A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 13 2010

Rhee-thinking Education: Rhee-lizing the Impossible Through Optimism

I Rhee-cently read this piece by Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools.  I suggest you Rhee-d it too.  Rhee-ly.  I Rhee-lize that I haven’t commented on a “macro issue” in a while; with Rhee’s help, I make my Rhee-turn now.

(No more word play.)

Rhee’s thesis is bold, but gave me much food for thought:

I believe we can solve the problems of urban education in our lifetimes and actualize education’s power to reverse generational poverty. But I am learning that it is a radical concept to even suggest this. (emphasis mine.)

What Rhee points out is that, despite our vast resources, our high standard-of-living, and the limitless privileges that we as American citizens enjoy, we still settle for “less than our best” in some aspects of society—for example, education—merely because we lack the political will to do any better.

In her piece, Rhee quotes Warren Buffett, who claims that forcing every child to attend public school, through random lottery, will immediately solve our education crisis: the political will to fix our schools would emerge rapidly, since the “powerful” people would do everything possible to ensure that their sons and daughters would receive a quality education, wherever they were placed.

Warren Buffett’s proposal is not a new one.  In fact, I vividly recall the Oracle of Omaha making the same exact remarks about our public education system in 2006, when I had the opportunity to meet and dine with him (as part of a group of Yalies invited to meet him in Omaha–on my birthday, no less!).  This idea shocked me, first, because I was expecting his comments to be solely focused on investing, and, second, because it seemed so radical.  How could we acquire that level of political will without actually going to such extreme measures? This is what I thought about as I had sandwiches with the man:


Moving beyond the idea of political will (this has always been a concept that I’ve had trouble defining), my question is this: why, in our society today, is it so difficult for people to accept the possibility of radically good things happening, yet so easy to believe that the radically bad will happen? Why is the balance tipped against the belief that we can overcome obstacles, that we can make progress or that we can achieve and towards the idea that “impossible” is the status quo?

What we need to recognize is that success in our world begins with a mindset of optimism, a way of seeing the world as a place where almost anything is possible, as long as you make a commitment to and stand by whatever it is you seek to accomplish, no matter the obstacles and countervailing pressures.  For example, in 2009, Lance Armstrong, at 37, entered the Tour de France again (after winning 7 straight earlier in his career) with the belief that he could win, no matter how far “past his prime” he was or how physiologically improbable such a feat would be; he got close–he ended up third–because he believed in himself.  Closer to the education world, Greg Mortenson knew that tremendous odds were stacked against him, but he retained a sense of possibility that he could build schools in the most impoverished provinces of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Only this “we can” optimism will enable leaders to push through and do the right thing, even if they lack the political will that is often seen as necessary to get things done.

The opposite, pessimistic attitude—what Rhee dubs “frailty of belief”—is one that accepts, and almost welcomes, failure.  It is this mindset that deems it okay for students to graduate from high school reading on a 5th-grade level or “certain” students—read: “poor,” “black,” “inner-city”—to be written off as having innate deficiencies that prevent them from learning.  This pessimism is also what prevents us from doing what we desire because, in our heads, it tells us that if we take risks or make mistakes we are doomed.  This pessimism freezes our leaders into inaction and has them crying “It is a lost cause!” “There is no hope!” and “Let’s focus on something we can fix” instead.

In almost every sphere of society, we see this divide between the optimists and the pessimists.  In her piece, Rhee also refers to another hero of mine who lies clearly on one side of this split. Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs—whose End of Poverty boldly claims that the problem of poverty in the developing world can be solved, if only we would believe we could—is a bonafide optimist in the development economics world.  At the other end of the spectrum lies NYU economist Bill Easterly, whose scathing critiques (The White Man’s Burden being one of his more powerful) of the international aid system immediately create a mood of doom and gloom in the reader.  Easterly, genius though he is, is a pessimist.  When I see such a wide abyss between two reasonable and intelligent individuals studying the same problem, I am perplexed.


Rhee points out an unfortunate reality about the values our society adheres to: when you are a leader, it is much harder to be an optimist than a pessimist. But, I ask, “why?”


I don’t mean to say that holding fast to optimism is perfect.  Sometimes, optimism can be misplaced.   Reflecting on this past week of school-lessness, almost everyone can agree that DCPS’ initial decision, announced Sunday afternoon, to start school on Monday with a 2-hour delay was foolhardy.  Although Rhee made the decision shortly afterwards to cancel Monday’s classes (and, for that matter, the rest of the week!), commentators moved quickly to lambaste Rhee for her seemingly-ignorant decision.  It is true that optimism can sometimes transform into blindness to the realities of the world.

Yet, I can’t blame Rhee for holding true to her optimism.  In fact, I applaud her attempt.  Despite the fact that I personally longed for a snow day (this is the straight truth), I think it was right for DCPS to do everything it could to keep its schools open–even if that meant suffering the barrage of criticisms after it realized it couldn’t.  I believe the decision was borne out of the belief that keeping DC schools open was critical—educationally, politically and symbolically: educationally, because studies have shown that snow days do affect achievement; politically, because Rhee’s career is staked on making our schools work; and—most importantly—symbolically, because keeping our schools open sends a message that we can overcome any obstacles thrown our way, that we have the “courage [to change] a long-standing mindset that has excused us from holding high expectations” for everyone.

Steven Perlstein and I are on the same page when it comes to the symbolic value of the DCPS’ attempt to keep schools open as this comment shows:

Our snow blindness is a metaphor for the tyranny of diminished expectations that has taken hold in American politics and government. Anyone who tells you this is the way it has to be is either a liar or a coward, or suffers from a stunning lack of imagination. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee may have been foolishly optimistic in thinking they could get the District in shape to open for business earlier this week. But their determination to set higher standards for public services is a refreshing change from the elaborately rationalized defeatism of other local officials. (Emphasis mine.)


I’ve generally been a skeptic throughout my life.  I am not necessarily pessimistic, but I am always looking for explanations, especially for things that seem “too good to be true.”  I wonder why this is?  Why is it harder for me to accept evidence of success than failure?  I don’t think I’m unique.  I think our society breeds this type of mindset: we are tilted against success.

But teaching here in DC has shown me the power of optimism. Although there have been disappointments in my 6 months as a teacher, I have been amazed by the improbable progress of some of my students.  I don’t question these now.  I see that my students have achieved as a consequence of their hard work and, partially, my guidance.  There’s no “miracle.”  Under the right conditions, good things can happen anywhere.

There are so many problems in this world that could be solved if only we would collectively believe that we could solve them.  So, we can mount Pessimism and criticize, nitpick, and disbelieve our way through life (like this) OR we can take up the reins of our trusty steed, Optimism, pull out the lance and charge courageously ahead into the future, eager to confront whatever challenges and uncertainties it brings us.

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3 Responses

  1. MJL

    Thank you for bolding the thesis … English teacher creeping into everything you do…

    That’s like when I looked down at the tiles in my bathroom and was like, “OF COURSE they’re hexagons, they TESSELLATE, Mr. J-L!!”

    Then I threw up in the toilet.

    It was hemisphere shaped.


  2. Jessica

    I Rhee-lly enjoy reading your blog. :)

    I’m an incoming 2010 CM assigned to teach secondary English in the DC Region as well (PG County) so your blog has been a great resource for me. Thank you for sharing your experience with us and keep up the AWESOME work!

  3. If wishes could make things so, then world peace and an end to hunger would have been attained a long time ago.

    Blaming teachers for all of the problems facing the US – which is Rhee’s main contribution to the educational debate, regardless of what you might think – is a pretty nasty solution, and has been strikingly ineffective. As you might discover if you actually look at the facts discovered in my blog.

    If you look at the facts, you discover that a lot of what Michelle Rhee states isn’t true at all. If that’s nit-picking and being pessimistic, then tough. Facts are facts. Magical thinking doesn’t work in the real world. Only in Harry Potter or other fairy tales.

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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