On Wednesday evening I attended an event at the Free Library of Philadelphia to listen to Michelle Rhee speak about her new book, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First.  Full disclosure that I knew walking into the event that I disagreed with the most of what she champions in the name of education reform.  During her tenure as the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools from 2007 to 2010, I was teaching in Philadelphia. The stories of her strategies for improving the schools were commonly finding their way north to the papers and blogs in Philly.  When I realized that I had the opportunity to hear her speak, I opted to do so.

So, on Wednesday night I found myself walking into the auditorium of the Free Library with two other lovely teachers (Larissa Pahomov and Meenoo Rami), which I have done on so many occasions. One thing that was different this time, though, was that the greeters were handing out index cards in order to collect questions ahead of time.

Pardon?

As I walked to my seat, I processed what was occurring… Rhee’s visit at the Library was contingent on her screening questions.  In that very same auditorium I had seen Colin Powell and Madeline Albright take questions from the crowd and answer with grace and dignity.  These former Secretaries of State served during major wars, botched intelligence incidents and scandals.  They took questions from the crowd.  Down at the National Constitution Center, I saw Donald Rumsfeld, one of the most polarizing figures from the Bush administration, do the same, accept questions cold from the crowd and answer with poise and clarity.  Rhee needed screening. *sigh*

Two things.

  1. I am incredibly disappointed that the Free Library agreed to these parameters for Rhee’s speaking engagement.
  2. Rhee need be ashamed.  For the past 4 years, I have known the Free Library Author Events as a place for the exchange of ideas on timely topics with authors.  This was more advertisement than a thoughtful exchange of ideas on Rhee’s career in educational reform.

When one chooses to place a ‘radical’ set of ideas out into the public sphere to alter the function of a major societal system like schools, one need be prepared to engage thoughtfully in conversation with those that disagree with those ideas.  To do otherwise is a sad commentary on book sales and public persona ‘handling’.  I am glad I went, but could not be more disappointed in the manner with which the audience was kept at bay during the hour long exchange.