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Why Rhee REALLY remains at the core of controversies (UPDATED)

April 5, 2011

Michelle Rhee biographer Richard Whitmire published an op-ed yesterday, claiming to explain why Rhee remains at the heart of controversies in education reform. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the awful state of education coverage in our mass media, Mr. Whitmire has missed the mark.

First, to clarify some of his “clarifications”—

  • On her record: Whitmire attempts to dismiss the current DC CAS scandal and its potential to blemish Rhee’s alleged success as Chancellor of the DC Public Schools by appealing to DC’s NAEP scores during the time when she ran the district. He says that between 2007 and 2009, the district made significant progress not seen in comparable urban districts. Two things need to be pointed out here. One, DCPS’ rate of progress under Rhee is no more impressive than the rate of progress observed under her predecessors. Two, and perhaps more importantly, it’s very difficult to attribute score gains (note that I did not say learning gains) to any single factor, like a superintendent’s leadership, etc. As Matthew DiCarlo noted a few days ago, when we compare these kinds of scores, we’re not comparing apples to apples. These are taken from different sets of students at different times, and it’s very difficult to discern what might be driving the score changes. It could be anything from changed teaching practices to shifts in the student population—we just don’t know yet.
  • On her un-verified Baltimore success story: Whitmire tries to disarm the study that shows the overall achievement of the student cohort she helped teach was not as high as one would expect given her claim to have moved students from the 13th percentile to the 90th. He says that because that study doesn’t isolate her particular class of students, it can’t be the sort of smoking gun (he thinks) her doubters seek. (He also cites interviews of her colleagues to back up her claims that she was a great teacher. I suppose we have to buy his book in order to judge this for ourselves; how convenient for him!) But the data present a compelling and forceful challenge to the claim that her class could have jumped that much, given the group’s overall performance—so much so that she eventually walked back her story). And the bigger issue raised by this episode is the fact that no one attempted to fact-check Rhee’s claims before vaulting her into a position (both as schools’ chancellor and national school reform “Warrior Woman”) her limited track record probably doesn’t justify.
  • On whether or not she’s a failure: Whitmire claims that when Rhee arrived, DC schools were the worst in the nation (tied with Los Angeles), and that “only a third of the teachers had the right stuff to stage a recovery” (whatever the “right stuff” is—not that he offers any evidence to support this odd claim, anyway). That DC schools “no longer scrape the bottom of the barrel” is offered as some kind of justification for her “traumatic and unpopular” reforms. However, as was pointed out earlier, district gains under Rhee aren’t distinct from the gains observed under the previous two administrations—which, again, we should be extremely cautious about attributing to any single factor or individual.

But, on to the more troubling aspects of this piece.

First, there is Whitmire’s casual treatment of the DC parents and community members who rejected former mayor Adrian Fenty as a means of rejecting Rhee. I doubt he—or anyone—would be so tolerant of such dismissive, disrespectful behavior if a White middle- or upper-class school district were the target. I find it hard to convey in words just how offensive it is when people suggest that it’s OK to bully and belittle schools and communities that are already struggling “if it gets results.” (Even more so when the results are on such a limited measure—standardized tests—and scores only budge from “low” to “not-as-low”.) If these kids’ own parents are protesting what’s happening in these schools, the respectful and logical thing to do is to ask why, and listen to the answer.

Then there’s his claim that Rhee’s reforms in DC focused on teacher quality, and that this is what has angered “counter-reformers” (WTF?) and endeared her to “reformers” (a group that, according to Whitmire’s offensive, over-simplified analysis of who’s on which side of the education debate, doesn’t include “most” teachers—a group that he also considers distinct from the “some young public school teachers” he describes on the other side).

All that aside, the reforms for which Rhee is famous don’t focus on teacher quality. If they did, she would be advocating for creating the kind of world-class teaching profession we see in places like Finland. In these places, the bar for entry into the teaching profession is considerably higher, and teachers do a great deal of professional learning and apprenticing before being licensed. All aspects of the teaching and learning system– from teacher training, to curriculum development, to ongoing professional learning, to educational leadership and so on– are informed, defined, and led primarily by professional educators themselves, not political and economic elites outside of the profession. Places that take teacher quality seriously are places where teachers must prove themselves before they assume responsibility for a classroom, where they are trusted to use their own professional judgment once given that responsibility, and where the rest of the community takes great pains to ensure stability within and support around the teaching profession.

By contrast, Rhee’s style of reform is less a teacher quality strategy than a teacher disempowerment strategy. This “reform” model does little to actually improve teachers’ skills or knowledge. Instead, she advocates for tying teacher pay and employment to student test scores, and for making it easier to get rid of teachers. (I’ve always found it deeply ironic that, for someone who claims to want to put students first, she actively advocates for a system that increasingly makes it easier to wait until after teachers have already been put in charge of a classroom to evaluate them and decide if they’re good enough to be there!) The evidence base for such action is flimsy at best—“merit” pay schemes consistently fail, and value-added calculations for individual teachers are inconsistent and frequently inaccurate.

Whether it’s her intention or not, Rhee has become the poster-girl for a set of reforms that have never created a strong teaching force anywhere, but have created a lot of ill-will and disruption (two terms missing from most descriptions of healthy, productive school systems). People do not oppose Rhee because she “goes after bad teachers,” and it’s high time people stopped making such a ridiculous claim.

Rather, many people dislike her because we don’t trust her. She has a pretty casual relationship with the truth, where her own record is concerned. Moreover, she’s a bully— someone who is mean and disrespectful to those with less power– in her defense of disruptive, unproven-to-ineffective “reforms.” Any of these offenses alone would be bad enough. Taken together, they’re intolerable.

THAT, Mr. Whitmire, is why she attracts controversy– and why it’s satisfying to occasionally poke fun at her. Parents, teachers, and students in struggling schools have enough weighing on our hearts, without more people like this beating us down instead of lifting us up.

UPDATE: I recommend reading Diane Ravitch’s review of The Bee Eater in the Washington Post.

The most chilling episode in Richard Whitmire’s biography of Michelle Rhee occurs near the end, when Rhee says to a PBS camera crew, “I’m going to fire somebody in a little while. Do you want to see that?” Of course they did, and they taped the chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools firing a principal. The victim’s face was not shown, but the episode revealed a woman who relishes humiliating those who have the misfortune to work for her.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Jan Parker permalink
    April 5, 2011 7:57 am

    So glad I found this blog. As a 26 year teaching vet, it’s getting pretty tough out here and it’s nice to read something about educational reform that actually resembles sanity. I’ve put you in my RSS feed and I eagerly await the next post. 🙂

  2. April 6, 2011 12:12 pm

    Nice work. And thanks for taking this discussion deep–it’s not about “data analysis” or rookie mistakes, it’s about much larger and more pivotal issues: equitable learning for kids who aren’t getting it right now, and what it will take to build awareness of the root causes of systemic failure.

    Personally, I think the strong defenses of Michelle Rhee now bubbling up are gender-related, and borderline patronizing.

    • April 6, 2011 12:59 pm

      Exactly. Her accomplishments are largely theatrical, which is distracting people from the real issues and making it harder to build the kind of meaningful systemic change that will help struggling students overcome.
      And if she thinks she’s getting a raw deal from her detractors, she should stand up for herself– and address the issues (hopefully, sparing us the now-standard “You must support the status quo!” straw man defense). Though I think Whitmire is even more interested in selling his book than defending her.

      Another thing that a commenter over at the Washington Teacher noted (
      Why DIDN’T she take the possibility of test tampering more seriously?? In addition to the possibility that bonuses were paid to people who may not have “earned” them (not that VAM/test score growth is a fully accurate assessment of teacher and principal effort, anyway…), if some schools artificially inflated their scores, then that necessarily means that other schools’ growth was artificially depressed. That means that some teachers and principals may have lost their jobs or been put on probation (under IMPACT) for the offense of being HONEST in their administration of the tests.

      Accountability, indeed.

  3. Dan Middleman, M. Ed. permalink
    April 6, 2011 5:07 pm

    Thank you sooo much for your website. I am a 15 year teacher and testing coordinator at my charter school in NC. So I understand better than most the limits of Standardized Tests. I’m all for elimination of tenure but I hate teacher bashing — which is what’s going on. We need to keep up the pressure by using the very data they claim to cite and not stop until they are discredited.

    • April 7, 2011 6:54 am

      Why don’t we all just say that we’re interested in the elimination of weak teaching? Why do we go after due process?

      In my public school system, in a strong-union state, weak teachers were weeded out in the first four years, before they gained tenure, something that couldn’t happen until year five under state law. It was painful sometimes–but most of them were correctly identified in the first year or two, and counseled into a new profession. No favorable recommendations for other teaching jobs, either. That’s what a good tenure plan does.

      If a teacher is not performing adequately after gaining tenure, it’s the school leaders’ job to either fix the problem or collect current evidence to remove the teacher. Tenure is modeled after our own justice system–you get due process. Why do people blame tenure procedures for the failure of human beings to do the right thing? Nobody–nobody!— wants or accepts weak teaching. The question is how to get that teacher out of there quickly, and with dignity.

  4. April 7, 2011 7:40 am

    WOW! I thought Ms. Rhee is interested in helping our children. Thanks for the heads up! From our 21-year experience in addressing why low-income students are failing. Teachers results are not the cause, just the affect of a population, that has lost interest in school and see no connection between school and their future life.

  5. April 10, 2011 9:16 am

    Well, it’s good to know that Rhee’s public bubble has begun to burst and that those who continue to defend her are proving indefensible themselves. A little relief for the cause of sanity in public education.


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