Michelle Rhee, D.C. School Chancellor, will resign from her post tomorrow. Breaking news, yes, but expected: her tenure as the no-nonsense head in the struggling school system has been the subject of endless controversy, praise, and, in part, a new documentary on the failings of U.S. education. I first learned of Rhee’s uncompromising expectations from a long profile in Time; in her public appearances, she comes off as both fearless and resigned. Seems like the D.C. public schools are losing one of their great leaders.
How do we–all of us, not just those with kids in schools or kids in “good” schools–care for our ailing public school system? How do we remove politics–tying property values to school funding, resources to test scores, school leadership to local elections–and put the students first?
I was a kid who went to public schools. In Iowa, there never struck me as much of a disparity between the public and the parochial or prep schools. Some part of me knew that the private school kids had more homework and better college-prep, but even at that young age, when my mother asked me if I wanted to attend the local Catholic secondary school, I mulled it over and said no. The immature kid in me just didn’t want to leave my friends; looking back now, I wonder if I made that decision partly out of fear of higher expectations in a school that seemed, from the outside, more rigorous, more academically-intimidating, and less the slacker atmosphere I knew at my public high school.
I’m no education scholar but I often wonder about our public system in the U.S. It’s a trickle-up theory, no? If we begin educating our children with low expectations in high school, fast-tracking one student to college-prep while sending another on an alternate, more labor-oriented program of study, how do we divide instead of pool our human resources? Doesn’t our nation suffer from this two-track system as a whole?
All to say that my suburban education system was flawed and yet, pretty good. I’m ambivalent in retrospect. But ultimately I have this luxury of retrospect. I received a strong K-12 education, an even stronger undergraduate experience, and the necessary training and flourishing of the mind as a post-graduate. In my urban neighborhood in Boston, I sometimes ask myself if the kids on my street have the same kind of excellence in teachers, funding, and leadership.
I don’t know the answer.