Book Review

The Bee Eater

Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District

by Richard Whitmire, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, Calif., 2011, 296 pp. with index, $24.95 hardcover

 

Few school superintendents are the subjects of book-length biographies. Few superintendents appear on the cover of Time, broom in hand, portraying the classic clean-sweep image. Few superintendents have starred in a widely distributed documentary film (“Waiting for Superman”) or eaten a bee to capture the attention of a class of distracted students.

 

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Michelle Rhee, who landed the chancellorship of the District of Columbia at age 37 without any significant administrative experience, is the headliner of this work, whose subthemes address moving off dysfunctional status, union demands and contract negotiations, race and politics, and the news media.

Superintendents will appreciate The Bee Eater’s treatment of the dynamics of community opposition to the closing of 23 underutilized schools.

Author Richard Whitmire is well-qualified for this task as a longtime education journalist and past president of the Education Writers Association. His grasp of K-12 education’s dynamics is apparent, revealing a story line familiar to superintendents who are pushing for change in their schools.

Whitmire believes the Washington, D.C., school system is oriented toward the priorities of the adult workers rather the needs of the students. He shows how this is the case with union contracts and local politics.

At times, Whitmire seems to idealize the chancellor, though he is not reluctant to acknowledge her missteps during her brief tenure. The chapter “Rhee’s Critics Find a Winning Storyline” is most enlightening and, in itself, worth the price of the book. As a journalist, the author dissects the press coverage and pinpoints the turning points of the shift of the schools.

The “Lessons Learned” chapter summarizes what Rhee did right, the myths that grew up about her and her “actual shortcomings.”

The Bee Eater can be read on several levels. As a biography, it is mildly interesting. As a study of educational reform in a politically active urban community, it contains key insights. As a planner for superintendents to map strategy, there is more within these pages about what not to do if job security is a goal. As a public relations tool, Whitmire’s work describes fundamental concepts.

Reviewed by Arthur Stellar, Morganton, N.C.