Is Michelle Rhee a 16th Century Throwback?

With the dread high-stakes No Child Left Behind reading and math tests looming, public schools across the country are in lock-down mode. School administrators fear being consigned to the hellish status of a school "in need of improvement" under the No Child Left Behind Act. That's why so many schools have morphed into skill-and-drill factories where fun comes to die.

No one better exemplifies this mentality than Michelle Rhee, the ballyhooed ex-chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools. "No excuses" is Rhee's watchword: There's no reason why inner city kids can't make it academically, she insists; all it takes are good teachers and administrators, and those whose students don't show big gains should be cashiered. Rhee was ruthless -- she fired a principal while the "Waiting for Superman" cameras were rolling -- and her tactics seemed to work, as test scores rose dramatically.

Was it a sham?

An article in USA Today reveals that at least some of this reported improvement may have been illusory. Fraud is the most likely explanation for the spectacular test score gains recorded at one D.C. public school, serving preschoolers through eighth graders, that Rhee praised as a "shining star," where the percentage of academically "proficient" students soared from 10 to 58 percent in two years. The parents weren't buying it -- they complained that their "proficient" students still couldn't do basic math -- but a publicity-hungry administration didn't want to confuse a good story-line with the facts.

Live by the test, die by the test. In New York City, Chancellor Joel Klein pushed the "no excuses" line, adopting a hard line toward teachers who didn't work small miracles. His 2010 departure was doubtlessly hastened by revelations that the huge achievement gains recorded during his tenure were largely due not to real progress but to the state's dumbing down the exam.

Rhee, Klein and their allies, who currently ride high in education, insist that reading and math achievement scores are the single yardstick of success or failure. To emphasize anything other than literacy and numeracy promotes "the culture of excuse," Klein insists in a U.S. News and World Report column, the contention that "schools cannot really be held accountable for student achievement because disadvantaged students bear multiple burdens of poverty. No single impediment to closing the nation's achievement gap -- not broken neighborhoods, family stress, health or anything else -- "looms larger than the culture of excuse."

Klein mocks "the favored solution du jour ... reducing the handicap of being poor by establishing full service health clinics at schools ... expanding preschool programs, and offering after-school services." Rhee has been similarly cavalier about efforts outside the classroom to change the arc of children's lives.

This faith that teachers and principals should be expected to do it alone has become the conventional wisdom; it underlies the current spate of teacher-bashing. But as I demonstrate in Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives and America's Future, that faith is misplaced.

Consider health clinics at schools, derided by the "no excuses" crowd. More than half of all poor children have uncorrected vision problems. A third of inner-city youngsters have untreated dental problems, which cause them to miss an estimated 51 million school hours, and a similar percentage have untreated asthma. It's only logical that a student who can't read the blackboard, is in constant pain and is having a hard time breathing will do badly in school, and research confirms the obvious. (Research on juvenile offenders shows that they are disproportionately likely to have vision problems. Is it any wonder that they'd be most likely to be turned off by education?) It's a lot easier to address those problems at school than to expect parents to find help on their own.

The after-school and summer programs that the "no excuses" contingent dismisses also have a demonstrable impact on achievement. Indeed, the amount of time youngsters spend hanging out on street corners with their friends after school is actually a better predictor of failing in school than family income or race. Art, music, history and science -- all the subjects that have been pushed to the margins -- also affect educational success. (In New York City, just one-eighth of all eighth graders recently tested "proficient" in science. Small wonder: the subject was largely untaught.) And while poor children have been shown keep up with their middle-class peers academically during the school year, they fall behind in the summer. Left to their own devices, they aren't getting the brain food they need to advance.

In deriding anything that doesn't directly relate to reading or math, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein are the unwitting heirs of Rene Descartes. That 16th century French philosopher asserted that the mind and body, the "thinking machine" and the "doing machine," occupy separate spheres, a belief now called "mind-body dualism." This belief has long been consigned to the dust-bin of history, rejected by philosophers and scientists alike, though the "no excuses" gang doesn't seem to have gotten the message. Maybe Michelle Rhee's fiasco and Joel Klein's fall from grace will change a few minds.