a: a person who is not what he or she pretends to be (Merriam-Webster);
b: Michelle Rhee (not Merriam-Webster)
When then-District of Columbia Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee closed schools and fired teachers, it was inevitable that she would become the toast of Washington for what was widely, euphemistically, touted as "reform." It was nearly as predictable that she would appear on the cover of Time Magazine and on the Oprah Winfrey Show and draw praise from Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
And oh, the Today Show. Bob Somerby caught the propaganda piece of propaganda from NBC correspondent/news host Savannah Guthrie and Jenna Bush Hager (Somerby's critique is well worth the read.):
GUTHRIE (3/17/11): This morning on “Education Nation Today,” saving America's schools.
Michelle Rhee captured headlines as the chancellor of schools in Washington, DC, making sweeping changes and some enemies along the way. Rhee lost her job, but not her passion for education reform. “Today” contributing correspondent Jenna Bush Hager, a teacher herself, caught up with Michelle Rhee recently.
Jenna, good morning!
HAGER: Good morning. That's right. Michelle Rhee is truly a maverick in education reform. She's controversial and a courageous change-maker. And these days, as budget cuts mean teacher layoffs, Rhee is leading the fight for a quality education for every child.
Michelle Rhee may have lost her job, but she gained a mission. She continues her life's passion to fix America's broken schools with a new lobbyist group, Students First.....
HAGER: Rhee's reforms are part of a recent documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” But her firebrand approach also inspired relentless criticism and protests in Washington. (Speaking to Rhee) While you were chancellor, the union and others who protested you, calling you names such as "hatchet lady”- How could you keep a thick skin during all of that?
RHEE: For me, what was going through my mind was, You know what? You can call me whatever names you want, you can yell at me as loud as you want to, under my watch I am not going to continue to allow the absolute dysfunction.
Who is this Michelle Rhee and why does she hold this spell over the nation's movers and shakers? Bob Somerby reports a portion of the profile of Rhee in 2008 by Evan Thomas of Newsweek:
THOMAS (9/1/08): Over the next two years, working with another teacher, she took a group of 70 kids who had been scoring "at almost rock bottom on standardized tests" to "absolutely at the top," she says. (Baltimore does not keep records by classroom, so NEWSWEEK was unable to confirm this assertion.) The key to success was, in her word, "sweat," on the part of the teacher and the students. "I wouldn't say I was a great teacher. I've seen great. I worked hard," says Rhee.
She had an epiphany of sorts. In the demoralized world of inner-city schools, it is easy to become resigned to poor results—and to blame the environment, not the schools themselves. Broken families, crime, drugs, all conspire against academic achievement. But Rhee discovered that teachers could make the critical difference. "It drives me nuts when people say that two thirds of a kid's academic achievement is based on their environment. That is B.S.," says Rhee. She points to her second graders in Baltimore whose scores rose from worst to best. "Those kids, where they lived didn't change. Their parents didn't change. Their diets didn't change. The violence in the community didn't change. The only thing that changed for those 70 kids was the adults who were in front of them every single day teaching them.”
And neither, as it turns out, did their academic achievement change much. The University of Maryland Baltimore County was commissioned by the Baltimore City School System to conduct a study of seven privatized elementary schools, one of which was Harlem Park Elementary, the school at which Rhee taught. On August 2, 1995, the day after the report was released, the Baltimore Sun's Jean Thompson reported of Tesseract, the name given the the schools by their corporate owner:
THOMPSON (8/2/95): Baltimore's privately managed public schools show little difference from comparable city-run schools on test results, attendance, parent involvement—or even cleanliness, an evaluation released yesterday found.
The report, prepared by the Center for Educational Research at University of Maryland Baltimore County, represents the first outside evaluation of the closely watched Education Alternatives Inc. experiment.
While reporting few positive results in achievement, the report said, "Change takes time and there has been an investment in the first three years that can be recouped by continuation."
In scholarly terms, the study lays out EAI's academic struggle: Only in the past year has the Minnesota-based management firm improved test scores to near the levels recorded at its schools before EAI assumed control in 1991.
Researchers said that with 11.2 percent more money, with new computers and with college-educated interns in its classrooms, the firm's schools don't do significantly better than seven comparable elementary schools run by the city.
"The evaluation team found Tesseract and comparison schools more alike than different," the study says.
It adds, "The promise that EAI could improve instruction without spending more than Baltimore City was spending on schools has been discredited."
Intensely watched nationally as the largest experiment in school privatization so far, the company's "Tesseract" program—the name comes from a children's book about time travel—has spent $106 million in public funds since 1992.
This didn't inspire Rhee to object to the "outstanding success" claimed for her on the website of District of Columbia mayor Fenty nor of the nonprofit, the New Teacher Project, she headed. Nor was she deterred from telling The Washington Times' Harry Jaffe, in yet another adoring profile
The experience I had in Baltimore was I went into one of the poorest, most segregated communities in Baltimore. I taught at a school with 100 percent African-American kids, most all of them on free and reduced lunch. I was in the neighborhood where they later filmed The Wire....
In my second year of teaching, we took them from the bottom to the top on academics, and what I learned from that experience was these kids were getting screwed because people wanted to blame their low achievement levels on the single-parent households and on the poverty in the community. In that two-year period, none of those things changed. Their parents didn’t change.... (only) What we were doing with them in school.
The acclaim kept on coming, though, as Jack Gellum and Marisol Bello report today in USA Today
In just two years, Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus went from a school deemed in need of improvement to a place that the District of Columbia Public Schools called one of its "shining stars."
Standardized test scores improved dramatically. In 2006, only 10% of Noyes' students scored "proficient" or "advanced" in math on the standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Two years later, 58% achieved that level. The school showed similar gains in reading.
Because of the remarkable turnaround, the U.S. Department of Education named the school in northeast Washington a National Blue Ribbon School. Noyes was one of 264 public schools nationwide given that award in 2009.
Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of D.C. schools, took a special interest in Noyes. She touted the school, which now serves preschoolers through eighth-graders, as an example of how the sweeping changes she championed could transform even the lowest-performing Washington schools. Twice in three years, she rewarded Noyes' staff for boosting scores: In 2008 and again in 2010, each teacher won an $8,000 bonus, and the principal won $10,000.
But they note
A closer look at Noyes, however, raises questions about its test scores from 2006 to 2010. Its proficiency rates rose at a much faster rate than the average for D.C. schools. Then, in 2010, when scores dipped for most of the district's elementary schools, Noyes' proficiency rates fell further than average.
A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes' classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.
Among the 96 schools that were then flagged for wrong-to-right erasures were eight of the 10 campuses where Rhee handed out so-called TEAM awards "to recognize, reward and retain high-performing educators and support staff," as the district's website says. Noyes was one of these.
Rhee didn't erase anything on her own- managers know not to do the dirty work themselves but to put subtle pressure on their subordinates to do what they want done. Rhee was no exception:
From the start, Rhee emphasized a need to raise scores, restore calm to chaotic schools and close those with lagging scores and small enrollments. She paid bonuses to principals and teachers who produced big gains on scores. She let go dozens of principals and fired at least 600 teachers. Others retired or quit.
Turnover was brisk. Richard Whitmire, author of The Bee Eater, a biography of Rhee, reported that Rhee hired 1,918 teachers during her three years in office –– about 45%of those on the payroll last October. Only 2,318 current teachers had been hired before Rhee took charge.
The pressure on principals was unrelenting, says Aona Jefferson, a former D.C. principal who is now president of the Council of School Officers, representing principals and other administrators. Every year, Jefferson says, Rhee met with each principal and asked what kind of test score gains he would post in the coming school year. Jefferson says principals told her that Rhee expected them to increase scores by 10 percentile points or more every year. "What do you do when your chancellor asks, 'How many points can you guarantee this year?' " Jefferson says. "How is a principal supposed to do that?"
But the paeans to Rhee, a star of the documentary "Waiting for Superman," continue unabated. She now heads a new nonprofit, StudentsFirst, and tours the country advising such anti-worker governors as Ohio's Kasich and Florida's Scott.
Eventually, this empty suit will lose steam. But the ideas she pushes, including evaluation of teachers by student test scores and privatization of public education, will find a new spokesperson and the schoolchildren will continue to be the pawns in their political power play.
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