October 18, 2011

Michelle Rhee ’92 Champions Education Reform

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Calling on undergraduates to shape education reform, Michelle Rhee ’92, former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, launched the college outreach initiative of her organization, StudentsFirst, at a panel discussion Tuesday.

At the event, titled “Up to Us: Student Voices in Education Reform,” Rhee was joined by Nathan Daschle and Raymond Glendenning, co-founders of www.ruck.us, which aims to generate conversation around public issues while avoiding partisan divide.

Rhee founded Stu­dentsFirst in 2010 after resigning from her post as chancellor of Washington’s public schools. The organization’s mission is “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,” according to its website.

“When you want to start a movement, you need people who are passionate, and this kind of energy is brought by college students,” Rhee said during an interview with The Sun preceding the event. StudentsFirst primarily works to create a network of people from diverse backgrounds who want to change the country’s public education, according to Rhee.

Although Rhee recognized that some have labeled her as anti-labor unions, she said that “unions are doing exactly what they ought to do by protecting teachers’ interests.” Through StudentsFirst, Rhee said she wants to achieve a similar kind of collective collaboration.

“We do not have any national groups that have come together to protect the interest of students and this is what we need,” she said.

During the event, Rhee responded to questions from the public concerning her views on teacher performance and school-choice initiatives, like vouchers and charter schools.

“We need to recognize the power that individual teachers have in shaping the lives of kids,” she said. “It does not really matter if kids are getting a great education through a public or private school. What matters is the fact that they are getting it.”

Daschle and Glendening explained how initiatives like Rhee’s can be achieved through non-partisan platforms, such as their website. Daschle and Glendening — both former political consultants — expressed that the sharp delineation of American politics along party lines is obsolete.

“Our political parties bring people together on the base of differences and not their similarities,” Daschle said. “Although we live in a world constantly marked by innovation, we still follow a political system born in the 1880s.”

For Daschle, the increased number of independent voters supports the public’s disenchantment with partisan politics and its desire to reshape the system.

“Since 2004, the country has voted for change, in terms of political parties, during every election. We have a country that is dissatisfied about the change being provided, and this is one of our drives behind creating www.ruck.us,” he said.

Glendening echoed Daschle’s words by emphasizing “discomfort with traditional institutions currently seen in the country.”

“It is very refreshing to be at a place like Cornell, where students from different ideological backgrounds maintain a level of discourse marked with a decorum not seen in the country’s capital,” he said. “We need to reevaluate how education can be modeled to better serve our lives, and this should be done by transcending party lines.”

Both Glendening and Daschle said they hope their website begins this transformation by bringing people from different ideologies together in discussion.

“It is time to shift our allegiance from obsolete institutions and innovate in order to transform our education system,” Daschle said. “We do not really need political parties anymore — the future will not come in the shape of a static political system.”

Students in the audience had divergent responses to the views of Rhee, Daschle and Glendening.

Jessica Powers ’13 said there is “nothing immediately tangible about the proposals that were presented.”

Scott Monsky ’12 said, however, that the Rhee’s plans have immediate resonance,

“Cornell students coming from privileged backgrounds often do not realize the big education inequality that exists in our country,” he said.

Molly Beckhardt ’14, president of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action, and Karen Li ’15, another member of COLA, were more critical of Rhee’s proposals.

“Rhee’s reforms have demoralized teachers by removing tenure and basing [their] teaching quality on student standardized test performance,” Li said.

Beckhardt added that if Rhee’s organization truly seeks educational excellence “it needs to account for the teachers and their needs.”

Outside the event, COLA members distributed quarter cards, which stated that Rhee received funding for StudentsFirst from Rubert Murdoch and the Koch Brothers, and that Rhee supports anti-collective bargaining bills in various states, among accusations that her initiatives artificially inflated test-scores in D.C.

Geoffrey Block ’14, director of Cornell’s StudentsFirst campus campaign, said this discussion was the first of many events that aim “to make students understand there is a problem with our current education system.”

The discussion was moderated by Raj Kannappan ’13, chairman of the Cornell Republicans, and Tony Montgomery ’13, president of the Cornell Democrats.

Original Author: Patricio Martinez