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Michelle Rhee’s DC Legacy: “A Monster.”

June 18, 2018

When the survival of a school system hinges upon test scores, that system will be driven toward corruption.

Case in point: DC public schools, beginning with the advent of mayoral control and the 2007 appointment of Michelle Rhee as DC chancellor under then-DC mayor, Adrian Fenty.

michelle-rhee  Michelle Rhee

At the time that Fenty lost his 2010 re-election bid (arguably because of his ties to toxic Rhee), DC test scores were already suspiciously high (and they suspiciously fell in the years following her departure), yet Rhee dodged any through investigation of cheating in DC schools that  occurred during her watch. (I have documented Rhee and her DC tenure in my book, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Education.)

Even though Rhee left DC in 2010 (and joined the board of Scott’s Miracle-Gro in 2014), her legacy of ugly, corporate-reform destruction continues via the documented unwinding of DC public schools.

Consider this June 18, 2018, Associated Press (AP) synopsis of post-Rhee DC schools:

As recently as a year ago, the public school system in the nation’s capital was being hailed as a shining example of successful urban education reform and a template for districts across the country.

Now the situation in the District of Columbia could not be more different. After a series of rapid-fire scandals, including one about rigged graduation rates, Washington’s school system has gone from a point of pride to perhaps the largest public embarrassment of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s tenure.

This stunning reversal has left school administrators and city officials scrambling for answers and pledging to regain the public’s trust.

A decade after a restructuring that stripped the decision-making powers of the board of education and placed the system under mayoral control, city schools in 2017 were boasting rising test scores and a record graduation rate for high schools of 73 percent, compared with 53 percent in 2011. Glowing news articles cited examples such as Ballou High School, a campus in a low-income neighborhood where the entire 2017 graduating class applied for college.

Then everything unraveled.

An investigation by WAMU, the local NPR station, revealed that about half of those Ballou graduates had missed more than three months of school and should not have graduated due to chronic truancy. A subsequent inquiry revealed a systemwide culture that pressured teachers to favor graduation rates over all else — with salaries and job security tied to specific metrics.

The internal investigation concluded that more than one-third of the 2017 graduating class should not have received diplomas due to truancy or improper steps taken by teachers or administrators to cover the absences. In one egregious example, investigators found that attendance records at Dunbar High School had been altered 4,000 times to mark absent students as present. The school system is now being investigated by both the FBI and the U.S. Education Department, while the D.C. Council has repeatedly called for answers and accountability.

“We’ve seen a lot of dishonesty and a lot of people fudging the numbers,” said Council member David Grosso, head of the education committee, during a hearing last week. “Was it completely make-believe last year?”

School Superintendent Hanseul Kang promised Grosso a “new accountability system” to prevent these kinds of abuses. The interim chancellor, Amanda Alexander, told the committee the estimated graduation rate for 2018 would end up just over 60 percent, a drop of more than 10 percentage points now that the attendance rules are being properly enforced. The chancellor’s office runs the public school system while the Office of the State Superintendent of Education oversees both the public schools and Washington’s robust charter school system.

Repeated efforts to interview both Kang and Alexander for this story were unsuccessful.

While the attendance scandal was still fresh, a new controversy engulfed the top public school official. Chancellor Antwan Wilson was forced to resign in February after revelations that he skirted his own rules to place his daughter in a prestigious high school while skipping a 600-student waiting list.

The Wilson scandal speaks to some of the unique dynamics and pressures of the D.C. school system. Parents who don’t like their local “in-bound” school can apply to any public school in the city through a complex and highly competitive lottery process. One local columnist dubbed the school lottery system “an academic Hunger Games.”

Most recently in the headlines has been one of the jewels of the school system, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, alma mater of comedian Dave Chappelle and musician Me’Shell Ndegéocello. In May, an internal audit alleged that more than one-quarter of Ellington students were fraudulently coming in from neighboring Maryland or Virginia.

Students from outside Washington can attend city schools if they pay tuition, but the investigation alleges widespread residency fraud with parents faking Washington addresses to avoid those fees. Ellington parents have sued, claiming they’re being railroaded by an administration eager to prove strong oversight and repair its reputation. The issue is working its way through courts.

The brutal year for Washington schools doesn’t seem to have hurt Mayor Bowser as she runs for re-election. Bowser, campaigning on the improved economy in the capital, has no significant opposition in the all-important Democratic primary Tuesday as she seeks a second term.

The issue of the school system was the only down note in Bowser’s otherwise triumphant State of the District speech in March. Bowser could only acknowledge “significant bumps in the road,” and promise rapid changes.

Defenders of the school system point out that independent measurements such as the National Association of Educational Progress test have shown consistent improvement that shouldn’t be lost in the controversy over graduation rates.

The AP article ends with the spotlight on Rhee:

Critics view the problems, particularly the attendance issue, as an indictment of the entire data-driven evaluation system instituted a more than a decade ago when then-Mayor Adrian Fenty took over the school system and appointed Michelle Rhee as the first chancellor. Rhee’s ambitious plan to clear out dead wood and focus on accountability for teachers and administrators landed her on the cover of Time magazine holding a broom. But now analysts question whether Rhee’s emphasis on performance metrics has created a monster.

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.)

In this 2014 post, I petitioned Ripley for a redo of her feature on Rhee after the fact– after the broom-wielding Rhee was herself swept out of her job by voters who canned Fenty for his Rhee alliance. From my 2014 post:

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.] …

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.

And in 2018, as noted via an AP piece demonstrating “rapid fire scandals” in DC schools:

But now analysts question whether Rhee’s emphasis on performance metrics has created a monster.

It’s worth repeating:

When the survival of a school system hinges upon test scores, that system will be driven toward corruption. 

Rhee TIME 2008

Rhee: The antithesis of effective school leadership


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. Erich Martel permalink

    Rhee remains quite busy, in demand by those intent at dismantling public education:
    Earlier this year, she met with the NC legislature:

    From the NC blog, Caffeinated Rage:
    The Dramatis Personae in the Privatization of Public Schools in North Carolina – or Who is Trying to “Reform” Education Through Deformation


    Michelle Rhee’s visit to North Carolina for a “closed-door” meeting (February 7th)) with lawmakers in the current climate of public education in this country and in the state should not sit well with public school advocates.

    In fact, this meeting that was brokered by an educational lobbying body of business leaders called BEST NC (coupled with the NC GOP’s invitation to Betsy DeVos) should serve as an ominous omen of what will be attempted in North Carolina.

    This meeting with Rhee was passed off as a session with leaders where candid questions could be asked and ideas exchanged on how to improve public education seemed to be void of the very people who know education the best – educators.

    And while the media did have a chance to meet and greet with Ms. Rhee and George Parker in a manicured and measured way, what happened behind closed doors with people who make decisions on how to spend taxpayer money and fund public schools along with controversial educational reformers remains a mystery.

    So much for transparency and including all stakeholders. In fact, it seemed more like a special session of the NC General Assembly who used such “secret sessions” to spawn actions such as HB2, SB4, and HB17.

    Despite what they claim, the intentions of BEST NC to improve public education seems to have a different meaning to them than it does to those who are educators in our public schools.

    That’s because there exist too many relationships between business leaders, lobbying groups, wealthy benefactors, politicians, and educational reformers to be coincidental. In fact, many in the “reform” movement that have started to dismantle the public school system are strategically linked to each other, including BEST NC.

  2. She was also a world-class liar.

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