On Michelle Rhee, Cyber Bullies and Teacher Pay: Excerpts from John Merrow’s The Influence of Teachers

Dear Friends,

This is a big week for us at Learning Matters, because of the unofficial release of The Influence of Teachers. It has received some wonderful advance praise, but I thought perhaps you’d like a sneak peek at what’s inside the book.

Below are excerpts from a few of the 17 chapters.

The book is available exclusively on Amazon, right here; I hope you consider going and getting your own copy.  I am donating 100 percent of the royalties to Learning Matters.



From Chapter Ten, “Following Leaders”

“I’m going to fire somebody in a little while,” the young superintendent said. “Do you want to see that?”

In our world, see means videotape. Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was actually inviting us to film her as she fired one of her employees.

My colleagues Jane Renaud and Cat McGrath had spent the morning in Chancellor Rhee’s office, filming her meeting with parents, community groups and principals. A dynamo, Rhee moved easily from meeting to meeting, seemingly unaware of the presence of our camera.

Jane and Cat were stunned by her invitation, but not so much that they didn’t accept on the spot. As Jane recalls, “She told us to come back at a specific time, and so we got a sandwich, returned to her office, set up the equipment and shot the meeting.”

That event, shown on national television on the NewsHour, helped create the media persona of Michelle Rhee: the fearless and determined reformer who puts the interests of children first.

From Chapter Six, “Paying Teachers”

Picture the typical salary schedule for teachers.  It’s probably just a page of small boxes. One axis notes years of service; the other denotes academic credits beyond the basic Bachelor’s degree; as you go up in years and out in credits, you make more money.   In the upper right hand corner, in the last box, is the maximum you will earn.

It’s like having a crystal ball, because on your very first day on the job you can look well into the future and see just how much (or how little) you will be earning 25, 30 or 35 years from that moment; it won’t matter whether you’re the best teacher or the hardest working teacher — or the converse, the worst and laziest.  Your salary is set.

From Chapter Nine, “Leadership’s Revolving Door”

Just as the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball seem to play musical chairs with their coaches/managers, search firms recycle superintendents. No matter how long and hard these companies search, they inevitably seem to turn up the usual suspects: career educators, most of them white men.

In the fall of 2004, for example, only 16 of the superintendents in the 63 largest districts were women. Five years later, in the 2009-2010 school year, the needle had barely moved: Women were leading just 18 of the nation’s 66 largest big-city school districts. According to Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, “This percentage is actually way above national averages. While women are still a minority among urban superintendents, they are even more underrepresented in the suburbs, small towns and rural areas.”

From Chapter Thirteen, “Making Schools Safe”

Cyber-bullying can be stopped. Adults have to set the right tone in a school; they have to intervene instead of standing on the sidelines. They have to empower children rather than simply shutting down computers, for example. Above all, they must pay attention. And in order to know what to watch for, parents must understand that in many ways the face of bullying is changing.

Schools are supposed to be safe havens: physically, intellectually and emotionally. We don’t need anti-bullying laws (although about 40 states now have them) because of laws already in force that require school leaders to act.  Bernice Sandler, one of the forces behind Title IX (1972) holds that view. Title IX prohibits sexual harassment, and most bullying falls into that category, she explains.

“Most cyberbullying and other forms of bullying, as well, include sexual references. Girls are called ‘sluts’ and ‘hos,’ boys are called ‘fags’ and other sexual names. Sexual rumors and comments are frequent.”

Dr. Sandler says Title IX requires schools to act, no matter where the cyberbullying occurs.

9 thoughts on “On Michelle Rhee, Cyber Bullies and Teacher Pay: Excerpts from John Merrow’s The Influence of Teachers

  1. John, congratulations on the publication of your new book. Completing a book takes a lot of work & persistence. A few questions:
    1. Did you have permission from the person whose firing you filmed? If yes, what if any compensation did that person receive?

    2. What advice do you have for Michelle Rhee – and for others trying to improve schools, based on reactions to her (obviously she has many passionate critics). Based on the considerable, ongoing access you had to her, what do you think are possible lessons for others trying to help improve schools

    3. Who do you think are the most effective people currently trying to improve schools, and why?

    John, you have enormous access to people around the US working in schools…so I’m asking these questions with interest and respect. Thanks for considering them.


  2. Joe
    1. We did not have permission to film the person, which is why we blurred the face and did not use anything the person said. The person was never on camera.
    2. Regarding advice, I have to ask you to read my book for the complex argument, but in shorthand: we have to name the problem first. Some say it’s “Bad Teachers,” and, if so, the solution is obvious: try to retrain them and fire them if that doesn’t work. For others (including me) the problem is “Bad Job.” Teaching is not just hard work; it’s also often humiliating, disrespected, et cetera. But the challenge of redefiniing the job is made difficult by what now passes for the definition of “better job.” In a word, it’s been highjacked by unions, who have defined ‘better job’ in largely trade union terms: how late can you arrive in the morning, how soon can you leave after the final bell, more money, and so on. Most teachers I know (and most polls) define ‘better job’ in very different terms–the chance to collaborate, watch each other teach, help develop curriculum, and respect for their grading and their evaluations of students.
    There’s more, including a lot about what I see as ‘the last war’ being fought now about merit pay, et cetera.
    3. Most effective people? Hard to say, and I am not sure that it’s my place as a reporter to venture that sort of opinion. Maybe over a class of wine or water, but not here and not in print.


  3. I taught junior high school social science and was a school counselor from K through 12. I never met a student who wanted to learn and wasn’t provided the opportunity to do so. Certainly, having won the “ovarian lottery” often made a difference, but even those students who were not ready or willing to learn failed to achieve.

    Unions are not the problem. Finland has strong unions and well-regarded teachers. Of course, it also has a very homogenous population. Unions follow the lead of members. Contractual working conditions are established because there are non-classrooms types (principals and bully-like superintendents such as Rhee) who impose their educational philosophy upon other educators. Honestly, principals should be limited to ordering supplies, paying the utility bills, and keeping the floors and restrooms cleaned.

    Most, not all, educators don’t watch the clock or calendar. Most would love to have the time built into a school day to collaborate with colleagues. I would even bet that most would prefer peer reviews similar to physicians than evaluations by administrators who escaped the classroom for either better pay or a longer life.

    Visit my local school district and I’ll show you a good curriculum, motivated students, and the resulting good school report cards. But no, media types want to focus on those schools where students are not born healthy or live healthy; come to school ill-prepared — if they attend at all; have no educational role models in the home; come from homes with single parents where marriage has no historical relevance; are exposed to social unrest on a daily basis; and where a better living is made on the streets than with an education.

    For us to change that reality than other institutions will have to pick-up for the failed family. It’s disingenuous to claim that parents should do their job and all will be well or that if we fired a few bad apples students would succeed. We need to bring children into the world healthy, provide good childhood nutrition, have after school programs that model good study habits, and provide recreational opportunities that occupy the rest of the day. We may not be able to change what happens during the time they have to return to their home to sleep, but we can certainly fill their day with better opportunities than currently exist. Yeah, it’ll be expensive. However, if we can turn a generation around, the societal dividends will be rewarded in the future.


  4. The assumption that Ms. Rhee was effective in improving the quality of either instruction or improved grades is simply that, an assumption. Certainly, neither the data nor the community she served seems to support Joe’s assumption. However, she ought not to be pillaried for the job she did, as she was poorly prepared to be an educator and lacked sufficient training to have done even as much as she did accomplish. Her background did not prepare her for the effort she so grandly accepted.


  5. Ric, we do agree that as you wrote “However, if we can turn a generation around, the societal dividends will be rewarded in the future.” May I please have your permission to quote your statement? Would you please share the name of the district? I think it is an excellent example of the world view you present. I disagree with much of what you say – but think you make your views clear

    Rogier – I am not sure what assumption you think I have made about Ms. Rhee. I’ve re-read what I wrote 3 times. I asked John what lessons he draws from her work – I neither praised nor criticized it.




  6. Having read quite a bit about Michelle Rhee, I have come to see her “public persona” as quite self-promoting. Often, when the public image becomes strong and prevasive, it also becomes the private person – after all, she has to be comfortable in that skin…..Ms. Rhee does not, can not understand the heart and soul of working with children. She has not spent months nor years in training in college to prepare to teach. She has so few years experience that her naive cockiness is simply that – naive cockiness. ( I too thought I knew it all when I was her age, but after 38 years in a classroom, I found out that I still had much to learn, Kids are human, have feelings, have needs and among them is the need and craving to learn and be treated with dignity.) She seems to forget that teachers have a craving to be treated with dignity as well.
    She is cold, calculated, and narcisstic. Unfortunately, so are too many people in the media. “Water seeks its own level…”


  7. Shame — what a terrible movie to show to a sensitive teenager. Teenagers are very sensitive and can easily be influenced, positively or negatively. They hear what they want to hear. This dejected movie tells them, at least for the first 20 or so minutes, don’t do homework, don’t fall into parents pressure, don’t take any after school activity, or don’t drive to be the best!
    Tells the teachers: don’t give homework, don’t push them to learn, or don’t ask the teens to do anything. The movie tells the parents: don’t pressure your children to do their best, don’t help them to pursue their dreams, and don’t ask them to do anything. What should they do then? It is left to the viewer.

    Right from the beginning, it is obvious that the amateur filmmaker Vicki Abeles, has been depressed, has had problems with her family, especially with medical and emotional problems of her own three children, and has been under the impression that the suicide of a teenager is related to school.

    The first time movie maker claims that she is exploring the culture of high achievement within her own family, her Bay Area community and around the country. The one sided interviews with selected students, parents, teachers and academicians in a selected area (only four cities) points out the negatives of our educational process. And that is a shame.

    But, certainly this is not her intention. The stated goal of the film is “to foster dialogue.” What she wants to stress is the issues, problems, and test-centered education as a result of the no-child-left-behind idea. Then, if this is the case, why she does not point to the fact that these are the issues that the parents, teachers, and politicians need to be aware of and start to initiate a dialogue for change. Why the issue of homework is over emphasized? And why the movie, through repeated interviews with selected individuals claims that everything which goes wrong with teenagers, has to do with the pressure of overachievers. Is the suicide of a 13-year old student associated with a failing grade in a course? Couldn’t it be related to the fact that she had been depressed for a while, but her parents did not realize it to get professional help? Couldn’t it be related to the fact that any teenager can go through a critical period during the adolescence, but the teachers and parents need to be opening their eyes? And finally, why the title of the movie is “Race to Nowhere”, rather than being “Issues, Pay Attention?” Race to nowhere implies to the teenagers that there is no future, why bother.

    Probably the intention of first time movie maker is to depict the issues that teenagers are facing, the problem with our educational systems or the need for change. Unfortunately, certain critical issues have been negatively overemphasized. How can a coach teach someone to play basketball? Certainly, not by recommending to sit on a couch and listen; rather, to ask the player to practice, and practice, and practice. What is the point of repeated interview of “homework” is bad? The point is the overdose of anything is bad.

    Finally, she gets it right; at the end of the movie, she summarizes the main points in a writing form; for example parents should ask children how they feel, reduce performance pressure, or know the signs of childhood depression; educators should evaluate each student on an individual basis, engage students in learning, or recognize the unique talents of each individual. Students should speak to the adults, get plenty of sleep, or do things that they enjoy.


  8. John, I respect the work you have done over the years, but allowing Rhee to fire a principal on camera was shameful. It matters not one bit that the principal was not shown – it was vulgar. I am also highly disappointed at your complete lack of journalistic curiosity when it came to Rhee – you accepted everything at face value. How wonderful that she reduced the “boated” central office. Never mind that, over her tenure, she increased the central office by 18% even though enrollment fell by 6,600. And let’s not mention that the racial achievement gap, which had been closing in the years preceding her tenure, widened greatly after she took over. You offered no scrutiny over the fact that test scores fell later in her tenure and that only 15 of 168 schools passed AYP her last year, much fewer than the year before she arrived. I blame you, John Merrow, for being a major contributor to the Michelle Rhee myth. This is not a small thing, because Rhee took the media adulation that people like you gave her to embark on a campaign of unprecedented teacher bashing. This, I believe, has been a big factor in deleterious union busting in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other places. Thanks to your efforts, John, I believe that good teachers will leave the profession and college students will shy away. But you did one hell of a job sucking up to Michelle!


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