There are perhaps no better exemplars of the products of our current meritocratic system than three of the most important recent figures in the education reform movement: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “Common Core architect” David Coleman, and one-time chancellor of the Washington D.C. schools, Michelle Rhee.
They are also all near-perfect examples of what William Deresiewicz labels as “excellent sheep,” in his new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite.
According to Deresiewicz, one of the chief problems with this miseducation is in these so-called “elite” individuals mistaking “being in charge” with “being a leader.”
In my review/response to Deresiewicz’s book I argued that these people are especially important because the rest of us are subject to their rule, as they find themselves so often at the intersections of money, politics, and power.
These “excellent sheep” are also the products of persistent myths which they appear to have swallowed whole, but which the rest of us would do well to reject.
In a series of posts, I mean to explore the origin stories and mindsets of these “excellent sheep” and seek to demonstrate how and why these people in charge seem to perform so poorly in positions of leadership.
I’ll start with Michelle Rhee.
While Rhee, Duncan, and Coleman are a generation ahead of the students Deresiewicz discusses in his book, they share the same discernible pattern of educational advancement as the present day “excellent sheep”: professional parents, attendance at elite secondary schools, exposure to less privileged communities via community service, and then the Ivy League, before embarking on a postgraduate opportunity that also involves “meritocratic” selection/validation.
Rhee grew up in Toledo, her father a doctor, her mother the owner of a clothing store. She attended Maumee Valley Country Day School for high school, and volunteered at an American Indian Reservation.
Graduating from Cornell (’92 Government), Rhee chose Teach for America, then in only its second year, and was placed in the Baltimore school district. Immediately post college, we appear to have a young, driven, well-educated, apparently idealistic person ready to change the world through a life of service to others.
But that doesn’t appear to be enough.
At the start of her tenure as chancellor of the D.C. schools, Rhee is portrayed in a 2007 Washingtonian magazine profile by Harry Jaffe as the tough-as-nails reformer, siding with students and parents against an entrenched bureaucracy and substandard teachers. She has apparently been shaped by her struggles in her first Teach for America year, after which she knuckled down, driving herself and her students to work harder, assigning “two hours of homework a night,” which was “time better spent than hanging out, playing video games, or watching television.”
One of the common traits of the “excellent sheep” leader is an assumption that their values are universal, in this case, doing school work being a superior choice to leisure, probably because school work has been the main feature of the “excellent sheep” life since forever. This superhuman work ethic, where no price is too high for “results,” was likely a very comfortable spot for Rhee, provided that the results of that work are tangible and external, something for the scoreboard.
In Rhee’s case, her students test scores “jumped,” apparent proof that a dedicated teacher could make a difference. “We worked longer and harder than everyone else,” she declared.
She also told, Jaffe, “You can say what you want about the home environment. The bottom line is that I know success stories where parents didn’t change, home life didn’t change, tough-streets life didn’t change. What changed was the adult in front of them every day in the classroom.”
Earlier in the piece when asked how she would help the young hard cases already incarcerated at the Oak Hill Youth Center, she says, “I would teach them life skills so they don’t get into that situation.”
Hindsight may call this naïveté on Rhee’s part, but I believe it’s more a consequence of having been steeped in the elite meritocracy, where “hard work” is the solution to any problem. In a culture where all obstacles are scalable, the only limiting factor is the amount of effort you put into the climb. Rhee looked at exceptions – the success stories – and thought she could make them the rule.
And when “excellent sheep” like Rhee are rewarded with success every step of the way, it’s hard not to believe that this should be true for everybody. One gets the feeling that Michelle Rhee believes (or at least believed) that what every student needs is a Michelle Rhee in the classroom.
But this belief is built on several myths.
The most important and most damaging myth, which is often articulated by the most prominent education reformers of recent vintage, including President Obama, is found in a 2010 “manifesto” co-signed by 16 superintendents and chancellors of some of the largest public systems in the country, including Michelle Rhee, “The single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income -- it is the quality of their teacher.”
The dducator and professor Paul Thomas calls this notion of “education as the great equalizer” a “deforming myth,” a commitment to a belief that we would like to be true, but that has no basis in reality. As has been well-documented by many (and cataloged by Thomas) “in the U.S. both poverty and affluence are destiny.”
Rhee and her fellow reformers deform the myth even further by putting the weight of student achievement fully on the backs of teachers, a stance which has begotten the last 30 years of educational reform status quo.
The elite, putatively liberal meritocratic Ivy League system, in which Rhee was well-steeped, depends on believing these myths, otherwise they are perpetuating a hypocrisy.
What good is having succeeded in a culture that you were destined to top anyway? If hard work by itself isn’t the determining factor, what does that say about their decision to work so hard?
Interestingly, Rhee was also operating on a smaller myth, one her elite education likely made her susceptible to believing, the notion that as a teacher, she drove her students to amazing gains. Rhee once claimed that 90 percent of her students reached the 90th percentile on standardized tests, a belief she claims comes from her principal, and even trumpeted on her resume, but which turns out to be entirely untrue. If her students’ scores went up, it wasn’t by much.
Rhee’s time in charge demonstrated several other common traits of the “excellent sheep,” one of which seems to be lack of empathy for those they judge not up to snuff, once even firing the principal of a school Rhee’s metrics had judged as failing on camera, a move that I imagine Rhee felt broadcast her toughness and resolve, but looks to me like a stunning act of cruelty.
This lack of empathy is additionally manifested and complicated by a persistent Us v. Them mentality where anyone that stands in the way of “necessary” change is siding for the status quo and against the interests of students. Those who are not on board are invariably portrayed as lazy, not smart enough, or uninformed. By definition, the opposition cannot be well-intentioned.
Supremely self-confident and validated by the system, the “excellent sheep” feels comfortable cloaking herself in self-righteousness, a stance Rhee maintained long after her tenure in D.C. ended so ignominiously in the midst of a cheating scandal that Rhee either covered up, or turned a blind eye to.
Rhee even titled her biography Radical: Fighting to Put Students First in the Classroom, and told George Stephanopoulos, “Finally, I came to the conclusion that if bringing some commonsense solutions to a dysfunctional system makes me a radical, then so be it.”
In the mind of an “excellent sheep,” even abject failure can be spun as success because success is all she’s known.
Rhee’s enemies invariably stood in the way of “progress,” progress which could only be defined and managed by Rhee herself. The circle is complete.
In hindsight, Rhee’s post D.C. career makes her look as much like a grifter as a dogooder, She started her own lobbying organization, StudentsFirst, which has been dedicated to abolishing teacher tenure and paid her ten times the starting salary of a D.C. schoolteacher.
But even this has proved to be a problematic, as she has recently stepped down from (or was forced out of) StudentsFirst, and became board chairwoman of St. Hope Public Schools, a nonprofit organization started by her husband Kevin Johnson, current mayor of Sacramento, and former NBA star.
In his book, Deresiewicz counsels the candidates for excellent sheepdom to turn their backs on the system because they are consigning themselves to lives filled with empty accolades, largely devoid of deep and lasting passions.
Michelle Rhee rose to the top of the system by her 37th birthday, and was spit out shy of her 45th. Only she can tell us if it was worth it.
Once well-positioned to be a “leader,” Rhee is an object lesson as to what happens when an “excellent sheep” is put “in charge.”
On Twitter, at some point, we're all sheep.
 I don’t mean to imply that hard work isn’t a good thing, it is. It just isn’t sufficient in many many cases. Believing it is causes great hardship.
 The irony is that we’ve been subjected to nearly 30 years of the status quo of “failing schools” based reform that Rhee and others embrace.
 This is a pattern that repeats when we look at David Coleman and Arne Duncan’s responses to criticisms of the Common Core State Standards.