It would be tough to find a more polarizing figure in the education reform debate than Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, who is the focus of a new Frontline documentary debuting Tuesday on PBS.
"The Education of Michelle Rhee" represents a five-year effort by veteran education journalist John Merrow (Newshour, Learning Matters) to understand the impact of Rhee’s tumultuous tenure in D.C. He also sheds new light on allegations that dramatic surges in student test scores were the result of adult manipulation of the answer sheets, rather than genuine learning gains.
The big news out of the Frontline documentary is an allegation by a former D.C. principal that she witnessed (and reported) teachers changing answer sheets – erasure anomalies being a major focus of USA Today’s investigation – and that no one in the central office took action. (As the Washington Examiner notes, the cheating allegations remain unresolved.)
From the Frontline transcript, as posted by the Washington Post:
“One staff member said to me, in a lighthearted sort of way, ‘Oh, principal, I can’t believe this kid drew a spider on the test and I have to erase it,’ ” former principal Adell Cothorne told filmmakers, offering the first such direct testimony about potential tampering with answer sheets in D.C. schools.
Esquire magazine pulls no punches, calling Rhee one of the “hustlers” who has the ear of the Obama administration:
“Rhee's entire (and very lucrative) career as a proponent of educational ‘reform’ is based on her time as chancellor of the public schools in Washington, D.C. Between 2007 and 2010, she did everything that sends a thrill up the leg of the "reform" community. She bashed teachers, scapegoated principals, and shined up her own armor for public consumption every chance she got. She also instituted a system of standardized testing by which Michelle Rhee would be able to judge the awesome awesomeness of Michelle Rhee.”
After leaving D.C. Rhee founded StudentsFirst, an education-reform advocacy organization with a national scope. StudentsFirst has a new report ranking states based on how closely they hew to the group’s agenda, which includes a push toward basing teacher evaluations on student test scores, promoting pay for performance models, and expanding charter school opportunities. As the New York Times reports:
“With no states receiving an A, two states receiving B-minuses and 11 states branded with an F, StudentsFirst would seem to be building a reputation as a harsh grader.”
Michelle Rhee spoke with MSNBC host Joe Scarborough about the new report, saying
“There’s no shortage of great educators out there ... we know every kid can learn regardless of the obstacles they face if they’re in a good school environment … the bottom line is that they’re forced to operate in this incredibly bureaucratic environment that’s driven by these antiquated laws and policies.”
On a related note, veteran Washington Post reporter Bill Turque has a critique of Rhee’s new memoir, saying what’s of particular interest is what’s not in the book:
Gone are some of the signature stories that were challenged as misleading or untrue, such as the claim that her students at Baltimore’s Harlem Park Elementary moved from the 13th to 90th percentile on standardized tests over a two-year period–an assertion she attributed to her principal.
However, Turque says Rhee does display “new notes of humility,” suggesting a “radical humbled by realism.”
And here are some articles that came out in the aftermath of the StudentsFirst report. The Huffington Post learns that unions responded negatively to the group's findings.
A Slate blogger argues StudentsFirst is betting policymakers will respond more favorably to policy than outcomes with its new report.
And The Hechinger Report notes at least one labor group argued while other state ranking reports (like those from Education Week) are closely correlated with NAEP scores, that is not the case with the StudentsFirst report.
Photo Source: Flickr/Angela N
After watching the documentary last night, I feel it marks a moment in the school reform saga. Michelle Rhee has become the quasi-apotheosis of the no-excuses, hold-the-adults-accountable reform movement. Now, it's certainly possible to see her as hoist on her own test-focused petard. After all, her narratives of formational triumph as a TFAer in Baltimore and as a take-no-prisoners schools chief in the nation's capital are both being undermined by a single question: Were the gains too good to be true?
This story may put wind in the sails of those who believe that an overemphasis on standardized test scores represents the wrong road forward. But that begs the question: If test scores are displaced as the coin of the realm, what replaces them? Scores on tests that actually measure the vastly different skills we need 21st-century kids to possess? Maybe, but what happens in the meantime to the kids who can't wait for schools to catch up to the times?
The documentary made me think about Arthur Levine's trenchant point during an EWA seminar on teacher preparation this fall. He told reporters that education is undergoing a profound paradigm shift from a focus on teaching (inputs) to a focus on learning (outcomes). It's not surprising, he said, that the field hasn't yet figured out how to measure success under this new paradigm. Michelle Rhee's tumultuous tenure in D.C. illustrates just how wrenching this transition to a new paradigm can be.
For anyone who is interested, here is the complaint by former Noyes Education Campus principal Adell Cothorne. The Frontline piece featured her charges about cheating at the school. The Washington Post alsopublished an interview with D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, dismissing the allegations.
And here's Jay Mathews of the Washington Post's interview with Adell Cothorne.
The conversation about Rhee continues in today's Washington Post with pieces by two EWA members: a front-page piece by education reporter Lyndsey Layton (Michelle Rhee, the education celebrity who rocketed from obscurity ...) and a commentary by Rhee biographer Richard Whitmire (Rhee had her flaws, but she wasn't a cheater).
Lyndsey's piece traces what Rhee's been up for the past two years, since her former boss D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his reelection bid and she launched her own advocacy group StudentsFirst as a political counterweight to the nation's teachers unions. I found the discussion of the group's fundraising status and political positioning particularly interesting. Definitely worth a read.
The peg for Richard's piece, like Lyndsey's, was EWA member John Merrow's Frontline documentary, in which Richard was featured on several occasions. His bottom line: "There are plenty of reasons to judge [Rhee] harshly for her time in the District, but cheating doesn't even make the top 10."
To make his point, Richard draws an analogy to a newsroom scenario:
"[W]as holding teachers accountable for their students’ education (which, as the theory goes, encouraged cheating) one of her mistakes? To weigh that question, let’s translate this into a journalistic equivalent. Imagine an aggressive editor launching a new magazine. The editor relentlessly presses her young writers to produce unique articles on a crazy-fast deadline. One day, a writer gets exposed for taking a shortcut via plagiarism. Who’s at fault, the cheating writer or the aggressive editor?
In the real world, the writer gets blamed. It’s insulting to teachers to suggest that a whiff of accountability turns them into cheaters."