To Amanda Ripley: A Second TIME Article on Rhee is Long Overdue
Michelle Rhee has failed as a test-driven education reformer.
Rhee taught for three years (1992-95) in Baltimore as part of Teach for America (TFA). By her own admission, her first year was terrible. She taped students’ mouths and made them bleed, and she dropped a student off after a field trip at an unverified residence. For her second and third years, she taught as part of a team. Her students’ test scores were very low (Rhee’s first year: 20th percentile in reading and math on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills–CTBS; second year: reading, 15th percentile, and math, 38th percentile; third year, with notably fewer test takers than other district schools: reading, 45th percentile, and math, 55th percentile).
Contrast this to Rhee’s bragging that she raised 90 percent of student scores to the 90th percentile.
All of the above on Rhee is documented in chapter four of my book, A Chronicle of Echoes. The origins, mission, and funding of TFA are documented in chapter three.
Following her TFA stint, Rhee decided to “found” a teacher-training nonprofit, The New Teacher Project (TNTP), in order to train “great” teachers– which she herself never was according to her own definition of “great” as one who produces high student test scores. She was with TNTP until 2007. Information on the origin and claims of Rhee’s TNTP are documented in chapter sixteen of Echoes.
Then comes her time in DC.
Three and a Half Years as Chancellor Rhee
New York City Chancellor Joel Klein recommended Rhee as DC chancellor. A lawyer by trade, Klein himself was appointed as chancellor by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Klein’s accomplishments include lying about his “poor” upbringing; giving free public school space to hedge-funded charter schools; creating a “leadership academy” that was a joke for its “products, including Principal Andrew Buck, who refused to provide teachers with textbooks and bordered on illiterate as evidenced by his written communications with teachers.
Klein also groomed a number of protégés for positions of leadership nationwide. Their agenda was the common one for education privatizers, the centerpiece of which was making the entire life of a school system hinge upon standardized testing outcomes.
I discuss Klein in detail in chapters one and two of Echoes.
Rhee was not a Klein protégé. According to Rhee, she and Klein had “known each other for some time and worked closely together.” Apparently Klein had employed thousands of uncertified teachers in NYC, and Rhee (during her time at TNTP) had helped Klein create a “teaching fellows” program, a TNTP exclusive to NYC.
Klein called Fenty and recommended Rhee as DC chancellor.
In an October 2007 interview with John Merrow of Learning Matters, Rhee referred to herself as a “change agent” and noted that Fenty said he was willing to risk “everything” on taking a chance on her as chancellor.
No sensible probationary period for Rhee the Chancellor. Straight to tenure– for as long as Fenty was in office and would give her unfettered control.
And so, Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed Rhee chancellor of DC schools in June 2007. He hitched his wagon to Rhee’s polarizing star, and it was his undoing. As Sarah Larimer of ABC7 (Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia) reports in September 2010 regarding Fenty’s loss of the 2010 DC mayoral primary to DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray:
Fenty staunchly stood behind Rhee, a lightning rod of an administrator whose abrupt, sometimes harsh methods were at times questionable and always up for debate. For his part, Gray staunchly refused to answer inquiries about whether he would retain the chancellor, instead insisting it was a decision best left for after the election. …
…Fenty was counting on the support of pro-Rhee parents. More specifically, he was betting that these [black DC Democrat] parents supported Rhee. Maybe they had been unhappy with Fenty. Maybe they’d hated the way he’s worked with the community, squabbled with the D.C. Council, and maybe they wanted to send him the signal that he could lose. Maybe they aren’t even sure the school system is better under Rhee. But would they risk abandoning the chance for real change?
Hard to say. But here’s what we do know: A Washington Post poll reported that 54 percent of black D.C. Democrats cited Rhee as a reason to vote against the incumbent. Her overall numbers, too, had slipped badly over the past couple of years. Even though Rhee had taken the drama out of the school system’s opening day, generally improved test scores among pupils, and raised expectations for the entire organization, her feats weren’t netting a payoff commensurate with the Fenty administration’s political investment.
In the end, that backfiring engine sent signs of desperation across the city’s political landscape, as Rhee hit the campaign trail — as a so-called private citizen, to avoid any Hatch Act complications — on behalf of her boss. She got hammered for that, too. [Emphasis added.]
Fenty’s and Rhee’s official, public farewell was posted in October 2010.
It is important to understand that Fenty’s successor, DC Mayor Vincent Gray, is very much in favor of test-driven reform. As the Washington Post observes in October 2010:
Presumptive mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray introduced Kaya Henderson on Wednesday as the interim chancellor of D.C. public schools and vowed that reforms launched under Michelle A. Rhee would continue when he takes office in January (2011).
In Henderson, Gray inherits someone in tune with Rhee on the fundamentals of education reform, especially the belief that teacher quality is the most important determinant of student success. Rhee and Henderson worked together at the New Teacher Project, a teacher recruiting nonprofit group that Rhee founded and ran before she was appointed by Fenty in June 2007. Henderson was a vice president for the group.
She was Rhee’s first appointment and was named her top deputy the day Rhee was introduced to the District. At the time, Rhee made it sound as if they had come to the District as a package. [Emphasis added.]
Henderson’s allegiance to Rhee would pay off for Rhee in 2011, when DC test score erasures on Rhee’s watch came into question– and were never thoroughly investigated. (See chapter four of A Chronicle of Echoes for details.)
Gray was just not agog over Chancellor Rhee, which was likely the deal-breaker in Rhee’s thinking. As Larimer notes:
Gray was repeatedly asked whether he would retain Rhee, with whom he butted heads for years in his capacity as council chairman. Again and again, he failed to directly answer the question. Rhee came close to answering it for him when she hinted this summer that she couldn’t work for a mayor who didn’t support her as much as Fenty has during his term. [Emphasis added.]
Did you catch that?
Rhee wants support from her superior. Rhee– who makes principals declare their test gains (i.e., “goal set”) at the beginning of a school year or risk dismissal– quit because she “could not work for a mayor who did not support her.” (Read former DC Principal Adell Cothorne’s story here.)
But there is more: “Support” from Fenty meant that Rhee did not have to “goal set” for him.
For all of her demanding that DC teachers and administrators be held “accountable” for test scores, Rhee expected to be above answering to anyone, and Fenty let her have that license. As Marc Fisher of the Washington Post notes in September 2009:
Rhee is all about control. She agreed to come to Washington only after being assured greater authority over the schools than any superintendent had ever had. Almost instantly, she managed to alienate important people. [Emphasis added.]
Regarding Rhee’s talent for alienating people, Fisher continues:
At 39, she’s never run a school, let alone a school system. She doesn’t make nice, insists on bashing her own employees in public, and seems to think that she can pull off a miracle. She barely deigns to speak to D.C. Council members, she’d fire legions of teachers if she had the chance, and she sacked her own daughters’ principal. [Emphasis added.]
Now, keep in mind that this is the same Rhee who expected unquestioning, unwavering “support” from her superior.
By the time of the September 2010 mayoral primary, it was Fenty who had managed to alienate his black constituency by his apparent catering to DC’s white constituency:
…Race was part the dialogue, whether it was appropriate or not. Residents of predominantly black wards in the city wondered what Fenty had done for them lately, how he had helped their community. White Washingtonians sometimes seemed baffled that Fenty could lose this election at all. [Emphasis added.]
Rhee’s and Fenty’s plans to “improve” DC schools invariably acknowledged the need to attract more affluent parents to the DC traditional public school system:
But even if Rhee somehow beats back the union and sacks hundreds more teachers, even if she finds a way to bump up test scores a little more each year, the future of the D.C. system looks grim. Parents are voting with their feet, abandoning the schools by the thousands every September. …
For more than a decade, middle-class parents in the District have lobbied for public school programs at least marginally competitive with offerings in Montgomery and Fairfax counties. There have been pockets of progress: A few schools attract a mix of kids reflecting the racial blend of their neighborhoods, but most white parents — as well as an increasing number of middle-class black families, many of whom have chosen charter schools — still avoid the D.C. schools. Rhee wants to attract middle-class families of all races back to the system, but she worries that any effort to win over white parents might alienate those blacks who perceive outreach to whites as pandering. [Emphasis added.]
Indeed, in the September 2010 mayoral primary, the predominately black constituency rejected Rhee via ousting Fenty.
And in hers and Fenty’s attempts to attract middle-class families to DC schools, they inadvertently admitted that they believed that economic improvements and not “great teachers” were what was really needed to “improve” DC schools (that is, to raise those test scores to a “national gap closing” level).
Let us consider some scores– ones that Rhee or those under her charge could not manipulate under pressure to save their jobs.
Rhee’s time as DC chancellor (2007-2010) did not impact scores on the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in either reading or math.
In fourth and eighth grade math, DC’s NAEP average scaled scores have been steadily rising since 2000 but remain consistently and obviously below the national average even in 2013.
In fourth and eighth grade reading, DC’s NAEP average scaled scores have been steadily rising since 1998 but remain consistently and obviously below the national average even in 2013. (Scores can be accessed here.)
There really was no reason to expect that Rhee would succeed as DC chancellor. She was little more than a public relations campaign constructed on an abrasive personality– the kind of person whose ugliness raises “reality TV” ratings.
That 2008 TIME Magazine Cover
Perhaps the most famous article written about Rhee is Amanda Ripley’s November 26, 2008, piece in TIME magazine, the one with Rhee on the cover dressed in black and wielding a broom. (The “witch” image is not lost on most who view it.) (Note: The article is behind a pay wall. It costs $4.99 to view the article for one week.)
Before getting to Ripley’s words, let us consider the cover.
Fisher notes that the cover was to make “Rhee’s central point”:
…the time for weaselly reforms and endless studies is over, that a new sheriff has arrived to take charge of the nation’s most troubled schools. [Emphasis added.]
Abrasive, sociopath Rhee was going to “fix” DC. Period.
Ripley did not choose the cover, which she initially considered “cheesy” but then was fine with since Rhee was going to “clean up” DC public education. As Fisher notes:
…After about an hour of posing Rhee with kids and the ruler, the photographer, Robyn Twomey, pulled the next item from her bag of tricks.
“How about a broom?” Twomey said. …
“Sure,” Rhee replied, according to Amanda Ripley, the reporter who wrote the Time cover story and attended the photo shoot.
“At the time, I thought it was a little cheesy,” Ripley says. “But it was fine; this was a symbol of reform and cleaning up. There was no discussion; it seemed relatively minor.” [Emphasis added.]
If you can imagine as much, according to Fisher, Rhee was “even hurt, by reaction to that photo.” Here’s the “reaction”:
The broom — poised to sweep out the old, the failed, her employees — has become convenient shorthand, a quick answer to the question I ask one D.C. schoolteacher after another: What makes you think Rhee doesn’t respect teachers? [Emphasis added.]
And here is Rhee’s “hurt”:
It was not what I was expecting. I was surprised by how other people saw it — me being a witch, which I don’t get. I personally thought it sent the right message — sweeping change and cleaning house. [Emphasis added.]
Fisher wrote his article in 2009. In 2008, Rhee fired 75 teachers without offering any reason for termination. (In 2011, an independent auditor ruled that the firings were improperly executed and that efforts needed to be made to find the teachers and reinstate or otherwise compensate.)
Rhee fired teachers without so much as offering them a reason. And yet, she “doesn’t get” how others view her as being “a witch.”
Rhee only lasted three and a half years as DC chancellor. In that time, she terminated approximately 1,000 teachers and administrators. For all of her hot air about “cleaning up,” Washington Post reporter Bill Turque notes that only 200 were fired for reasons related to job performance. The bulk was for other issues, including those related to budget cuts and improper credentialing.
Rhee the Change Agent could only manage to dismiss approximately five percent of DCPS teachers and administrators for “poor performance.”
She could not pin “poor performance” on approximately 95 percent.
Now, keep in mind the testing erasure scandal from which Rhee escaped thus far– and which likely drove DC teachers and administrators to “intervene” in getting those scores up. (Again, former DC Principal Cothorne’s story is illuminating on this point.) Thus, some of those 95 percent likely sacrificed integrity to save their jobs under Rhee’s “sweeping” pressures.
The 2008 TIME Article on Rhee
Investigative journalist Amanda Ripley wrote the 2008 TIME article that accompanied the infamous, Rhee-with-a-broom magazine cover.
The article is replete with Ripley’s slanted perspective against American education.
Let me note that I do not view Ripley as a credible researcher. In December 2011, Ripley wrote a smug criticism against education historian Diane Ravitch for supposedly wrongly interpreting poverty as a contributing factor in the 2009 PISA rankings. In her smugness, based on a link that she provided, Ripley failed both to convert euros to dollars and to note that the poorest Finnish are not having children. Both errors seriously undercut her arguments.
In January 2014, I wrote about Ripley’s errors. I know that she is aware of my post because fellow blogger Jennifer Berkshire tweeted it to her and received a tweet denying any errors.
To my knowledge, Ripley has not written a post correcting her blunders.
Those are major errors coming from an investigative journalist who advances herself as an expert on international education.
In her 2008 TIME article on Rhee, Ripley is also slanted and sloppy with the facts.
Consider her opener about a student enrolled in a Microsoft Word class in which so few computers work that the teacher must resort to teaching Word using paper handouts.
Ripley opens an article about Rhee’s supposedly clearing out ineffective teachers with an example of how teacher effectiveness hinges upon issues outside of teacher control.
Then Ripley offers these amazing statements, without qualification:
The U.S. spends more per pupil on elementary and high school education than most developed nations. Yet it is behind most of them in the math and science abilities of its children. Young Americans today are less likely than their parents were to finish high school. This is an issue that is warping the nation’s economy and security, and the causes are not as mysterious as they seem. The biggest problem with U.S. public schools is ineffective teaching, according to decades of research. [Emphasis added.]
If the “biggest problem” is ineffective teaching, why open this article with an example of insufficient classroom materials?
Let us examine what else Ripley purports in her above indictment on the American teacher.
Per-pupil spending: Today, in 2014, US public schools provide transportation to all students to and from school. Many districts offer climate-controlled classrooms. Many offer two meals per day. Most provide textbooks for their students. Many provide computer access, including internet service. And all public schools are required to offer special education services.
What are those other countries doing for less?
As for math and science “ability”: There is a difference between international standardized test scores and math and science “abilities.” What evidence is there that nations scoring well on international tests (undoubtedly Ripley’s basis for “ability”) are translating the scoring into that which enhances quality of life and therefore contributes to a productive society?
Indeed, in 2013, China resolved to “lessen the academic burden” on its students. As Yong Zhao writes in the Washington Post:
Reduced standardized tests and homework and no tracking. These are some of the new actions China is taking to lessen student academic burden. The Chinese Ministry of Education recently released Ten Regulations to Lessen Academic Burden for Primary School Students for public commentary. The Ten Regulations are introduced as one more significant measure to reform China’s education, in addition to further reduction of academic content, lowering the academic rigor of textbooks, expanding criteria for education quality, and improving teacher capacity. [Emphasis added.]
Shanghai tops the international testing charts. America never has. And yet, China is backing off of the academic *rigor* placed upon its children.
Explain that one.
Ripley continues with a statement about US graduation rates being lower than in the past.
That depends upon how one defines “graduation rate.” Is one a “graduate” if it takes five years instead of four? If one earns a GED? If one enters a school in the sophomore or junior year as opposed to the freshman year? If one drops out, only to “drop back in”?
Niraj Chokshi of the Washington Post noted in April 2014 that the US graduation rate has been rising steadily by 1.3 percentage points annually since 2006. As of 2012, it is at a record 80 percent. This rate is based upon freshman who complete high school in four years. It does not account for those who take longer but still earn a diploma, and it does not account for those who earn graduate equivalency diplomas.
So much for students “less likely to finish high school than their parents.”
Next, Ripley notes that the state of American education ‘s “warping the economy.”
This one has to be my favorite.
She published her article two months after the September 2008 stock market crash brought on by bank liquidity and a subprime mortgage crisis. The federal bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The federal bailout of the “Big Three” auto makers. Corporate greed created the 2008 crash, not “ineffective teaching.” And yes, a crippled economy certainly does affect issues of national security. Yet Ripley doesn’t mention fiscal mismanagement and corporate greed induced by those with much more money and power than any teacher will ever have.
Ripley’s statements seriously lack evidence. And those are only a few sentences in an article that prints out as eight pages.
Let me just hit a few more highlights.
Let’s go with this one next:
Rhee has promised to make Washington the highest-performing urban school district in the nation, a prospect that, if realized, could transform the way schools across the country are run. She is attempting to do this through a relentless focus on finding–and rewarding–strong teachers, purging incompetent ones and weakening the tenure system that keeps bad teachers in the classroom. [Emphasis added.]
A few points here. First, Rhee did not make DC “the highest performing urban district.” What she did do was create an unresolved cheating scandal. As previously noted, Rhee’s presence in DC did not impact NAEP scores– which were already on the rise prior to her arrival yet remained far below the national average. Second, Rhee expected to be held accountable to no one while at the same time expecting that teachers and administrators should be accountable to her. Third, she and Fenty tried to alter the economic makeup of DC by catering to the more affluent– a tacit admission that the economic condition of a community does impact test scores. Finally, for all of her talk about “cleaning up,” only approximately five percent of the DC teachers and administrators whom Rhee fired were released due to “poor performance.”
And now a word about tenure.
Ripley refers to tenure as “an exceptional job security that teachers enjoy.” In K-12 education, tenure is the right to due process. In my district in Louisiana, I was assured due process after three years. This does not mean I have a job for life. If I stop doing my job, my principal can let me go. However, I have a right to appeal and have a hearing regarding my release.
If Ripley doesn’t like it, too bad.
Ripley is forgiving of Rhee’s first year of teaching. She also glosses over the fact that Rhee did not “raise test scores” without assistance– a problem to tease out if teachers are to be measured using student test scores. And Ripley does not include actual numbers regarding Rhee’s performance– she simply trusts Rhee’s principal as stating that the students were “at or above grade level”:
Rhee suffered during that first year, and so did her students. She could not control the class. Her father remembers her returning home to visit and telling him she didn’t want to go back. She had hives on her face from the stress.
The second year, Rhee got better. She and another teacher started out with second-graders who were scoring in the bottom percentile on standardized tests. They held on to those kids for two years, and by the end of third grade, the majority were at or above grade level, she says. (Baltimore does not have good test data going back that far, a problem that plagues many districts, so this assertion cannot be checked. But Rhee’s principal at the time has confirmed the claim.)
No mention of Rhee’s taping students’ mouths. No mention of dropping a student off after a field trip at an unconfirmed residence. And even though “Baltimore does not have good test data going back that far,” a June 2007 Washington Times article raises questions about Rhee’s claim to have been responsible for raising 90 percent of her students’ test scores to the 90th percentile.
Ripley offers no indication of specifically asking Rhee’s principal if she raised 90 percent of student scores to the 90th percentile. This claim deserves more than the frosting of “the majority were at or above grade level.”
A red flag waving yet completely ignored in Ripley’s rush to approve of Rhee’s questionable background.
And what an amazing Ripley-on-Rhee follow-up story it could have made in 2011: Rhee, who made unsubstantiated, remarkable test-score gains in 2007 becomes the center of an amazing test-score-gain erasure scandal in 2011.
Even as she refuses to thoroughly investigate and report on Rhee’s 90-90th claim, Ripley turns around and misquotes DC City Council Chair Vincent Gray in order to sensationalize Rhee. Here are Ripley’s words:
Rhee’s ferocity has alienated many people–even those who support her ideas and could be helpful to her. This summer the chair of the Washington city council called dealing with Rhee a “nightmare.” [Emphasis added.]
Here is the actual text Ripley misquoted, from a letter Gray sent to the editor of TIME:
D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray is currently in the midst of slamming, hard, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his education deputies—DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Deputy Mayor Victor Reinoso, and school facilities chief Allen Y. Lew—for bigfooting the legislature. Gray, in some of his strongest anti-Fenty statements to date, called Fenty et al.’s behavior ‘unconscionable’ from the council dais. ‘This started off as a partnership, and an enthusiastic partnership, to reform District of Columbia Public Schools,’ he said. “There’s been more than a few days where it’s been a nightmare. [Emphasis Gray’s.]
Just before she misquotes Gray, Ripley does get one issue right: Rhee alienates people.
After leaving DC, Rhee founded a political lobbying organization, StudentsFirst. She did not play well with others there, either, and ended up stepping down as its leader in August 2014. As Politico‘s Stephanie Simon reports:
Michelle Rhee had big ambitions when she went on Oprah four years ago to launch her new advocacy group, StudentsFirst, with a promise to raise $1 billion to transform education policy nationwide.
But as she prepares to step down as CEO, she leaves a trail of disappointment and disillusionment. Reform activists who shared her vision say she never built an effective national organization and never found a way to use her celebrity status to drive real change.
StudentsFirst was hobbled by a high staff turnover rate, embarrassing PR blunders and a lack of focus. But several leading education reformers say Rhee’s biggest weakness was her failure to build coalitions; instead, she alienated activists who should have been her natural allies with tactics they perceived as imperious, inflexible and often illogical. …
“There was a growing consensus in the education reform community that she didn’t play well in the sandbox,” one reform leader said. …
An education reform leader familiar with her tactics said Rhee made audacious demands of potential backers — once asking for $50 million from a single donor. (She got $1 million, this source said.)
She spent heavily on lobbying and advertising for policies such as eliminating teacher tenure, restricting collective bargaining rights and promoting new evaluation systems that rate teachers in large part by their students’ scores on standardized tests. …
…Her fellow education reformers tell remarkably consistent stories about their frustration with Rhee and the organization she founded.
In Connecticut, Minnesota, Florida and elsewhere, activists said StudentsFirst often swooped in with pre-fab policy agendas set by national strategists operating out of its Sacramento headquarters.
Rhee’s state directors then promoted those policies and only those policies, without regard to local needs or political realities, according to activists who tried to work with them. In at least one case, the StudentsFirst team insisted on pushing legislation that clashed with other state laws and would have been impossible to implement, sources said.
“They’d walk around with a 15-point legislative agenda and a legislator would say, ‘What are your top two on the list?’ and they would say, ‘Nope, we need all 15,’ — so then they got zero,” one activist said. “They were policy purists in a way that made them seem oblivious to political reality.” [Emphasis added.]
With Rhee, it was all or nothing.
Looks like “nothing” won.
How About a 2014 TIME Update on Rhee?
As of August 2014, Rhee has a spot on her scandal-plagued, NBA-mayor Kevin Johnson’s charter district school board.
And she has a spot on the board of Scott’s Miracle Gro.
What a TIME cover that news could make. Rhee in overalls. A shovel. Manure. Flies buzzing.
I challenge Amanda Ripley to write eight printed pages’ worth of a 2014 TIME follow-up article. She offers numerous opinions on what she believes a ‘great teacher” to be (pay the five bucks to read Ripley’s 2008 TIME Rhee/”great teachers” fiction)– yet she has let Rhee off of the hook for years.
Rhee has never answered to anyone for any consequences related to her abrasive “reforms.”
For all of her projected toughness, she also has refused to publicly debate anyone. In a sad comedy, she canceled a February 2014 debate with Diane Ravitch– purportedly because she could not find a third person to be on her team. As Ravitch writes in November 2013:
I earlier posted that Michelle Rhee and I would debate at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania on February 6.
As you may recall, Rhee first demanded that we have two people on each team, then three people on each team.
I readily assented and selected a wonderful second and third for the debate. …
Rhee and I–through our agents– mutually agreed on the date.
However, the debate is off because Rhee says she cannot find a third partner.
This is the information I received from Lehigh.
I don’t know anything more, except that this debate will not happen.
How sorry is that: Rhee canceled three months in advance because she could not find a third person to join. She refused to debate one-on-one. She even refused two-on-two.
What a glorified coward.
Without unreserved license, Rhee flees– just like she did from a non-Fenty DC.
That doesn’t mean she did not scoop up some major cash for herself over the years.
For more details on the control Rhee expects over events in which she is involved and the price tag she demanded for her brand of abrasion, read the details on this “discounted,” $35,000 speaking contract for Rhee to appear at Kent University.
Soo much here to report on.
I will stop for now.
Perhaps Ripley will pick up where I have left off. I even invite her to use the links in my post.
And look: No pay wall.
I’ll even proofread your draft for clearly substantiated, factual accuracy.
Like my writing? Read my newly-released ed “reform” whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education
NOW AVAILABLE ON KINDLE.