EdMedia Commons Archive

Michelle Rhee Grades States as Press Serves Up Hard-Hitting Reports on Her

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.

[See EWA's Story Starters on Teachers and Standards and Testing.]

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

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.