School Beat: Michelle Rhee’s False Dichotomies

by Kelley Leathers & Maggie Terry on February 16, 2012

In the AP Language course I teach, we recently studied logical fallacies, including the “either-or” fallacy, also known as a “false dichotomy.” A perfect real-life example of this fallacy presented itself to me at the Michelle Rhee protest in Oakland last week. Most elements of the corporate education reform agenda, of which Rhee is the leading proponent, rest on this kind of black-and-white thinking; the specific agenda element that I was reflecting on at this event was charter schools.

Charters are presented as the silver bullet that will fix all that ails our public education system. In Rhee’s rhetoric and in much of the media, we are presented with a stark choice between two mythical options: let our children languish in crumbling, ineffective traditional public schools – or join our parade to the bright shiny future of charters.

As a traditional public school teacher, I don’t believe that the silver bullet (any silver bullet) is the answer; however, I learned a hard lesson about my own participation in either-or thinking when my protest sign brought a charter teacher hovering around the edges of the protest to tears.

“Charter Schools leave children behind – by design,” I had written. The sign was intended for the audience entering Rhee’s event; I imagined them reading it and thinking, What? But I thought charters created opportunities for all students to succeed. How do they leave students behind? Who do they leave behind? I need to find out more about that… I imagined them later going online, where they could learn that charters are able to both expel students at will, and force parents to sign agreements of their full support, yet they have a much lower percentage of high need Special Education and English learner students enrolled than their non-charter, traditional public school peers. I wanted them, through inquiry, to learn a piece of the charter narrative that Rhee conveniently scrubs from her talks. Charter schools don’t serve all students.

I hoped those who saw my sign would find education historian Diane Ravitch’s 2010 interview with GOOD Magazine where she reveals “There are about 20,000 kids in Milwaukee with vouchers, about 17,000 in charters and about 82,000 are in the regular public schools … [T]his is a city that has a thriving choice sector —it should be the highest performing city in the country — it’s not. In 2009, Milwaukee decided to participate in the national testing that’s carried out by the federal government. It was one of the lowest performing cities in the country and the African-American children in Milwaukee who are the targets of all this school choice are actually performing below African-American children in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.”

The facts are that charters outperform traditional public schools seventeen percent of the time. Put another way, one out of six charters outperforms its traditional public school counterpart. The source of this data, the widely cited 2009 Stanford CREDO study, also notes that “Thirty‐seven percent of the charters … produce learning gains that are significantly worse than what equivalent [traditional public school] students accomplish. This proportion is both alarming and regrettable.” (p. 46)

I imagined the Rhee audience, having seen my sign and as a result having sought another perspective on the issue, would realize that, while there may be some good charter schools, increasing the privatization of our entire public education system would not help all students. It would help 17% of our students: the ones who end up in the successful charters. It would leave behind others: those in the unsuccessful charters, and those in the remaining traditional public schools – a segregated group of high-poverty students with ostensibly lower parental involvement if measured by the parents’ inability to seek a supposedly better school and sign its agreement of their support.

Encouraging the audience to consider the charter school system as inequitable was the effect I thought my sign would have.

My sign had another effect. A woman with tears in her eyes approached me as I held my sign on the sidewalk. “What do you mean, charters leave students behind?” she asked me.

She explained that she was a teacher at a charter school, and that she felt like there was no place for her at the protest – that the signs, chants, and fliers were making her out to be the enemy. She explained that the kids she served were also high-needs, that she and the teachers at her school had the same goal we did, to serve their students and help them to succeed.

I felt my stomach turn over. I felt terrible – I had never thought about how a charter teacher would view my sign.

I tried to explain that I knew there was more subtlety to the issues, but that the nature of a protest called for an over-simplification of the message; since much of the entering audience thought “Rhee=The Answer,” our job was to alert them to the fact that there are actually teachers, supporters of education reform, who feel “Rhee=Not the Answer but Creator of Bigger Problems.”

To the charter teacher I explained the dialogue has to be black and white at this point; I know there are shades of grey, and my true opinions exist in the grey area. I said I hope a time comes soon when we can advance into a more nuanced public dialogue about education reform, but we’re not there yet.

Having understood each other a little better, but still not in full agreement, we hugged and parted.

In the days that followed, however, I found myself questioning what I had told her. Why do we have to wait to explore the grey area?

I teach my students to hold their beliefs lightly, that real argument involves being open to changing your point of view based on new information – in other words, to be evaluativist thinkers, not absolutists. But here I was saying that a period of absolutist thinking was some kind of necessary stage on the road to reasoned dialogue … and that just isn’t the case.

We – teachers, unions, concerned citizens – need to get the grey area out there into the public debate, and quickly. Policy decisions are being made daily under the influence of this black-and-white thinking. People are tired of Washington’s partisan bickering; maybe on at least one issue, we can offer an actual dialogue where we dispel myths about our traditional public schools, and where we work together, the way teachers in the best schools do, to find solutions to our most urgent problems.

Kelley Leathers, National Board Certified Teacher, John O’Connell High School with Maggie Terry SFUSD English Learner Support Services.

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