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Learning From the Rise and Fall of Michelle Rhee
Jason Stanford
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At some point, we need to stop believing in miracles, at least in education. While we’re still getting over the RICO indictments handed down in the Atlanta cheating scandal comes the revelation that the success Michelle Rhee achieved as the “no excuses” superintendent of Washington, D.C.’s public schools was the product of massive cheating. Those asking why Rhee isn’t under indictment just like her former colleague in Atlanta are missing the bigger question: If she’s an example of its success, is the theory behind market-driven education reform valid?
Rhee attracted a lot of attention before getting the top spot in DC. When Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed her superintendent, she went from managing an education non-profit with 120 employees to running a school system with 55,000 students, 11,500 employees and a budget of $200 million. She’d never even been a principal before, and her only classroom experience was Teach for America.
She did not let seem daunted by the stage. She bragged that she only answered to the mayor and put principals on notice to get those test scores up. Rhee fired more than 1,000 teachers and 36 principals who failed to raise test scores and gave $276,265 in bonuses to employees who performed well.
Passing rates rose, and she became the “it girl” for education reform. Time and Newsweek put her on the cover. Oprah called her “a warrior woman,” and Barack Obama called Rhee “a wonderful new superintendent.” When Fenty lost re-election, Sec. Arne Duncan intervened in an attempt to keep her on the job because her reforms “absolutely have to continue.” When Rhee quit, he issued a press release so laudatory it almost included pom-poms.
Her star rose even further when the documentary Waiting for Superman touted Rhee as a national success. She went back on Oprah to announce she was creating an education reform project called Students First to spread her reforms to other communities. “I am going to start a revolution. I’m going to start a movement in this country on behalf of the nation’s children,” Rhee told Oprah.
Unfortunately, her success was a fraud. In 2011, USA Today identified abnormally high rates of wrong-to-right erasures that coincided with big jumps in test scores in more than half of all DC schools. And according to a “smoking gun” internal DCPS memo released recently, it was worse that suspected. There was evidence of excessive erasures by “191 teachers representing 70 schools,” yet Rhee did nothing to investigate.
Cheating is nothing new in high-stakes testing. Between 2008-2012, test-cheating scandals have occurred in 37 states and in the District of Columbia, but the cult of Rhee’s success has driven similar reforms in 25 states according to Students First. But if Rhee faked her success, why are we copying her?
A new study from The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education out Thursday discredits the fundamental assumption that market-based reforms produce results in education. The study, coauthored by a former program manager for Pearson Education, examined the claims of progress in DC and two other reform-driven school systems and found that test scores regressed and achievement gaps grew relative to other urban school districts.
Where Rhee claimed success, the report found that National Assessment of Education Progress “scores showed minimal-to-no improvement for low-income and minority students, and some losses. Moreover, higher scores were due in most cases not to actual improvements for any age group, but to an influx of wealthier students.”
There was no DC miracle. Browbeating students and teachers into raising scores on state tests only makes them better at taking—or faking—state tests, and reforming our schools in hopes of replicating an illusion is a petty crime against humanity. Even George W. Bush was forced to admit there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and we’ve long since gotten over the shock that Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire were juiced more than a Florida orange grove. We believe lies at our own peril. It’s time to stop waiting for Superman and focus on the hard work of teaching our children the way we know works.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at and on Twitter @JasStanford.