Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Bee Eater

When Michelle Rhee was named the Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. Public School district I was instantly intrigued, wanting to know more about this young, attractive and tough Asian American who was going to turn around the nation's worst school district.

The Bee Eater shares a bit about Michelle's personal life and a great deal about her time in education. Rhee is one of three children, the only daughter in a Korean American family. Although always smart, Michelle did not always know what she wanted to do with her life. When she learned about the Teach for America program she was intrigued, and began her teaching career in a low income elementary school, dedicating any and every free moment to help her students succeed. At first Rhee struggled with classroom management and engaging her students. It was one of these moments that led her to catch a bee that was flying around her classroom and promptly eat it in front of her students. The bee eater was born.

As the Chancellor Education Rhee came under fire often for her methods of achieving school reform. Teacher accountability became Rhee's buzzword as she fired teachers who could not produce a turnaround in students' test results. Twenty three DC schools were closed, saving money that could be pumped back into the education system. No matter the decisions Rhee made she faced a great deal of criticism, often under heat from African Americans who felt that she was targeting them. Rhee eventually is ousted from her position as Chancellor, having made gains in some areas and having seen setbacks in a few others. Although Rhee is no longer at the helm of the Washington, D.C. school system, she is certainly not forgotten.

Whitmire writes this book about Rhee with her cooperation. He spent time with Rhee, her parents, ex-husband, and others in Rhee's circle. Yet, despite Rhee's cooperation, I felt Whitmire paints a balanced picture of her. This is certainly not a book that only speaks of Rhee's positive points.

I loved this book as an educator and someone who loves books about education and education reform. I find it fascinating to read about ways in which other schools and districts can help their students achieve success. Non-educators would also find this book interesting as there is a great deal of information about how to fix urban schools. I don't think Whitmire (or Rhee) oversimplified things, yet their main focus is teacher reform. As an educator, I hesitate with the message of this book - that it is only poor teachers who are hindering student achievement. While this is part of the problem, or can be, for the mostpart, the teachers I know and work with on a daily basis are dedicated and hard working. Hearing about Rhee firing large numbers of teachers for incompetence made me wonder what constitutes incompetence. Readers who have no background in education may truly feel that this is the only problem standing in the way of student achievement.

The Bee Eater is a book I want to recommend to my principal, assistant superintendent, teaching co-workers, my mother, aunt and uncle (also teachers) and then discuss. I loved getting a better look at Michelle Rhee and am more intrigued than Iwas even before I read The Bee Eater.


Inside A Book said...

What an interesting book with lots to discuss. I am like you and feel that firing the teachers isn't always getting to the root of the problem. Yes, let's raise the bar and the accountability but let's remember that there are other parts to this equation....parents, community and yes, the students themselves take a big part of the problem and the solution. I think it is always smart to think outside the box, to take a look at the road less traveled,but to also recognize, even mid-course, that we may need to redirect our path and go back to the begining. Kind of like what I do in a lesson - called 'monitor and adjust!' I don't wait until the lesson is a total failure. I have to have enough courage to say to the students that this isn't working, let's try again!!

Thanks for sharing an intriguing title.

Katie said...

I absolutely need to read The Bee Eater! I was/still am a huge fan of Michelle Rhee. I think she made a ton of tough, but necessary choices that far too many simply aren't willing to make. As an urban educator myself, I know that there are 101 things we can blame the achievement gap on, but about 99% of those things are out of our control. Teacher quality? That's something we can control. But like you said, I too would be interested to learn more about the criteria she used to judge whether or not someone was incompetent.

One of my favorite quotes is "Don't just talk about it; be about it." I feel like Ms. Rhee personifies that sentiment - putting her career and reputation on the line to make changes, rather than just making suggestions.