Michelle Rhee, Hands Off California!

Jerry Brown came to the California legislature at once triumphant but still breathing fire during his State of the State address last week. While declaring victory over California's budget deficits, he had some choice words for the education "reformers" of our time:

The laws that are in fashion demand tightly constrained curricula and reams of accountability data. All the better if it requires quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers. Performance metrics, of course, are invoked like talismans. Distant authorities crack the whip, demanding quantitative measures and a stark, single number to encapsulate the precise achievement level of every child.

We seem to think that education is a thing—like a vaccine—that can be designed from afar and simply injected into our children. But as the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

Compare and contrast Governor Brown's words with Bill Gates' claims in a recent WSJ editorial:

In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal—in a feedback loop similar to the one Mr. Rosen describes.

This may seem basic, but it is amazing how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right. Historically, foreign aid has been measured in terms of the total amount of money invested—and during the Cold War, by whether a country stayed on our side—but not by how well it performed in actually helping people. Closer to home, despite innovation in measuring teacher performance world-wide, more than 90% of educators in the U.S. still get zero feedback on how to improve.

Bill Gates, who has poured millions into education "reform," believes all problems from disease eradication to education can be solved with metrics. This is, of course, the corporate formula for fixing everything, or what I like to call the "balance sheet" approach. Bottom line a little thin? No problem, say the analysts. Simply figure out where you can lay a few off and then do it. Studies show that older employees might not be as productive as younger ones? No problem, hack their jobs first.

Governor Brown, on the other hand, believes education is the product of effort on the part of teachers, parents and students. He believes teachers know best how to teach, and the current mire of regulations on all levels are their primary hindrance.

I'm inclined to agree with Governor Brown's approach, given his family's background and history in education, his strong progressive belief in universal, public education for all children, and his promises during the campaign to place a broader emphasis on magnet schools and less on charter schools, which he says yielded a narrow "mixed" result.

Why, then, does Michelle Rhee think she has a snowball's chance in hell of influencing California's public school policies?

Michelle Rhee set up offices in Sacramento well over a year ago, ostensibly because her husband, Kevin Johnson, also works out of Sacramento. But a report in the SacBee reveals that Rhee has her sights on California, particularly in the areas of union-busting and metrics:

But former Assemblyman Charles Calderon, a powerful Democrat until he was termed out last year, described meeting with Rhee and Johnson in his Capitol office last spring. He said they were lobbying against teacher layoff policies that say the least experienced teachers must be the first to be let go. The practice is especially detrimental to students in poor communities, StudentsFirst argues, because they typically have the newest teachers and thus, the most turnover.

"After she found me receptive to her point of view – the issue she was advocating – she asked, 'Is it possible to get a bill through?' And I said yes it was, but there are a lot of ducks you'd have to line up to move it through."

StudentsFirst pitched a bill that would remove seniority as a factor in teacher layoff procedures, instead basing layoffs largely on job performance, according to a confidential draft The Bee obtained. The bill also would have changed the teacher evaluation system so that at least half the ratings were based on student test scores.

Calderon said he thought African American and Latino lawmakers would be supportive of the bill because it could improve low-performing schools in their districts.

In the end, though, Calderon said, he never introduced the bill because he ran out of time to put together enough votes to support it. He said it would have amounted to a "holy war" against the teachers union at a strategically tough time at the end of session.

"It would have had to be a gut-and-amend, and there are a lot of things that would have to happen and a lot of politics that would have to fall in place. And it would have happened at a time where CTA has the most leverage on leadership, going into the election cycle."

Rhee has an uphill battle in California. She's facing a legislature with a supermajority of Democrats and a governor with firm views about education that run counter to Rhee's objectives. If Rhee's goal is irrelevance and consistent waste of right-wing donors' money, she's come to the right state. This governor and legislature is clear-eyed about Rhee's motivations and her goals. Hands off, Michelle. This is my state, and I will fight you with everything I have.

Bonus: Read Dave Dayen's article in The New Republic about how progressives helped California balance the books and turn the state's deficit into a surplus.

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