West Texas educator set for Harvard program

Educational consultant Michelle Rinehart is about to take on the challenge of a doctor of education leadership program at Harvard University that she hopes she can take back to her corner of West Texas to help transform schools here.

Rinehart, an education consultant for Region 18 Education Service Center specializing in mathematics, is stationed at the Fort Davis office of the agency.

“I am proud for Ms. Rinehart regarding her admission to the three-year doctoral program at Harvard. We think this is a wonderful opportunity for Michelle. We wish her well in her studies and all (her) future endeavors,” Region 18 Executive Director DeWitt Smith said in an email.

Born and raised outside of London, Ontario, Canada, Rinehart has been in Texas for 13 years. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics and put in an extra year at Teachers College in Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Rinehart earned a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Texas A&M University. She’s planning to move her family — and herself — to Cambridge in August for the three-year program.

She was interested in something like a Rhodes Scholar program, or a next-step leadership program within education, so she conducted some different searches to see what might be possible.

Harvard’s program appealed to her because it looks at educational leadership in a completely different way.

It’s specifically looking at creating transformative system-level leaders for kindergarten through 12th-grade schools in the United States, Rinehart said.

“So one of the things they talk about is instead of really creating the leaders who are going to go back and lead our current systems, how can we create the leaders that are going to go back and actually change those systems and figure out what are the things that are keeping our schools and our teachers and our students from being successful and then work to obliterate and rewrite those inequities,” Rinehart said.

“That’s a big ask, right? But I feel like of all the places to go learn to do that work, I feel like Harvard’s uniquely positioned to really be able to turn out those kind of leaders,” Rinehart added.

As people have accepted their acceptances to the selective program, Rinehart said they can choose to share. Her understanding was that there are two others from Texas in her cohort.

Rinehart began her education career 13 years ago, teaching high school math and science in Fort Davis and Rankin. She has been with Region 18 for seven years.

With the small schools, she said, you’re often the entire department. Most of her teaching was for grades 10 through 12 and there were 60 to 90 students in the high schools.

“In a small district, you would teach all the things so you’d be preparing to teach six or seven courses a day whereas teachers in bigger districts would teach one thing six or seven times …,” Rinehart said.

A big challenge will be how to make systematic change in an area where every school district is its own unique entity and there are so many remote, individual pieces.

“One of the things I think about, and I’m interested in learning more (about) at Harvard, is how are these policies that are coming out of Austin and coming out of Washington are often … written with an urban-centered bias. They’re thinking about big schools that have all these personnel at central office to actually do the work of implementing these policies,” she said.

“Well how to do those policies, though well intentioned, like they’re good ideas they’re meant to benefit kids, how do they actually negatively affect small districts that don’t have the personnel to implement them and yet (they) are still held to those same levels of compliance or whatnot. So I’m really interested in thinking about how do we get more rural representation in these places that are making these decisions and/or how do we decide what policies, well-intentioned or not, should even apply to rural schools because they don’t have the personnel to do that work on top of everything else they’re trying to do,” Rinehart added.

One of her goals also is to change the perception of teaching. Rinehart said she feels teaching as a profession is not thought of like law or medicine.

“… There’s things that we’ve done as a group that have undermined teaching as a profession. And so that’s one that I’m interested in because I feel like when we re-professionalize teaching, then it becomes a more attractive profession and we wouldn’t be in some of these places we’re in right now (with) teacher shortages and also undervaluing teachers’ voices and teachers’ expertise, so I feel like there’s a lot we can do in that space,” Rinehart said. 

Some of the current rhetoric, she said, is that if teachers could be made to try harder or care more, that would fix education.

“If you know any teachers, you know they couldn’t possibly try harder or … spend more of their time, or their money. That’s not what’s wrong in our system. There are other factors that are really inhibiting them from being successful and kids from being successful that go beyond effort. So it’s really trying to unroot what are those underlying factors and what can we do about it,” Rinehart said.

Another focus for Rinehart is going to be thinking about the ways that young men and students of color experience education in “fundamentally different ways in many of these rural communities.”

“So looking at things like our schools have been desegregated for decades and yet our honors tracks are still segregated by race. So what are we doing about that? Are we talking about that? What are the different factors that have led to that and how do we rewrite that for students of color?” she said.

“Or, I’ve seen in some of the schools that I’ve taught in, our young women don’t have the same opportunities as our young men do and so what are we doing about that? How are we talking about that? Are we unearthing the factors that are leading to that so that all students regardless of zip code, regardless of race, regardless of gender, can have the same opportunities,” Rinehart added.

There are other barriers keeping students from stepping into those opportunities, she said.

“We think these opportunities are available to all, but in what ways have we sent implicit and explicit messages about who these opportunities are really for, or how do our expectations of what groups is capable of, what of what levels of success? How do those become self-fulfilling, so I’m also really interested in that work,” Rinehart said.

“A lot of this is unconscious bias. We don’t even know that we’re doing those things and so I really feel like Harvard’s a national leader in that kind of work, as well. If we really want to transform our system, we have to look at our own beliefs and the ways that our beliefs might be perpetuating some of these inequities even though we don’t want them to,” she added.

Rinehart said she and her husband plan to keep their home in Fort Davis, but she doesn’t know what her position post-Harvard will look like or what organization she’ll end up with.

“But I want to be doing the work of transforming West Texas, the schools from within rural West Texas, so I also feel like going to Harvard will connect me with other opportunities that I may not even know about right now. But it also allow me to create a new opportunity that might not exist for doing this kind of transformative work across rural communities,” she said.

“Our heart is here and this is our goal to come back and bring what we learned at Harvard to transform education here. I have no idea what title, or what role that will be but that’s my goal. In so many ways, I’m a product of these districts. I’m a product of teaching in these schools. I’m a product of serving in the service center, so I bring that expertise with me to Harvard and I really want it to be this reciprocal relationship of I’m representing them at Harvard, but also bringing that knowledge and expertise back for us to the difficult work here of trying to transform our practice,” Rinehart added. 

This will be the 10th cohort of this program of 25 people. Within a week of being accepted to the program, she said she was put into different online networks with her cohort members.

“That’s another really incredible part of this work is that you’re connected with all kinds of other leaders trying to do similar work across the United States, but also in other contexts so I’ve also met people across the U.S. who are interested in rural or also interested in mathematics transformation and similar topics that I’m interested in,” Rinehart said.