.

  17. Simple test for education reform; If it doesn’t make the Teachers’ unions squeal like a stuck pig, it isn’t any good.

  18. Am I the only one who thinks that DC will come running back to a full-speed reformist as soon as the numbers start failing? Sure two or three years of kids will be royally screwed by this, but showing a direct correlation with the hiring and firing of Rhee is going to be so much easier. If she’d have been around for 10 years, detractors could have argued that it was an underlying secluar trend in the city.

    1. I’m pretty sure you’re the only one.

      1. The only way to reform a place where government evil is as entrenched as it is in Washington D.C. with its teachers’ unions is to have a natural disaster occur that completely disrupts and destroys the government. No smaller breakdown will suffice; we’re talking something at least as destructive as the earthquake in Haiti here, if not more so. Short of that, this Sodom on the Potomac will never be reformed.

        1. Something akin to this happened in New Orleans. Katrina + shitty government levies destroyed most of this city, and somehow significant education reform worked its way into the apparatus. I’m not sure how sustainable the reform is, but I think this provides some creedance to the disaster-reform theory.

  19. I’m not usually a fan of KMW’s writing (or perhaps just her food-intensive choices of topics — does anyone feed her for her to obsess so much about food?) but this was awesome snark:

    America’s public schools are on fire, and bystanders are giving Weingarten credit for meandering over from next door with a watering can, while yelling at Rhee for rudely barreling up the block in a large, noisy red truck.

    P.S. Almost all fire trucks are yellow these days, not red, in the mistaken notion that yellow is more visible at night red, when in reality it doesn’t fucking matter which color you paint a horns-blaring, lights-flashing truck, you can’t possibly miss it.

    1. Sorry, officer. I couldn’t see “police” painted on your car because of the flashing lights, so I didn’t pull over.

    2. P.S. Almost all fire trucks are yellow these days, not red, in the mistaken notion that yellow is more visible at night red,

      The only yellow fire trucks I saw were the ones that were on military bases. All the other ones I see are red.

      1. We have white fire trucks in my town

        OK, I set you up for a racist joke. Go ahead Tony, take your shot.

      2. Airports commonly have yellow firetrucks, too.

        But most firetrucks I see are red… firetruck red.

      3. New ones in San Francisco are Burgundy.


      I don’t know what you are talking about, all the fire trucks in my area are still red.

    4. You’ll have to excuse prole for thinking that everyone’s fire trucks use the same happy colors as the ones he sees in his tropical concentration camp. They probably have leis dangling from the ladders and tropical patteerned firemen’s coats too.

      Still solidly red in the DC area, FWIW.

  20. Obama has two more years to retroactively deserve a Peace Prize

    He also has two more years to become 100% white and a non-pathological liar, but I’m not really counting on either of those happening, either. Anyone who thinks we won’t have tens of thousands of troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan for the entirety of Obama’s presidency has rocks in their head or an inability to discern the difference between rhetoric and deeds. =)

  21. Just heard part of an interview of Rhee on NPR where the interviewer made Thee crawfish and backpeddle about her statement that Gray’s election would be bad for education in DC. Clearly someone got to her and told her if she didn’t shut up she’d never work again.

  22. If you want to do anything to improve education for kids, get the federal, state and local governments completely out of it. Nothing less will produce an improvement in education for children.

  23. That’s a great picture of her, BTW.

    “What the fu-?”

  24. Michelle Rhee’s resignation is sad news for the children of Washington DC. She had the tools and the vision to reshape the public school model in an effort to provide a better education for these youngsters. Rhee stood up to the rhetoric and bluster of the unions, the very organizations that declare they put children first when in fact they protect teachers–good and bad–before anything else. D.C.parents objected to closed schools because of convenience, nostalgia and loyalty. Rhee’s focus was on a brighter future for their children.

  25. The holy grail for libertarians and conservatives alike should be the outlawing of public employee unions. They are at the root of all that is wrong in American politics.

    Those pigs control one of the two major political parties. Until they are out of the picture there is no hope of fiscal responsibility.

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  27. A smart mayor, would find a head for D.C.’s schools who could build on the good work that Rhee has done, and convert those natural community constituencies for school reform into allies.

    Some writers use commas waaaay too much. This is as bad as the greengrocer’s apostrophe. I hate it when all these writer’s don’t know how to punctuate correctly.

  28. Telling tales about the demise of education reform in D.C.

    Still no evidence that “education reform” will improve kids’ education. The fluff ‘n’ bluster are a pretty poor substitute.

  29. If I think integrated math is a pile of crap, does that make me a racist??

    1. That depends, Tex: do you not believe that Eubonics is a genuine language, as well? If both of those things are true, then, yes, you are a “racist”.

  30. Why doesn’t anyone mention that the crux of the problem is not “bad” teachers, but “bad” students. A teacher can teach really well, but if the students are unruly, lazy, anxiety-ridden, etc., there is no learning. There can be teaching, but no learning. You can bring a horse to water, but you cannot force him to drink.

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