Down through all these glorious years, has Michelle Rhee been making accurate claims about her brilliant teaching career?
Rhee became chancellor of the DC public schools in June 2007. Late last year, she left this post. But she remains a darling of the elites who favor a type of “education reform.” Rhee “is only 41, with plenty of energy and ambition,” Jay Mathews writes in this recent post. “Few others are likely to have as much influence over where our public schools go from here.”
We would assume that Jay is right. That makes her story significant.
Rhee’s career, and her ongoing ministry, have been built around a sacred story—a story of the vast success she says she achieved as a Baltimore teacher in the mid-1990s. But has she been making accurate claims about her brilliant career? This question returned with a vengeance last week, eventually reaching the front page of the Washington Post’s Metro section. (“Scrutiny of Rhee is renewed.” Just click here.) The discussion was built around new information which has been gleaned from an old study—a study which appeared in 1995, a study which was reviewed and ignored by Washington’s journalistic organs back in 2007.
So how about it? Based upon the things we now know, has Rhee been making accurate claims about her own brilliant career? In one major way, it doesn’t much matter. But if you care about educational policy, the truth of this matter is highly important.
The same is true of you want to understand the way powerful elites—including powerful journalistic elites—make a sick joke of your lives. If you want to understand the level of disregard these organs bring to their coverage of the interests of America’s low-income children
Let’s start with Michelle Rhee’s sacred story—the story which was widely recited when she arrived in Washington.
In June 2007, mayor-elect Adrian Fenty nominated Rhee to run the DC public schools. (Due to her youth and her lack of conventional experience, this was regarded as an unusual choice.) Late that month, the Washington Post’s Nikita Stewart described Rhee’s long-standing sacred story, while noting her inability to document her claims. Stewart’s report appeared on page two of the Post’s Metro section. Stewart described a problem the Washington Times had been reporting for the previous two days:
STEWART (6/30/07): The D.C. Council will question acting D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee next week about claims in her résumé that she improved students' test scores when she taught in Baltimore a decade ago, council members said yesterday.
Although Rhee acknowledges that she has no documentation to prove the dramatic changes, three educators who worked closest with her at a Baltimore elementary school support her position that her students experienced big increases in standardized test scores.
Rhee's résumé asserts that the students made a dramatic gain: "Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher."
"When people say, ‘Do you have documentation?’, I've been saying no," Rhee said yesterday. "I think this is an important thing going forward for teachers to have documents to say, 'This is what the data look like.' My lesson is: How do we set up a system so teachers can have this kind of information on their students?"Remarkable! For years, Rhee had been climbing the corporate-supported ladder in Manhattan, in part on the strength of a pleasing story about her own brilliant career. According to Rhee’s self-glorying tale, she had produced amazing academic gains among a group of low-income black kids in Baltimore—academic gains which she had described in highly precise detail.
For three years in the mid-1990s, Rhee had been a classroom teacher at Baltimore’s Harlem Park Elementary, one of the poorest, lowest-scoring schools in the Baltimore public school system. But if you were willing to believe Michelle Rhee, Michelle Rhee had slain a passel of educational dragons while at Harlem Park. Later in his report, Stewart filled in the basic details about Rhee’s short, but brilliant, teaching career. What follows is the sacred story which has defined Rhee’s career—and the very aggressive “reform” ministry which she continues to push:
STEWART: From 1992 to 1995, Rhee taught at Baltimore's Harlem Park Elementary, one of the worst-performing schools in the city and among nine schools run by a private company, Education Alternatives. During her first year there, she taught second grade. In her final two years there, she received approval to teach the same group of students in second and third grades.
In an interview, Rhee said the improved scores were seen in a comparison of results on the California Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, which students took at the end of first grade before she had them and at the end of third grade. She could not produce data to support the statement.
Harlem Park's school-level standardized test scores, although not proving or disproving Rhee's assertions, show significant gains collectively among all three second-grade classes in 1993-94 and the three third-grade classes in 1994-95, the years she taught those grades. Three people who worked closely with her at the school and a student say the scores rose in the range Rhee suggested.Rhee taught second grade in her first year, the 1992-1993 school year. In the fall of 1993, she began teaching a new group of second graders—a group she would teach for the next two years, in their second and third grade years. It was with this group that Rhee has said that she performed her educational miracle. On average, these children tested at the thirteenth percentile when they finished their first grade year, Rhee has said. But so what? After two years of work with the glorious Rhee, ninety percent of these low-income students were “scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.”
Or so Rhee had always said.
Had Rhee been making accurate claims about those children down through the years? About her own manifest brilliance? About the laziness of other teachers who didn’t and don’t create such outcomes? In one way, it doesn’t exactly matter. In the present day, Michelle Rhee is offering ideas for “reform” which should stand or fall on their own merits. (For ourselves, we would tend to agree with some of Rhee’s ideas and approaches.) Other people offer these same ideas—including many people who have never taught in low-income schools at all.
If Rhee is offering good ideas, her record as a classroom teacher doesn’t exactly matter.
But in several other ways, the truth of Rhee’s sacred story matters a great deal. Some of Rhee’s basic “reform” proposals turn on a very basic idea, an idea which she has endlessly stated, often in ways which are quite harsh. According to Rhee, her experience in Baltimore shows that amazing gains can be achieved in low-income schools if teachers will simply work hard enough. Gullible, high-income rubes in Manhattan have been buying this highly unlikely idea at least since the mid-1960s. This unlikely idea predates Rhee. But in the past decade, it has formed the backbone for a set of “reform” proposals being pushed by powerful interests.
Is Michelle Rhee’s sacred story accurate? Did she really achieve that amazing success? Last Tuesday, the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews threw in the towel on Rhee’s famous claims—and Mathews is one of the nation’s highest-ranking education reporters.
Rhee’s claims have been shown to be false, Mathews said. Jay may have spoken a bit prematurely—but behind all this, there lies a long tale. This long, ugly tale will matter a lot if you care about low-income children.
In the current pseudo-liberal world, very few people do.
Tomorrow—part 2: About that report