Michelle Rhee, the superstar of education reform, is a total fraud. Yes, the same woman who was the heroine of “Waiting for Superman;” who has graced the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines; who was Oprah Winfrey’s “warrior woman;” who Barrack Obama dubbed “ a wonderful new superintendent who’s working very hard;” that same Michelle Rhee is a fake.
Rhee had never even been a principal when she was appointed superintendent of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, where she was in charge of more than47,000 students in 123 schools. Her inexperience did not deter Rhee, after all she had taught for “Teach for America,” which made her uniquely qualified to solve hard classroom problems. She had even taught a class of unruly students once but she had a brilliant solution for their bad conduct.
As she was recorded telling the story to a friendly audience, she said that she “took little pieces of masking tape and put them on everybody’s lips.” Her adoring audience seemed to have no problem with that even as she goes on to explain that, “their skin is coming off and they are bleeding.” She didn’t mention that several teachers across the nation had been fired for doing the exact same thing.
Her plan for D.C. schools centered on getting rid of ineffective principals and teachers. Teachers were retained or fired based on five 30-minute evaluations by administrators and outside professionals. Pay raises and bonuses were based on student scores from the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System tests. Rhee fired at least 682 teachers and 36 principals based on the evaluations and student test scores. She was so harsh as to even fire one principal on national television. Teachers and principals who succeeded under her rules were given $276,265 in bonuses. In her first year, she closed 23 schools based on the results of standardized tests.
Her reforms appeared to work as test scores improved dramatically. At one elementary school the year before Rhee arrived, 18 percent of the students scored proficient in math and 31 percent in reading. During the Rhee years scores soared to over 60 percent in both subjects. This improvement was replicated in numerous schools.
When a new mayor was elected in 2010, Rhee resigned as the D.C. school superintendent much to the disappointment of Education Secretary Arne Duncan who had said that her reforms “absolutely have to continue.” In a press release Duncan said: “Michelle Rhee has been a pivotal leader in the school reform movement and we expect she will continue to be a force for change wherever she goes.”
Duncan was right, Rhee went back on Oprah to announce that she was creating an education reform project called Students First to spread her reforms across the country. She neglected to tell Oprah that her major funders included foundations supporting charter school expansion.
The main goals of Students First is to abolish teacher tenure and support voucher and charter schools. Their mission statement asserts that “America’s schools are failing our kids” and promises: “We’ll make sure politicians and administrators recognize and reward excellent teachers, give novice teachers the training they need, and quickly improve or remove ineffective educators. We’ll work to ensure that every family has a number of options for excellent schools to attend, so that getting into a great school becomes a matter of fact, not luck.”
Rhee’s biography on the Students First website says: “On June 12, 2007, Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed Chancellor Rhee to lead the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), a school district serving more than 47,000 students in 123 schools. Under her leadership, the worst performing school district in the country became the only major city system to see double-digit growth in both their state reading and state math scores in seventh, eighth and tenth grades over three years.”
Former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said: “What she did in Washington, D.C., was game changing, which is precisely what the country needs—bold leadership to put students first…” Klein’s support for reformers like Rhee is to be expected since he is one of the many people trying to get rich off school reform by replacing teachers with technology. He is currently heading Rupert Murdock’s education division which has developed a computer educational tablet to sell to the nation’s schools.
The fact that D.C. student test scores returned to their pre-Rhee levels after she resigned leads to the logical question of how did she accomplish such unbelievable results in just three years. The answer is simple, she did it the old fashioned way, she cheated. Even assuming that she did not order the cheating directly, she undoubtedly covered up the fact that tests had been altered.
The facts are almost identical to the Atlanta, Ga., school cheating scandal in which a former national superintendent of the year was implicated in a cheating scandal that included 178 principals and teachers. The district attorney in that case Robert Wilson said in an interview that he had been following the D.C., story closely saying: “There’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that adults cheated in Washington. The big difference is that nobody in D.C. wanted to know the truth.”
In 2011, USA Today identified abnormally high rates of wrong-to-right erasures that coincided with improved test scores in more than half of D.C. schools. The newspaper reported that the odds against the 2008 wrong-to-right erasures having happened by chance in some of the schools were greater than the odds of winning the Powerball. Tom Haladyna, an Arizona State professor who has spent decades investigating cheating told the newspaper that the score gains reported in DC public schools were implausible saying: “A slow runner can improve a little in each race he runs, but he’s not going to set a new world record.”
A long-buried confidential memo from 2009 leaked to PBS education correspondent John Merrow proves Rhee was aware of the cheating. Her own data consultants reported to Rhee that her principals and teachers were likely responsible for the erasures. This memo revealed that191 teachers in 70 schools were “implicated in possible testing infractions.” These would appear to be the same teachers and principals who were given the bonuses for improved test scores. Merrow noted the obvious motive for teachers and principals to cheat in Rhee’s educational system: “If you base nearly everything— including their jobs— on one test, expect people to cheat.”
School districts that are considering adopting Rhee’s policies should read the article “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” by John Merrow. The reality is that Rhee’s reforms failed poor DC Students. Merrow explains Rhee’s harmful legacy: “The most disturbing effect of Rhee’s reform effort is the widened gap in academic performance between low-income and upper-income students, a meaningful statistic in Washington, DC because race and income are highly correlated. On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress test only about 10% of low income students in grades 4 and 8 scored proficient in reading and math. Since 2007, the performance gap has increased by 29% in 8th grade reading, by 44% in 4th grade reading; by 45% in 8th grade math, and by 72% in 4th grade math. Although these numbers are also influenced by changes in high and low-income populations, the gaps are so extreme that it seems clear that low-income students, most of them African-American, did not fare well during Rhee’s time in Washington.”
Twenty-five states have already adopted Rhee’s system for evaluating teachers based on test scores. These states are foolishly attempting to replicate a mirage known as the DC miracle.