Putting Students First

Today, Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of DC Public Schools, officially unveiled Rhee 2.0.  A cover story for Newsweek (no broom this time) and an Oprah segment was the perfect intro for Students First, a new 501(c)(4) led by Rhee to “to build a national movement to defend the interests of children in public education and pursue transformative reform, so that America has the best education system in the world.”

The new org breaks down its target audiences to Educators, Parents, Students, and “Everyone Else.”  It’s committed to “great teachers,” “great schools,” and “effective use of public dollars.”  

The latest embodiment of the Rhee brand also offers up four core beliefs (apparently her PR people never explained you offer things in series’ of three or five, never four).  The four beliefs:

* Great teachers can make a tremendous difference for students of every background; all children deserve outstanding teachers.

* Attending a great school should be a matter of fact, not luck; every family should be able to choose an excellent school.

* Public dollars belong where they make the biggest difference—on effective instructional programs; we must fight ineffective practices and bureaucracy.

* Parent and family involvement is key to increased student achievement, but the entire community must be engaged in the effort to improve our schools.

Most interesting in all of this, though, is the underlying structure.  Right now, the org is an advocacy group of one — Rhee.  It sets an audacious goal of raising $1 billion to create “a movement to transform public education.”  The goal seems to be to work with states and school districts across the nation on real reform efforts.  But the group seeks to garner its funding through a combination of corporate and philanthropic support, small donors, membership dues, and merchandise sales (someone needs to tell Rhee how successful the retail sales effort worked for the Stand Up effort back in 2005).

There are many unanswered questions here.  In launching such an effort, Rhee clearly has some significant seed money to launch this effort.  You don’t announce such a fundraising drive unless you already have significant commitment to back up the promise.  So Eduflack suspects there has to be tens of millions of dollars already committed to the effort.

So who will join with Rhee, staff wise?  What organizations will Students First officially partner with?  What SEAs and LEAs will be first on the client list?  Besides the $1 billion what are the measures of success?  Where will the group be located?  Will it have local chapters (like the successful DFER?)  What groups will she take on (besides the unions)?  How soon before she goes after federal funding (any subcontracting opps in RttT, i3, TIF, or SIG, anyone)?

Eduflack is always heartened by efforts that try to amplify the voice of parents and students in the school improvement process.  Too often, we exclude these key stakeholders, leaving them to simply accept what those who “know better” decide needs to be done. As a result, we have a self-fulfilling circle of status quo, where little changes and those end users — the families and students — are left to just deal with the fact the more things change, the more they stay the same … at least with student achievement numbers and a persistent achievement gap.

It is a little surprising that Rhee doesn’t want to get into the ESEA reauthorization mix, but it is a good thing.  Even if she threw the full weight of her group into reauth, she would never get the full credit for the changes she could ultimately be responsible for.  So now is the time for an agenda.  How will we measure the success of Students First in six months?  In a year?  What are the key policy issues she will focus on?  And how will they translate those policy issues into real advocacy felt at the state or local level?

As Eduflack has noted many times, PR is easy.  The cover of Newsweek just gets the ball bouncing.  Now comes the hard work for Rhee, and an opportunity to demonstrate she understands the true power of advocacy and meaningful public engagement.  First, help better diagnose the problems in public education in a way that all stakeholder audiences understand.  Then make clear there are real, workable solutions to those problems.  And wrap up by showing that Students First and its network are the holders
of the best, most actionable solutions to those problems.  

Rhee does that, and this new group of hers can launch a national movement.  Without it, we may have yet another in a long range of non-profits with noble goals, respected ambitions, and nothing left to show for it but a depleted checkbook and a lot of unfulfilled buzz.  There is already too much of that in ed reform, we don’t need any more.


10 thoughts on “Putting Students First

  1. Only three out of all the US high schools conduct exit interviews with graduates according to Tony Wagner. In general, HS students, no matter how academically competent are never seen as a source of observations and insight about education reform. Perhaps interviews with serious students will be part of Michelle Rhee’s putting Students First? fitzhugh@tcr.org, The Concord Review.

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