Monday, August 29, 2011

Michelle Rhee on American Education

Speaking of Rhee, here's an interesting interview with her, in which she recommends five books:

Your first choice, A Hope in the Unseen, is based on a series of articles which won the writer a Pulitzer prize. It is subtitled An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League. Tell us about this bestseller.

A Hope in the Unseen is an amazing first-hand account of the struggles a poor African-American student with tremendous ability and potential went through while growing up and going to schools in Washington, DC, where I was chancellor. The book walks through the challenges this young man had to overcome during his schooling and his transition to higher education. It's a great book for people who believe that the circumstances of your upbringing don't need to circumscribe how far you can go in life.

The hero of this book, Cedric Jennings, is raised by a single mother who is mired in debt and he is the son of a man who was incarcerated for drug crimes throughout much of Cedric's youth. But Cedric doesn't use his circumstances as an excuse for failure. How can public schools make sure they meet the needs of students like Cedric?

One of the biggest lessons that people should take from this story is that there are so many Cedrics out there. People shouldn't assume that a kid from a certain school or a certain neighbourhood can't achieve at the highest levels. Kids like Cedric prove those assumptions wrong.

Suskind describes how Cedric was harassed and threatened with violence by his peers simply for succeeding in class. Suskind says educators call it the crab-bucket syndrome: "When one crab tries to climb from the bucket, the others pull it back down." What can educators do to combat that anti-achievement ethos?

This is an important point and one that educators think about a lot. We need to find ways, within the culture of schools, to celebrate academic achievers as much as we celebrate athletic achievement. Even in low-performing schools people come out for a basketball game or a homecoming game. That's why athletes are revered – the entire community rallies around them. We have to do the same kind of thing for the kids that are succeeding academically.

How do you do that in an urban environment?

It can't just be that we give them a plaque at an awards ceremony. We have to create an ongoing culture where the entire community is saying that these kids are making us proud.


Michelle Rhee on American Education

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