Ernest Hemingway understood the importance, even necessity, of having a good myth to wrap around oneself. For many readers there is almost no distinction between the Hemingway characters of Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises or Frederic Henry of A Farewell to Arms and Hemingway himself. One a veteran of World War I living in Paris but still suffering, in Hemingway stoic fashion, the wounds of the war; the other a soldier in the war, recovering in a hospital in Italy. Both books (actually pretty much all of his books) are often listed as semi-autobiographical. That, of course, allows the reader to engage in the myth being created. Hemingway often made himself out to be a soldier in the war, wounded in the fighting. He was actually an ambulance driver wounded while delivering chocolates and cigarettes to soldiers on the front line (nothing to be sneezed at but lacking, somewhat, in the kind of machismo bravado Hemingway loved so much). He turned women who rejected his love, such as Lady Duff Twysden (Lady Brett inThe Sun Also Rises) and Agnes von Kurowsky (Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms) into women who would do anything for his love, including risking death. Hemingway fostered these myths throughout his life fueling them with overly exaggerated stories (he embellished his WWI story so much that it hardly resembles the truth). This myth building helped both the sale of his books as well as supporting his own self-image. It is hard now to read a biography of Hemingway and not come away with the feeling that, as a man, he was an obnoxious, resentful, and rather insecure man who happened to write some beautiful stories.
I am reminded of Hemingway because of an event I attended last night at Politics and Prose Booksellers for Richard Whitmire’s biography of Michelle Rhee, The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District. Whitmire’s book is a piece in the ongoing myth building of Michelle Rhee. He rehashes the old stories that Rhee likes to tell of herself, both as a teacher (all three years of it) and as the Chancellor of DC Public Schools (all three years of it). These stories, much like Hemingway’s, begin with a kernel of truth and end up as something entirely different before they are finished, becoming something that reflects on the originator as someone bigger than life. Whitmire claims that he wanted to write this book as a way of asking the question whether Michelle Rhee’s controversial tactics were successful in raising the level of education for the district’s children. For Whitmire that answer is a resounding yes, shouted from as high a rooftop as can be found. According to Whitmire the fact that Michelle Rhee was able to close over 23 schools and effectively fire teachers is the absolute proof that she was successful because, according to him, no other school district in the country has been able to close schools or fire teachers to the degree that Michelle Rhee has. He believes that this is the measure of her success so much that he repeated the words “fired” and “closed” throughout his talk and later throughout the question and answer period.
Whitmire repeats the oft-told stories surrounding Rhee: her initial failure as a first-year teacher and then success by her third year (modified in light of recent revelations about the real level of that “success”); her brashness and her “refreshing” attitude and use of colorful language; her incredible accomplishments as Chancellor of DCPS. the stories that Rhee uses about her time as a teacher – the bee story, the taping the mouths shut stories, etc. – I do not really believe happened. I think these are embellishments by Rhee, either things that have a true source (a bee entering the room and exciting the children) or a source in fantasy (the desire to tape the mouths shut of noisy children). I don’t believe they happened, especially the second, because I don’t believe she would have ever made it to position of Chancellor if she had actually taped shut the mouths of an entire classroom. Just as with these “stories” there is hardly a hint of any criticism directed at Rhee by Whitmire and any criticism present in this (I almost said novel, haha) biography is quickly dismissed in the most condescending and cursory manner. This also happened to be how Whitmire dealt with his questioners during the Q&A.
The Q&A portion of the night is when things got truly interesting, if only because it took Whitmire off his tired chanting routine of the wonders of Michelle and actually put him on the defensive regarding his questionable use of facts in the book. The first interesting thing that Whitmire did was to put out his watch and claim that there was only 20 minutes for Q&A. He suggested that this was the policy of the bookstore but having been a long-time habitue of Politics and Prose I know this is not the case. I have been there on nights when the Q&A has been a lively affair lasting for as much as an hour. The night they had Michael Moore they actually locked the doors and allowed people to continue talking with him while he signed books. As can be imagined there were a number of people there who did not share Whitmire’s adulation of his subject. Several DC teachers took to the mike and tried to confront Whitmire about the reported facts in his book – noting that the teachers were fired under a reduction in force move, not because of performance; the lie to the numbers in terms of test scores; refuting his claims that the only schools that failed had teachers dismissed (if that were so then why did Michelle Rhee fire teachers at Stoddard the same year they jumped in scores on the DC CAS? Why did she fire a principal as successful as Maria Guzman at Oyster-Adams – a designated blue ribbon school right up to the time Guzman was ousted, something that Oyster hasn’t achieved since)? But this was how the Q&A went: an audience member would come to the microphone and try to frame their question and Whitmire would then badger them to get to the question while mentioning the time and others in line who wanted to ask questions, then he would rephrase the question to better suit the answer he wanted to give and condescendingly dismiss the questioner. At one point he mentioned the fact that he had worked at the Pentagon and this was how they often got through a difficult question at press briefings, they would simply yell out “question, question” to the crowd and take a new question.
When it came to dealing with the facts that refuted his own Whitmire came up short in his answers. He would often say “the data is in the book” or “that’s in the book” as if the fact that this information was printed and published made it irrefutable. When people brought up the firing of teachers and Rhee’s comment about firing “teachers who sexually abused children” he hemmed and hawed and waffled and tried to mitigate what she said while people in the audience shouted out to him the truth. At one point Pete Tucker, the journalist for The Fight Back, came to the mike and asked Whitmire what would be the difference if Michelle Rhee had written this biography because, as he (Tucker) saw it, there would be no difference. He went on to say that The Bee Eater should sit in the fiction section of Politics and Prose.
For myself what was so remarkable about this event was its one-sidedness. At most P&P events the Q&A portion is a wonderful dialogue between the readers of a particular book and the creator of that book. It is an ongoing discussion that reveals things to both the writer and the reader. I have seen writers develop a new insight to their work through this dialogue, a new perspective on their subject that they hadn’t considered before, or a deeper way of looking at their subject. That was not so with Whitmire. His Q&A was kept to a time limit and limited to questions only as a way of controlling the discussion and not allowing any view other than that of Whitmire’s to be heard. At one point he repeatedly yelled “what is the question?, the question!” at one person on the mike trying to make their point (the audience, clearly exasperated by both the questioner and Whitmire began shouting out “just ask the question!”).
As a way of controlling the discussion it had an effect of stunting and frustrating the audience. Many were clearly, and audibly, aligned with the questioners and their disbelief at some of Whitmire’s responses could be heard in audible sighs and outright groans. Afterwards there was a lively discussion among several people, parents of students in DCPS, teachers, Pete Tucker and others about the absurdity of the event as well as the inadequacy of most of Whitmire’s answers.
Much of Whitmire’s way of controlling things was reflective of how Michelle Rhee, and many of the so-called “reformers”, deal with people and situations. They prefer a one-sided event where discussion is kept to people asking questions and they, Rhee or whoever, have the answers. Input is asked for after the decision is made (making input irrelevant but that is exactly the idea), which is exactly how Michelle Rhee dealt with the Hardy parents over the dismissal of Patrick Pope and how she dealt with teachers regarding the building of her ground-breaking contract. Discussion has to be controlled lest an opposing view or the truth happen to get through. We must trust them in the information they have. It’s in the book, after all.
What Michelle Rhee and Richard Whitmire practice is a form of intellectual tyranny. Control the subject at hand through the use of big lies and dominating the discussion by repeating those lies without providing credible evidence that supports their statements or refutes the views of others. It fits nicely with their belief that they know better than anyone else what has to be done. They have information that we do not. In fact, Whitmire even stated that he has been the only person to have access to everyone – Rhee’s former principal at Harlem Park Elementary, her TFA cohorts, her former students, etc – and able to talk with everyone that has been involved with Rhee. Somehow I found this statement to be another attempt at making both Whitmire and Rhee seem credible. There are many cracks in his tale, as there are many cracks in Rhee’s theory of education. I say theory because Rhee doesn’t really have any articulated philosophy of education other then Wendy Kopp’s moronic view that enthusiasm triumphs over experience (Whitmore made a pathetic attempt at justifying this view as well).
Whitmore also repeatedly referred to the NAEP scores as evidence that Rhee is succeeding. His mantra throughout the evening seemed to be “close, fire and NAEP scores” as argument for Rhee’s success. Rhee has also been repeating the DC NAEP scores throughout the nation as “record gains in academic achievement” and stating that “we were the only jurisdiction in the entire country in which every single subgroup of children improved their academic standing.” It doesn’t seem to matter that both of these statements are exaggerations that come close to outright lies, she is touting these “achievments” in Florida, in Georgia and elsewhere as part of a nationwide tour designed to sway legislatures to do things the DC-Rhee way with their local schools. This tour is financed by the Broad (rhymes with toad) Foundation, the Gates people and other billionaires who desire to destroy public education further by mining for what gold they believe still lies in the earth.
When we actually look at a comparison of Michelle Rhee’s NAEP scores (“the gold standard” according to Whitmire) to those of Vance and Janey both Rhee and Whitmore’s claims barely hold water. Dr. Alan Ginsburg, Director of Policy and Program Studies U.S. Department of Education (retired) did a study on those cores. His analysis can be found in this paper: The Rhee DC Record: Math and Reading Gains No Better Than Her Predecessors Vance and Janey. Dr. Ginsburg presents some remarkable statistics in light of the claims of ”record gains in achievement”. Here are two quotes from the paper:
• With respect to the distribution of DC’s total gains in NAEP scores over grades 4 and 8 between
2000-09, Vance accounted for a 46% share of the total gain, Janey 30% and Rhee 24% (Exhibit
IIA). In terms of average annual gains in NAEP math scores, Vance achieved the highest annual
gain of 3.5 points, followed by Rhee’s 2.8 points and Janey 1.8 points (Exhibit IIB).
• With respect to the distribution of total gains in NAEP reading scores over grades 4 and 8
between 2003-09, Janey accounted for about a two-thirds share of total NAEP reading gains and
Rhee about a one-third share (Exhibit IIC). On an annualized basis, the gains are approximately
identical, with Rhee 1.5 points and Janey 1.4 points (Exhibit IID).
I fail to see, personally, how a 10th of a point gain on Janey in Math and a whole point gain in Reading can be regarded as “record gains”. Incremental is how I would describe such gains to the parents of my students if this were their scores. Incremental is not record nor is it anything to base or justify the style of management (or, really, the lack thereof) of Madam Rhee. When you read this document you cannot help but come away with more proof that Rhee dissembles and lies, to use the words of one of the participants from last night, on almost everything that is important regarding education.
There has been a lot of talk in DC about “getting past Rhee.” I find this to be either a misguided attempt at moving on or, in some cases, an outright desire to forget what happened in order to allow her acolytes to continue her “ground-breaking” work. While I understand the desire of the former I feel it plays into the hands of the latter. Rhee must remain a part of the discussion especially given that she is running around the country demanding that other systems follow her methods and people like Whitmore are shilling their books justifying those same methods. I think, now more than ever, we must keep the heat on. We must make the bee eater finish her meal – although I believe the meat should be crow, not such a helpful and necessary insect as a bee.
Addendum: If you go to Richard Whitmire’s blog on Gender and Education at EduWeek, you might find it interesting, not to say apropos, that his comments are turned off.