Meet Adell Cothorne

Michelle Rhee is, of course, the central character in our Frontline film, “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” but I want to tell you more about Adell Cothorne, the former DC principal who appears at the end of our film. She was one of a small handful of DC educators willing to speak on the record about the widespread erasures that occurred during Michelle Rhee’s tenure in Washington–and I think what she has to say is important.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that producer Mike Joseloff, researcher Catherine Rentz and I made hundreds of phone calls to teachers and principals at schools with high erasures rates (with answers almost always changed from ‘wrong’ to ‘right’) on the District’s standardized test, the DC-CAS, and to those in Michelle Rhee’s central office. Many of those we called either hung up the phone, said ‘no comment,’ or ask to go ‘off-the-record.’ I think some changed their phone numbers, and a few managed to disappear from sight.

Why the code of silence? One person explained that she wouldn’t be able to find work in education if she spoke out—and then hung up. Others told much the same story.

So let me tell you more about Adell Cothorne, in her own words.

“I grew up in poverty. I’m a minority, of course, (laughs). (And the daughter of a) teenage mother. So I absolutely understand the value of a strong public school education. It will take you places you’ve never been before.”

Education enabled Adell Cothorne to rise from those unpromising circumstances, and she ended up as an Assistant Principal in Montgomery County, Maryland. For those unfamiliar with the Washington, DC, area, Montgomery County is a wealthy suburb of the Capital with excellent ‘Blue Ribbon’ public schools. It’s one of the top-ranked school districts in the nation.

Adell Cothorne, former principal of Noyes Education Campus

Her idealism burned brightly, and so she applied for a job in Washington, largely, she told Frontline, because of her admiration for Michelle Rhee.

“I still have the Time Magazine with Michelle Rhee on the cover,” Cothorne told Frontline. “I had been following her for a while, and I admired what I saw on the media and the news. And so to have the opportunity to dialogue and sit across from her and then have her say to me, you know, ‘It’s not a matter of when you’re coming to D.C., but where I’m going to put you,’ that was absolute confirmation for me. And I was over the top.”

Rhee installed Cothorne as principal of Noyes Education Campus, a ‘Blue Ribbon’ school that had achieved remarkable gains on the DC-CAS in previous years. In October Cothorne met again with the Chancellor, one-on-one, to discuss her plans for the year. (Rhee’s practice was to meet with every principal to get their written guarantees.)

She told Frontline that meeting, which took place early in school year 2010-2011. “You are to ‘goal set.’ You are to tell her, you know, ‘I will raise math scores by 5%. I will raise reading scores by 6%.’ And so, yes, she and I had that conversation. And I said to her in early October, ‘I’m very comfortable with a 6% gain in math and a 7% gain in reading.’”

JOHN MERROW: But … if you make the commitment for 6%, 7%, is it understood that if you don’t make it you are not going to be around?
JOHN MERROW: Produce or else?
ADELL COTHORNE: She– yes, she said that to me. Yes.
JOHN MERROW: She said–
ADELL COTHORNE: In a joking fashion, absolutely joking fashion, but she did say, ‘You know, Cothorne, if you don’t make this, don’t be upset if you get a pink slip.’ Those were her words to me. In a joking manner.
JOHN MERROW: Did you take it as a joke?
ADELL COTHORNE: No. (LAUGH) That’s my livelihood. No I did not.

Even as she was making that commitment, Cothorne knew she had a problem. What she had already seen in her new school did not jibe with the test scores that had been recorded. Here’s what she told Frontline:

“As any good administrator should, I visited classrooms and just made my presence known, (and) noticed a disconnect for myself and what was going on in the classroom. The level of instruction, because I’ve worked at Blue Ribbon Schools before, so the level of instruction that I know is needed for a Blue Ribbon School, I was not seeing on a daily ongoing basis. … There’s these huge disconnects. They’re struggling academically. Yet the data that I have been given is showing great gains. But what I see with my own eyes on a daily basis is not a true picture of great gains.”

I asked her to tell me more.

ADELL COTHORNE: Well, for instruction, I saw students who were struggling to read, which is absolutely what does not happen in a Blue Ribbon School. And did not coincide or line up with the data that I had been given as the new principal. I just really saw a lack of instruction across the board. There were only very few instances where I could go into a classroom and feel comfortable that instruction was going on and kids were learning. Wholesale, that was not happening at my school.
JOHN MERROW: It must’ve been upsetting.
ADELL COTHORNE: It was upsetting and it was a little nerve-wracking because I knew (LAUGH) it was my responsibility to raise the achievement of that school.

Her predecessor, Wayne Ryan had led Noyes with great success. In fact, Rhee had promoted him to her central office largely because of his school’s success on the DC-CAS. In 2007, for example, only 44.14% of Noyes’ students had scored at a proficient level in reading, but under Ryan’s leadership that number nearly doubled, to 84.21%, in just two years. Math scores had also nearly doubled, from 34.24% to 62.79.

What Cothorne did not know was that an awful lot of answers had been changed from ‘wrong’ to right,’ on DC-CAS answer sheets from Noyes–and in nearly half of Rhee’s other schools. At Noyes 75% of the classrooms were flagged for high erasure rates. (This problem began in Rhee’s first year, and she learned of it early in her second year. She had been urged to investigate the 2007-2008 erasures but did not, as the film details.)

Cothorne told Frontline that she inadvertently discovered a possible explanation for the discrepancy between the high test scores and the students’ daily performance: Adults were changing answers on the tests. She had stayed late one night and heard noises coming from one classroom.

“So I walked into the room and I saw three staff members. There were test books everywhere, over 200 test books spread out on desks, spread out on tables. One staff member was sitting at a desk and had an eraser. And then there were two other staff members at a round table and they had test books out in front of them.
And one staff member said to me, in a light-hearted sort of way, ‘Oh, Principal, I can’t believe this kid drew a spider on the test and I have to erase it.’ … That was a little strange to me. I mean, the whole situation of all of these test books, over 200 test books being spread out in this room after school hours with three staff members. It’s not the way a testing situation is supposed to happen.”

This was not an isolated incident, Cothorne told Frontline.

JOHN MERROW: Were there any other indications?
JOHN MERROW: Of– that– teachers or staff members were behaving inappropriately on testing situations?
ADELL COTHORNE: Oh, in testing situations. Yes. … I personally walked into two different classrooms and saw two separate teachers giving instruction, trying to frontload students with information while test books are open and out. So I saw that with my own eyes.

That created a crisis for Cothorne. She felt compelled to report the incident, but her immediate supervisor was Wayne Ryan, her predecessor at Noyes. How could she call him up and accuse his former colleagues of erasing answers, without implying that he may have been part of the scheme? In the end, she told Frontline, she called someone else, who, she says, told her ‘not to worry’ but that was the last she heard from him.

She also told Frontline that one administrator summoned her to his office. She would not reveal his identity but told Frontlne about the conversation.

ADELL COTHORNE: When I was meeting with this higher up– the statement was made to me, ‘You don’t respect the legacy that has been built at Noyes.’ Once again, I processed, and looked at the person and said, ‘Could you repeat that?’ The person again moved closer and said, ‘You don’t respect the legacy that has been built at Noyes.’ And I answered with, ‘You know, I thought I was doing a very good job of looking at instruction and giving support.’ And the person just kind of smirked and set back.
JOHN MERROW: And how did you interpret that?
ADELL COTHORNE: “Be quiet.” That was my interpretation.

(Cothorne would not tell Frontline the name of that administrator, but in court documents that were unsealed the day before our broadcast she names Wayne Ryan as the individual. He was, of course, her predecessor at Noyes and the person she reported to directly at DCPS. Back in May 2011, Cothorne filed a ‘whistleblower’ action with the US Department of Education alleging widespread cheating and, therefore, fraudulent awards of federal funding. However, on the afternoon before our broadcast the Department of Education’s Inspector General reported that she had not found cheating by adults and therefore the Department of Justice would not pursue Cothorne’s case. Her full complaint can be found here (.pdf).  In it she names the DCPS officials she says she spoke to. We have not be able to contact those men, and DCPS claims it has no records of phone calls from Cothorne. Cothorne’s attorney says that one call was made on Cothorne’s cell phone and that she has supporting documentation.)

At Noyes, however, she was in charge of the building itself. I asked her to talk about the coming DC-CAS. Here’s our conversation:

JOHN MERROW: You, as principal of the school, had something to say about the DC-CAS and security. And did you do anything to make sure that DC-CAS would be a secure test?
ADELL COTHORNE: Yes. So I did speak with downtown, and– on a regular basis, after I witnessed what I saw earlier in the year, I had ongoing conversations with downtown. “Don’t forget, when DC-CAS comes around, I need extra, you know, monitors. I need some other people besides my staff in the building to ensure that everything is okay.”
And at that point, downtown was more willing to help because the USA Today article had come out, and so Noyes had gotten lots of publicity about an erasure scandal. So when CAS came around in 2011, I did have two extra people from downtown to help monitor to– the test, and then I had another two extra people who helped with, you know, having the test checked in to make sure all the tests came in. We had locks changed on doors so that myself and my assistant principal were the only two people that had the key to the room to get in to testing. No one– the test coordinator did not have it. No one else had the keys.
JOHN MERROW: So are you convinced that that DC-CAS in the spring of your year there, that that was a secure test?
ADELL COTHORNE: I would honestly say that was a secure test.
JOHN MERROW: So you– you’re certain there were no erasures on that test?
ADELL COTHORNE: Now, I cannot be certain because I did not stay at the school 24 hours (LAUGH) a day. But while I was there, and what I saw, I do think it was a secure test.

With heightened security, Noyes’ DC-CAS scores dropped 52 points in reading (from 84.21% in 2009 to 32.40%) and 34 points in math (from 62.79% to 28.17%). In fact, in 2010-2011 Noyes performed below its 2007, pre-Rhee, level.

JOHN MERROW: How do you explain the drop?
ADELL COTHORNE: Those were the true test scores.
JOHN MERROW: I’m sorry?
ADELL COTHORNE: Those were the true test scores, in my opinion. Those were what the students in that school actually were able to produce.

Take note, readers. The decline at Noyes was not an exception among ‘high erasure’ schools. At the 14 schools with erasure rates of 50% or higher, scores declined at 12, often precipitously, after security was tightened. For example, reading scores at Aiton fell from 58.43% in 2007-2008 to 20.80%; in math from 57.87% to 16%. Reading scores at Raymond went from 70% to 42.44%, while its math score dropped from 68% to 45.71%.

By the time the 2010-2011 DC-CAS was administered, everyone knew of the widespread erasures, thanks to USA Today’s brilliant and thorough investigation. Rhee was gone by then, but, under public pressure, Rhee’s successor asked DC’s Inspector General to investigate. He began at Noyes, where he had little success. Cothorne told Frontline, “At first, they tried to interview staff members after school, but then staff members would find a reason not to be interviewed.”

JOHN MERROW: Why would teachers play cat and mouse?
ADELL COTHORNE: That would be speculation, but I guess they had something that they didn’t want to be forthcoming.

Of course, Cothorne expected to be questioned. After all, she had filed a complaint, and Noyes was the epicenter of the story.

JOHN MERROW: Were you interviewed?
ADELL COTHORNE: No, I was not.
JOHN MERROW: Why weren’t you interviewed?
ADELL COTHORNE: Again, my speculation, they didn’t want to hear what I had to say.

The Inspector General spent 17 months but investigated only one school, Noyes. Oddly, he did not examine data from 2007-2008, the year with the largest number of erasures but looked only at Rhee’s second and third years. At Noyes, the IG finally managed to interview 32 school personnel–but not Cothorne–and 23 parents. He reported finding a number of problems with test security but on the issue of Noyes personnel erasing answer sheets, “investigators found no evidence to corroborate these allegations.”

The Inspector General would not agree to an interview with Frontline.

Linda Mathews, the lawyer/journalist who supervised the USA Today investigation, told Frontline that , if one of her reporters had submitted a report like the one compiled by DC’s Inspector General, “I’d fire him on the spot.”

I asked Cothorne if she understood why an administrator or teacher might be tempted to cheat?

ADELL COTHORNE: Pressure. There’s pressure from central office to raise test scores. And that pressure is given to principals. And it is very clearly explained to you, not only in D.C., but many other school systems, your job is tied to test scores. Increase test scores. Period.

JOHN MERROW: Did you think there were people who, you know, outside of school, above the school, who knew something was wrong and maybe didn’t want to know?
ADELL COTHORNE: Not that they didn’t want to know, they wanted to keep their jobs. So I think that they knew, and, you know, because of the economic times that we’re in, decided to go along.
JOHN MERROW: Do you think that was widespread?
ADELL COTHORNE: In my opinion, yes.

I ask you to pay special attention to the next section of this piece.

Playing Devil’s Advocate, I suggested that changing a few answers was a victimless crime. She nearly jumped from her chair.

ADELL COTHORNE: No, it’s not a victimless crime. There are many victims. There are thousands of victims. It’s the students that are the victims.
ADELL COTHORNE: Someone is putting forth a picture that you are able to do something that you have no capability of doing. And so you keep moving to these different levels and the next person’s saying, “Oh, Janie can read on a fifth grade level and she can do fifth grade math.”
And Janie gets into your sixth grade middle school class, Janie can’t read, ‘See the dog run down the street.’ Janie can’t do the math. And so Janie becomes frustrated, because you are putting these sixth grade expectations on her and she has first grade ability. So then what happens to Janie? She waits her time, and when she’s 16 she’s out.

Although Cothorne became disillusioned with Michelle Rhee, she suggested that the problem went beyond the Chancellor. To Cothorne, Rhee was swept up in the national obsession with test scores everywhere, created by the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law.

She described it in these words: “(I)nstruction shuts down in February because you have to do test prep from February until the test. So instruction in many districts was already shaky in the beginning, and now you’re basically shutting down all instruction in February to do all of this test prep. Because for many administrators and many school districts, it’s as important to make sure that kid knows how to take the test than it is, ‘Did they truly learn the content?’ “

Because Cothorne is also the mother of a young child, she also sees education from a parent’s perspective. She talked about that in our interview.

ADELL COTHORNE: My frustration as a parent is that education as a whole has lost the ability of students to be natural learners. No Child Left Behind has put in the caveat that every kid must get it by Tuesday at 2:00, and if you have an IEP, we’ll give you until 2:15. But at 2:15 we’re moving on.
And you’ve got to get it. So children who need a little more processing time, children who may be able to give you the idea, but they have to write a song about it, or they have to create a picture about, (but) … when the rubber meets the road, it’s not about differentiation at the end of the day. That teacher is judged on, ‘What scores did those children get on that test?’

And that test doesn’t look at, ‘Could you sing the information?’ or ‘Could you create a poem?’ It looks at, ‘Could you write a short essay and could you bubble in the right answer?’ So that has been the focus. How do they pass that test? Not ‘Did they learn anything?’ but ‘Are they able to pass numerous tests?’ Because we test all year long.

Adell Cothorne, a dedicated educator who was completing work on her doctorate, resigned her principalship and gave up a reported annual salary of roughly $130,000. She has opened up a bakery, “Cooks ‘n Cakes,” in Ellicott City, Maryland, surely a gamble in these difficult economic times.

I hope it’s a rousing success. When you stop by (to buy), please congratulate her on her courage.

74 thoughts on “Meet Adell Cothorne

      • The Frontline show on Michelle Rhee by John Merrow was certainly interesting, but I would like to point out that the show unfortunately demonstrates how ignorant Rhee and Merrow both are about the meaning of numbers. I could write at length about this topic (when I taught statistics, I spent better part of a whole class on the topic), but to be brief I will provide just a few examples regarding the meaning of numbers.

        Numbers may be used in a variety of ways, for example as names or as actual measurements. The variety of ways in which numbers may be used has been set out in what has been called the theory of measurement, according to which levels of measurement may be classified as nominal, ordinal, interval or ratio. I will not try to provide an elaborate explanation of the differences in these levels of measurement here, but simply provide a few examples to illustrate my point.

        One of the best known examples of nominal measurement (that is, using numbers as names) is social security numbers. In this instance, we use numbers, as names, to identify people. But it would obviously be meaningless to calculate the percent increase between my own social security number and that of my wife (there is, by the way, a positive percent increase because my wife was born a bit after me.)

        An example of ratio measurement, that is measurement in which there is a real and meaningful zero point, is weight, whether measured in pounds or kilograms.

        An example of interval measurement is temperature measured in either the Fahrenheit or Centigrade scales.

        Why is this distinction important? Let me provide two examples to illustrate.

        Suppose that thanks to exercise and diet I reduce my weight from 170 pounds to 153 pounds, a decrease of 17 pounds or 10% (170 – 153 = 17 and 153/170 = 90% or a 10% decrease). Now let us consider this weight loss in terms of kilograms. Given that 1 kilograms = 2.2046 pounds, a weight of 170 pounds is equivalent to 77.11 kilograms. A weight, of 153 pounds is equivalent to 69.40 kilograms. If we do the calculations again, in terms of kilograms (69.40/77.11 = 0.90) we again get a 10 percent reduction. BINGO, the same percent weight loss.

        Now let us suppose that in order to conserve energy, I decide to reduce the thermostat in my house from 70 degrees Fahrenheit to 63 degrees Fahrenheit. This represents, of course, a 10% decrease in temperature (63/70 = 0.90), which doubtless would leave my wife feeling cold.

        Now let us consider my fuel saving effort in terms of the Centigrade scale of measurement. Given that to convert from Fahrenheit degrees to Centigrade we need to subtract 32 and multiply by 5/9 (e.g. the boiling point of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit, and 212-32= 180 and 180 time 5/9 = 100, the boiling point of water on the Centigrade scale):

        70 degrees Fahrenheit = 21.09 degrees Centigrade; and
        63 degrees Fahrenheit = 17.20 degrees Centigrade;

        and furthermore

        17.20/21.09 = 0.816, or an almost 20% decrease in temperature;

        would my wife have felt much more cold if I reported my fuel saving effort in degrees Centigrade rather than in degrees Fahrenheit?

        Obviously not. So ,why the difference?

        Because measuring temperature on either the Fahrenheit or Centigrade scales represes only interval scales of measurement, with only arbitrary zero points. Thus it is arbitrary to talk about percent changes in temperature in either the Fahrenheit or Centigrade scales.

        Test score results in terms of scaled scores are at best quasi interval measurements. So for anyone to talk about test score changes in terms of percent gains or losses (as have both Rhee and Merrow) demonstrates nothing more than the discussants’ fundamental ignorance about the different levels of meaning that numbers may be used to convey.

        Sorry, Michelle Rhee and John Merrow. You both would have flunked my Introduction to Statistics course since you both seem to think that percent changes in test scores are a meaningful manner in terms of which to discuss educational aims.

        -Walt Haney

        PS . Rhee and Merrow both seem to be, if not ignorant, at least not well informed, on what we know about how long and what resources it takes to reform large educational systems. For a sampling of well-informed opinion on these points see:

        last section, if you do not want to read the whole, I admit, long article.


      • Walt, we reported that scores went up from X% to Y%, a gain of Z, but in actual numbers. We did not compute the percentage gain from X to Y. If in one year 84% of students score at the proficient level, and then in the following year 60% of students achieve at the proficient level, that’s a difference of 24 points. That’s how I wrote about it in my blog.

        If you are saying that what Rhee said from the stage is incorrect, that’s another story, but I think she said ‘a gain of 40 points’ and so on. I don’t think she said ‘a gain of 40%,’ but I would have to listen again.

        I think I could pull a C in your class….


      • Walt, you are in fact incorrect here. The percentages represent proficiency rates, or how many students reached the level considered “proficient.” This is a ratio measurement (e.g. 25% passing is half of 50% passing). The article does makes the common error of using “scores” rather than “proficiency rates” to refer to percentages, which can confuse this point. However, the actual interpretation of the numbers as proficiency rates is correct.


      • I am a teacher, and I understand your clear explanation, Walt Haney. Thank you for taking the time to post it.


    • I so appreciate this lengthy explanation! After watching Frontline, I thought I had slept through the most important segment. Now I know it didn’t exist.
      I live in Nashville, TN, where I spent 21 years as an elementary and then middle school principal in the Metro Public School District. I retired last summer after a total of 38 years in public education. NCLB has created a generation of non-thinking test takers who think there is only one right answer for any problem… And we think there is a problem with “compromise” now?
      My heart aches for Ms. Cothorne! My heart also aches for my state.
      Not only is Rhee’s ex-husband our State Commissioner of Education, we now have Rhee and her new political agenda swooping down to take advantage of a scarlet state legislature with a super majority. Vouchers should be a cake walk during this session… There is an enormous push in our state to take away local control – from an elected Board of Education – to allow the state to have control over ALL charter school applications. I have always held sacred the belief that one of the last vestiges of True Democracy could be found inside the doors of public schools. Every child, without question, is entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education. Unfortunately, we are now legislating a new segregation defining the “Have’s” and the “Have Not’s” and eliminating the so-called American Dream from the reach of our most precious commodity, our children.


    • Facts don’t lie. Rhee did. John Merrow has the right to explore the truth. Rhee supporters rely on emotional attacks because Rhee lacks substance. Her accomplishments are not real.


  1. None of this sordid story surprises me in the least. Matter of fact, I predicted it would happen in my 2003 book, From the Teacher’s Desk. I greatly admire Adell Cothorne’s courage, and I regret the fact that she was, in a matter of speaking, shoved out of the world of education. Again, kids are the losers.


    • Joe Nathan? Aren’t you positively in love with Michelle Rhee? With all your resources why aren’t YOU speaking about this cheating here in Washington and across the country…oh wait…you LOVE this stuff – and your job is dependent on you NOT raising awareness of the harms caused by your own behavior…


      • Joe Nathan? Aren’t you positively in love with Michelle Rhee? With all your resources why aren’t YOU speaking about this cheating here in Washington and across the country…oh wait…you LOVE this stuff – and your job is dependent on you NOT raising awareness of the harms caused by your own behavior…BTW – This was all totally predictable – Look up Campbell’s Law. You’re supposed to be an academic but have turned into a complete shill for the Rheephormers – corporatists without shame.


  2. You might find more if you – or others – pursued who has that testing contract, how they got it, maintained it, and kept it from audits and reviews, and what their relationship might be with key officials in either the DC system, other large systems, or DOE. Ironically, it’s not “all about the student,” when money is as large as it is for testing companies, and risks or consequences as inflated as they are by bureaucrats like Rhee (or, perhaps, Duncan).

    I saw some of this in looking at Pearson’s role in evaluating teacher education at the University of Massachusetts, incidentally, and the echoing ripples of mendacity suggest that there is a much, much larger story and that Adell Cothorne is one of many, many, many victims. Yet pursuing a somewhat paranoid track of corrupt testing, managed through an inept – but often deliberately inept – enforcement system just echoes stories of Wall Street and medical testing and treatment programs. Too often – much too often – we are all taken in, as was Principal Cothorne, by simplistic solutions and reasonable – but unaudited – measures. It’s not the kids who corrupt the kids, and, in this case, it’s not even their teachers nor, perhaps even, their administrators. The corruption begins with a simple solution extrapolated way beyond any reasonable expectation.

    Two years ago I watched a high school kid negotiate an automated course – with many of the same bubble-based assessments after each lesson. He knew enough to google the question and then to explore what other options might be as good or better than the answers the test maker offered. He actually learned the stuff, but not from the text….


  3. Deeply depressing. The one time I met Rhee was in connection with her encouraging independent schools in DC to contribute in any way possible to public education outcomes – summer academic and enrichment programs were the specific topic under discussion. She came across as totally dedicated to improving education and being willing to do anything that would/might/could make it happen. I was amazed by her determination and courage and the sense of possibility that surrounded her. Adell Cothorne’s experience and the reduction in scores following tighter security are pretty unequivocal – looks like a desire (and a system designed) for excellent performance is too easily subverted by fear, need to survive etc. Nothing wrong with Rhee’s desire but the design just doesn’t correlate with it. AC’s integrity in pointing out the design flaw is so admirable I would even convert to cupcakes to support her courage!


    • Adell Cothorne should be celebrated for sharing her story. She is definitely telling the truth. There are many other former principals like me who were also harmed by the Rhee and Henderson machine because of cheating but also through wrongful terminations and bullying. Unfortunately, reporters only care about cheating stories because cheating is what exposed Rhee and Henderson for what they are.

      Adell stood up for what’s right and I’m proud of her. I hope that her example will do several things. First, I hope her bravery will open a genuine investigation. Second, I hope her story will shed light on the way Rhee’s and Henderson’s entire legacies are tainted by cheating and bending the rules. As horrible as cheating is, far more than just erasures happened. It will be a great day when journalists go for the entire story, not just for the eady, sweet part of the story.

      Congratulations, Adell! You are a fine example!


  4. Dear John,
    I would love to have the ability to speak with you beyond this email. I am a retired teacher/counselor from Wisconsin who has spent almost 30 years serving the children,
    parents, and citizens of my state. I have also been a school board member in the community where I grew up and where our children were educated. In my last 14 years, as an elementary counselor no less, I was charged with the duty of coordinating the administration of the
    NCLB testing, first at the third grade level and then at the fourth and fifth grade level too.

    I have watched children, teachers and parents suffer through the negative effects of
    this mandated testing. It NEVER told us what we did not already know about our students.
    Because the district I worked in had a high number of minority students, who were part of a
    voluntary integration program (Chapter 220), I was aware of the deficits that our minority
    students brought to this testing. Fortunately, our district (a suburb of Milwaukee) had excellent
    support services for all students (reading support, math support, counseling, test prep),
    and, for the most part, all our students students were able to do reasonably well. In some ways we were able to partly mitigate the profound effects of poverty our minority students
    brought with them.

    I must stress that this suburb is affluent, and once again the reality that where there are
    ample resources and a high combined income of the community, schools are strong and
    children achieve. And by achieve, I do am NOT referring to test scores!! While our
    school district did have a standardized testing program (CAT), and was mandated to
    participate in NCLB, the primary assessment tools used by our staff centered on portfolios
    of student products which emphasized higher level thinking skills, along with district and state standards which were measurable using rubrics etc. Plus, our students had art, music,
    phy. ed., foreign language, counseling services etc.

    John, if I may be so forward as to address you by your first name. I am looking to you to
    help truly reveal the facts behind the push to privatize our public schools. Surely, you are
    aware that the so called “achievement gap” seen in our schools with high poverty, is now being used to push for charters and (in my state) the expansion of “voucher”” schools
    which divert public monies from public schools to private (mostly religious) schools.

    Yes, clearly there are public schools which are struggling and not meeting the needs
    of their students, but the charter and voucher schools here in Milwaukee are NOT doing any
    better as scores on the mandated testing (ironically) reveal. You see, they are also struggling with the impact of poverty and lack of resources.

    Indeed our Governor (Walker) has cut an unprecedented amount of money from our public schools, and continues on his quest to privatize our public schools. Maybe in time we will have for-profit charters which, like many of those functioning today, do not provide art, music
    phy.ed. languages. And some, like the Rocketship Charters (which PBS so poorly reported on) put small children in front of computers for 2 hours per day to improve their TEST scores!!
    In the PBS feature, a lovely young principal indicated the students were only on the computers
    for an hour per day, but this is NOT the norm. I have direct knowledge that students are in the
    lab for approx. 2 hours per day doing programs tied to improving TEST scores. Even the
    principal in the piece shared that he is NOT sure that the time in the lab truly has a direct
    impact on test scores!! John, these children should be creating, exploring, interacting with
    their peers, problem-solving, and applying the knowledge they have been taught.

    John, I would ask you, as you prepared your piece on Michelle Rhee, if you had moments
    where you questioned the effectiveness, as well as the ethical propriety, of judging
    a student’s achievement on a test score. I entreat you to contact me. I am not a
    “supporter of the status quo” as those of us who question some of the individuals who see
    themselves as “reformers” would propose. I have been in the classroom. I have been
    a school counselor. I have been a school board member who voted to close 2 of our
    neighborhood schools when our enrollment declined. I have cried with parents whose
    children are not succeeding. I have held the hands of children who did not sleep the night before because a family member was killed in a drive by. I see the education of all our
    children as the single most important goal of our society. But I lament that the voices of
    those of us who have been in the trenches are often ignored or marginalized. Please help
    our voices be heard. Thank you so very much. Deb Cefalu Retired Teacher/Counselor
    Past School Bd.Member
    Educator in Wisconsin


    • I hope John Merrow contacts Deb Cefalu. Although I don’t know Deb, it at least seems like she has experience in education! (Rhee teaching 3 years isn’t quite good enough in my view.)

      One thing that I’m terribly worried about is that the reforms that were implemented in D.C. are being scaled to other cities and states, as politicians, especially those tied to Democrats for Education Reform, back this agenda. This is where politics and education can get ugly, and where the students can get hurt. These politicians are gambling that the future of America rests with students scoring high on multiple choice tests. This is a big gamble. Although standardized tests are useful, they can become dangerous when they’re abused. We’ve reached the abuse point.

      I hope Mr. Merrow can bring to the public’s attention more of the criticism of the multiple choice test education reform movement. I know it’s not easy going against the media trend, but this voice needs to be heard.

      See the organization Parents Across America. Read Diane Ravitch’s blog. I don’t think these parents or Ms. Ravitch are “status quo” people who don’t care about children. In fact, they’re the opposite. They just oppose Rhee’s forms of reform, but they don’t have the financial backing she has. And just because Rhee says she cares about Students First doesn’t mean that her policies are best.


  5. I greatly admire Adell Cothorne’s integrity and professionalism.
    Decades of eduational research have pointed to the predictable consequences of using test scores for purposes for which they were not designed. In today’s test-obsessed culture, scores are misused to determine student promotion, ability group placement, and graduation; to distribute teacher bonuses, raise salaries, and select for promotions; distribute whole-school awards.
    Michelle Rhee is a smart woman. She must have known that when she set the stakes so high, attaching test score gains to job retention and monetary awards – not to mention simple publicity, the outcomes would be perverted in one way or another.
    If she really had the well-being of the students and the district in her care in mind, why would she choose to ignore years of research that pointed to these negative consequences?
    Could it be that her motives were not so deeply grounded in care for the well-being of her students and district organization as she insists?
    Research tells us that using test scores to make such high-stakes decisions sets the stage for a culture in which more and more people care more and more about ***looking*** good and less and less about ***being*** good.
    It takes a very courageous person to challenge such a culture.


  6. Dear John,

    I hope you can continue your pursuit of truth, for the sake of the children. Just because Rhee says it’s for the children doesn’t necessarily mean her policies are benefiting them. And just because unions may have issues doesn’t mean that doing the opposite of what unions stand for in education policies is actually best for children.

    I once believed in many of the reforms being pushed on the education system (by mostly non-educators by the way), but as I’ve reflected more, I now believe they are doing much more harm than good.

    I recommend reading this well thought out and reflective education blogger who has experience in reform groups such as Teach For America, who is now highly critical of many of the false reforms being pushed in U.S. education today. He has a series of “Open Letters to Reformers I Know” (He personally knows a lot of them through his work with TFA.)


  7. John, the program last night prompted me to write this blog entry on August to June’s blog:

    Michelle Rhee Missed the Forest

    Last night’s Frontline program on Michelle Rhee, while horrifying enough, left out much about the damage she did to DC schools, and continues to do in her new position at the Newspeak-titled “StudentsFirst.” Leonie Haimson catches more of the story in her blog, NYC Public School Parents, which I highly recommend–don’t miss the end of the article where she grades Ms. Rhee, and John Merrow’s complete interview with the only principal who would talk to him in detail about the test erasure story… or much else about Rhee’s reign of terror.

    I have huge respect for Richard Zeiger, the California deputy superintendent who called the “F” that StudentsFirst gave our state “a badge of honor.” California got that “F” in part because of its challenge to Race To The Top’s demand that individual teachers be graded by the test results of their students, no matter what the economic and social advantages one group of students might have over another. What a great way to get even more teachers to flee high poverty schools! On top of that, StudentsFirst takes away points if class size is kept low after 3rd grade! While I figured out successful strategies for working with the classes of 25-27 that I regularly taught, I had one year in my public school teaching career with a class of 20, and there is no doubt in my mind that smaller classes means more time to work with individual students. How could a group purporting to put students first think otherwise?

    The other super important missing piece in the Frontlines report is around Ms. Rhee’s use of Teach For America teachers, who often stay for only a couple of years, to replace hiring committed and well trained teachers. I don’t have any statistics on teacher turnover these days in DC, but many studies have shown that it takes several years for a teacher to develop strong classroom practices. While I am glad that Teach For America recognizes the importance of supervision of their under-prepared teachers (Six weeks! I felt my student teachers needed more than the two three-month placements, together with the course work and guidance that California student teachers generally get), that is no excuse for not finding a way to hire well trained teachers in the first place.

    A big reason that Teach For America has found so much support is the teacher shortages that exist in high poverty urban and rural schools. Governments, both local and federal, have not built teaching/learning environments in underserved areas that make long-term commitments viable. Check out American Teacher if you have not already seen it. And notice how many years TFA Michelle R stayed in the classroom. The choice should not be between Teach For America greenhorns and traditionally trained teachers who burn out from demoralizing conditions! We need to create school communities that inspire teachers and students. We do not lack for examples of what that entails, if people would only see the forest instead of single trees.


  8. I recently completed classes for teacher licensure. I student-taught in the spring semester in a diverse school with a wide range of test scores. The first thing the teachers said to me was “You are lucky you were accepted to student teach in the spring semester–most schools try not to take student teachers in the spring because we have to prepare for the end of year tests.” And it’s true; all of the school’s resources were funneled to getting the “bubble students” to pass the test. This might be helpful if this meant one-on-one tutoring and reading remediation. In reality it means having the struggling students come in an hour early each morning to receive extra instruction on how to take a multiple choice test.

    Accountability and valid tests to measure progress are all things I strongly support. The problem is policy makers don’t spend enough time in these schools to know the lengths principals and teachers go to meet the minimum scores. At a certain point you stop teaching kids how to be well-educated-happy-functioning-citizens in society and start seeing them as “bubble kids” (have a chance of passing if you put some money into them) or “snowballs” (not a snowball’s chance in heck of passing) or “green lights” (kids who can sit and read Twilight the whole class period for all you care because they are well beyond passing).

    In an ideal world we would all be amazing teachers, driven each and every day to help each and every single student as much as is humanly possible. In reality, teachers are people and teaching is a job, and principals and policy makers are the boss; and you do what the boss says. Even the teachers I idolized for their teaching ability hunkered down with their classes for the weeks leading up to the test teaching them test taking “tricks” and having them memorize silly to remember these tips.


  9. Astonishing.
    Even if you leave out every bit of Adell Cothorne’s testimony as uncorroborated, you still are left with the story I expected Frontline to air, the one that was replaced by filler from previous reporting of Ms. Rhee by Mr. Merrow.

    I hope Mr. Merrow appreciates that DCPS did have records of the Fall performances of every one of its students on the pre-tests and then practice tests for the DCCAS they would take the following Spring. So, what teachers experienced in classrooms of students whose test performances or test sheets had been enhanced, and what Ms. Cothorne witnessed as a principal was all verifiable even before test scores regressed to their true level the following Spring.

    Chancellor Rhee hired as her Chief Accountability Officer someone without major statistical qualifications or serious experience, someone she met at her future husband’s Sacramento charter school. Whether that unqualified person noticed the crash in scores in the Fall at schools with high and unexpected gains and failed to report it, or whether she didn’t know to look for early signs of score regression are unknown. But, that regression was the largest of all regressions across cities found, incidentally to Stanford’s CREDO study comparing charter and public school effectiveness.


    • Rhee herself doesn’t have an education degree. She lied about her credentials and experience to get the DC chancellor position, which would guarantee almost anyone else on the planet an instantaneous pink slip, and when that broke, along with the election of a new mayor in DC, she bailed.


  10. Bravo! Ms. Rhee has sold the mainstream media a narrative that is heartwarming but completely untrue and the privatizers have been rewarded for her cheating by providing her with an even bigger megaphone and seemingly beating down anyone who strays from the Rhee storyline. I hope that her bogus ratings of State legislatures will finally get people to see that her agenda has NOTHING to do with students and everything to do with eroding confidence in public education so that more parents will opt for charter schools. And here’s the biggest irony in Ms. Rhee’s rating scheme: while she wants to hold Principals and teachers accountable based on solely on standardized test scores, test scores are not used at all in her rating system for State legislatures.


  11. Thank you John for moving from the adulation of Rhee (and Vallas) in the earlier reporting to do what good journalists do. The rest of the story is not very pretty. The incentives in Rhee’s approach are all wrong.

    I watched Rhee on Morning Joe this week. It was disgusting.They let her promote her book and never asked her a question about the Frontline story that was in all the papers. Lots of big money moving around to keep your story on the backpage.

    You have the credibility to keep after the truth. Do it.


  12. I am a parent of 2 high school kids in Florida. Both have been subjected to FCAT testing since 3rd grade. In fact, my older child was in the first few class years of the FCAT as he was in 3rd grade in 2003. FCAT started in 1998 but wasn’t fully implemented until 2001. So, over this period of time, we should be seeing major improvements in reading and math. That is not what we are seeing- despite what former Gov. Bush is stating. We are seeing an increase in the number of remedial college students. Maybe more are going to college though and fewer are dropping out? We are seeing that grad rates are virtually staying the same:

    It’s just a test though, right? Wrong. It is the education. Kids spend 12 weeks out of the 36 weeks of school doing test prep. My 12th grader, who is done with FCAT, loses instruction time to FCAT. During FCAT time (and the 3 times a year diagnostics), they show movies for the kids not being tested. When you have mixed grades as all high schools have, you cannot have some kids getting instruction when others are in testing. Teachers do not introduce anything new during FCAT season (or during diagnostic weeks). Learning stops 12 weeks out of the year. And the rest of the year has some FCAT focus as they have FCAT workbooks, have switched to more scantron testing/online testing to get kids very familiar with that format, and formula practice in “FCAT style” writing and reading activities.

    Now they promise FCAT is going away. They fail to mention, though, it’s being replaced by PARCC. This promises to be more rigorous. We also have EOC’s (end of course exams) for certain required courses. And now, we required Algebra, Algebra 2, Biology and one other high level science course and the EOC for each for graduation. I expect we’ll see increased dropout rates.

    We need to focus on making education about learning and the process of learning. We do need to test. However, standardized testing should be about diagnosing problems- not “holding students, teachers, and schools accountable”. Testing should be on 1 day a year only. All other tests should be written by the teacher to reflect the actual classroom instruction. And there should be a way for students who do not want to/have the ability to go to college can get technical education.

    Thank you for writing this article.


  13. John, I hope these comments will inspire Frontline to continue to dig. I’d like to encourage you to follow the money. How much money has Students First been given from Rupert Murdock (rumors are up to $50M)? With Joel Klein, former chancellor of NYC DOE, chief exec of the education division of News Corps, can you make the connections? Doesn’t Pearson, the UK’s testing giant, have a $90M biz creating and implementing testing? With marital connections to the Tennessee and Sacremento school systems, perhaps Rhee’s SF is doling out resources. Is there a possible conflict of interest? If you check out Juan Gonzalez (Daily News/Democracy Now), ask him about the effects of The New Markets Act, signed at the end of Clinton’s admin. It gave substantial tax breaks to corporate entities (hedge funds, et al) to invest in underserved areas. Thus, these areas became a place to launder money. You can check out my blog for this story if you like:

    Thank you so much for your diligence. Please stay with this story and follow the money. Education: it’s the “New Gold Rush.”


  14. If John Merrow, a reporter who has never taught a day in his life, were not so busy carrying water for the school privatizers, he would not be shocked at how anybody who is ethical in the education field is railroaded out of his or her position in public schools. Privatization would make a bad situation far worse. His documentary should have focused on Cothorne rather than his hero Michelle Rhee.


    • For the record (publicly available), I was an English teacher for two years at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, NY; taught English for two years at Virginia State College, a HBCU in Petersburg, VA, and for two years at the federal penitentiary in southside Virginia. I also was a TA at Harvard for one year and taught English in JHS for one summer. John Merrow


      • I live in Port Washington, NY, three blocks from Schreiber High School, where Mr. Merrow taught. We are an upper-middle class community with extremely well-funded, excellent public schools of which we are very proud and for which we are unstinting in our generosity. Every year we have multiple finalists and semi-finalists in the Intel (formerly Westinghouse) Science Competition from Schreiber. Because of the demographics of our community, our children also have benefits that go far beyond the exceptional public education with which we provide them.

        For Mr. Merrow to suggest that working as a teacher for two years in one of Port Washington’s public schools qualifies as some kind of credential of expertise on the subject of teaching in the schools that serve our poorest children, who live in the most dangerous and dysfunctional neighborhoods in our country is beyond laughable.

        That he believes this should not be surprising to anyone who watched the shameful “he-said, she-said” reporting he did about Rhee for Frontline, when clearly Ms. Cothorne’s story should have taken up most of the program. Nor is it surprising, given the many valentines he has written to Rhee in the past. Class solidarity, eh, John?

        For the record, I am not a teacher, and have worked my entire career as an IT professional in the private sector.

        I am also 57 years old and have no children. I don’t enjoy paying that big property tax bill every year and there is no personal interest in it for me, but I am proud to support our public schools. And I have nothing but contempt for Michelle Rhee, who works for financial gain and celebrity to destroy them and clearly has lied and covered up cheating to protect her fame and fortune, the consequences to the most vulnerable children in our country be damned.


      • Port Washington has changed a great deal. It was quite divided back in 1965 and 1966 when I taught there. As a rookie teacher, I was not allowed anywhere near the kids in the top two tracks but taught the working-class students, who were tracked into levels 3 and 4. You are correct that this was not urban poverty, but your implication that it was upper class is wrong.
        Many of my students at the Black college in Virginia were poor and often the first in their families to attend college.
        The men I taught in prison were, largely, from poverty backgrounds; they were also among the smartest students I taught, and that includes my year as a TA at Harvard.
        I wrote about this in The Influence of Teachers, by the way.
        I also want to say that I have faith in our audience and continue to believe that people new to Michelle Rhee got a pretty complete picture of the woman.


      • I agree with you John, I had never heard of her before and the Frontline program painted a pretty stark picture. Different people will take away different things watching her. When I saw a woman with three years of teaching experience fire over 200 teachers probably representing over 2000 years of collective teaching experience, I was truly horrified.

        At Boeing, a successful enterprise, they talk about the importance of tribal knowlege. I saw Rhee throw away 2000 years of tribal knowledge, smooth move exlax.


      • “people new to Michelle Rhee got a pretty complete picture of the woman.”

        Oh really? People new to Rhee, and Teach for America (TFA), did not learn that she had only 5 weeks of teacher training.

        Nothing was mentioned about how, as a TFA teacher, Rhee put masking tape on the mouths of her 8 year old students to keep them quiet. People were not told that when the tape was removed from her students’ lips, the skin came off, resulting in 35 crying children with bleeding mouths: (I reported a teacher for putting tape on the mouth of ONE student and she was fired immediately.)

        It was suggested that we would never know whether Rhee’s students made significant gains. People were not told that the actual test score data exist and have been analyzed by GF Brandenburg, and the students did not make the gains that Rhee claimed: :

        I am most familiar with Rhee’s “reform” efforts, so some things were mentioned that I had not known about before, including the whole “bee eater” thing. I have to say that, as a teacher who spent many years teaching young children about what is and what is not appropriate for them to put in their mouths, I was astonished that a teacher would think it perfectly fine to so cavalierly eat a bee in front of children of such an impressionable age.

        Nothing I have learned about Rhee suggests that she was ever a model teacher herself. One could argue that such behaviors are indicators of a novice teacher with only 5 weeks training, However, Rhee does not see any value in traditional teacher education programs, and StudentsFirst, along with Teach for America and other corporate sponsored “reform” groups, have called for Arne Duncan to sanction schools of education, based on the tests scores of their students’ students. Rhee also established The New Teacher Project (TNTP) which is based on the same 5 week training model as TFA, None of this was mentioned by Frontline.

        Most critical, Rhee’s links to right-wing politicians, corporate America and ALEC, all of whom seek to privatize public education, were also never mentioned. This is a complicated matter to be sure, but the bottom line is that it benefits profiteers and non-profiteers more than children, while seriously threatening our democracy.

        You may “have faith” in your “audience” to fill in the blanks, but you left gaping holes between all the dots, so the Frontline picture presented of Rhee was very far from “complete.”

        I hope you are planning to rectify the matter in future reports. .


  15. Dear Mr. Merrow — now that your frontline piece on Rhee has gotten so much attention, I hope you do the right thing and make this whole section on Adell Cothorne into a TV production as well.

    Certainly it will have as much, or more prominence as the original half-of-the-story that has already aired.


    • I hope that those who criticize me and/or the Frontline program will devote as much energy to making this blog (and the criticism) go viral. A typical Frontline program reaches between 700,000 and 1,000,000 viewers as I understand it. So make that your challenge, my friends.


      • Create a prime time show about this and let that go viral…give it equal time to the sainthood of Rhee,


      • John,

        I, like many of your commenters, am a teacher. We can relate to your reaction to the criticism. It is hard to take when the general consensus seems to be that you are not good at your job. Please understand that a lot of us are just so frustrated; it’s getting more and more difficult for us to do our real jobs and provide the type of support our students need. Many of us have been watching Rhee for years and were hoping your program would go in a different direction. We just want the general public to get the whole story of what corporate reform is doing to education. Again, I hope you can understand that it is just our frustration spilling out.

        Thank you for your Frontline piece; I found it interesting. Above all, thank you for this particular post. I am heeding your suggestion and will do my part to help it go viral. Keep plugging away and, please, always search for – and report – the truth.


  16. Great reporting. Thanks.

    How about follow-up Frontline examinations of the two core elements of corporate school reform that are sweeping the nation — 1) high-stakes testing/teacher discharge, and 2) charters.

    These two reforms are having a tremendous impact on what’s going on in our public schools and what our public schools will be like for the next decade. Most teachers, principals, and school administrators — particularly in low-SES areas — think these two reforms are damaging rather than improving our public schools. Amazingly, the mainstream media have largely ignored the criticisms regarding these two reforms.

    High-stakes testing/teacher discharge and charters have tremendous surface appeal, particularly for adults with limited personal experience with low-SES-area schools — the schools whose poor performance is triggering the drive for school reform. I’m a retired attorney, a suburbanite whose kids went to suburban schools; at first, I thought these reforms made sense. Most of my suburban friends still think they make sense. But, after talking with many teachers and reading many first-person books/blogs by inner-city teachers/administrators, I’m now convinced that the reforms are dangerously counterproductive.

    The high-stakes testing value-added models are too unreliable to use for discharging teachers — too many variables impacting the VAM ratings that are beyond teacher control; and, high-stakes testing has huge adverse side effects — encouraging cheating, discouraging teacher-teacher cooperation, encouraging teaching to the test/narrowing the curriculm, and discouraging teachers from working with low-income and/or “problem” students. The mainstream media have largely ignored these problems. There are more effective answers to the problem of identifying/removing poorly-performing teachers — for example, the peer-review system (called “PAR”) in Montgomery County, MD (a DC suburb) that has resulted in the discharge or resignation-in-lieu-of-review of over 500 teachers in 10 years with few challenges to the discharges and no high-stakes testing.

    Charters present a more sophisticated issue. Charters enroll via application; all the charter students have parents who investigated the charter option, successfully completed the application process, and (often) agreed to provide daily transportation to the charter. By definition, these parents are concerned/functional. In the low-SES areas, many parents are this concerned/functional; however, many parents are not this concerned/functional. The children of the concerned/functional parents will attend either the charters or the neighborhood public schools. The children of the unconcerned/dysfunctional parents will all attend the neighborhood public schools. Whenever a school system sets up charters, the school system is, by definition, syphoning off many of the children of the concerned/functional parents from the neighborhood schools; this, in turn, increases the concentration of the children of the unconcerned/dysfunctional parents in the neighborhood schools. As the concentration of these latter children in the neighborhood schools increases, the quality of education provided in the neighborhood public schools decreases. Bottom line: Charters allow the children of the concerned/functional inner-city parents to escape what are often chaotic neighborhood schools, but do so at the expense of making the neighborhood schools even more chaotic. If we care about public education, the obvious answer is to improve the often chaotic neighborhood schools, not create a two-tier system.


  17. Mr. Merrow,

    In every way that counts you are complicit in the exploitation of children for the profit of millionaires/billionaires in their move to privatize public education. Anyone with a shred of decency and journalistic integrity would have confronted Rhee with the literal mounds of evidence that prove her to be a fraud.

    Rhee is the proxy of billionaire, Eli Broad. Broad is the one who arranged for Rhee to be selected both in Baltimore as well as the chancellor of the D.C. school system. Rhee used fraudulent claims of academic gains to rise to national acclaim. Meanwhile, GF Brandenburg, supplied undeniable proof that all of these claims were false. Moreover, Brandenburg claims he sent this information directly to you.

    If you truly are concerned about Adell Cothorne and the millions of public school children she sacrificed her career for, you will do the following.

    Have FRONTLINE do a follow up where Michelle Rhee is on a panel with Dr. Diane Ravitch, GF Brandenburg, Adell Cothone and Mary Levy. If Rhee is truly the “Fearless” individual you presented her as she will relish the opportunity.


    • A followup is definitely called for here. The iron is hot – this topic is big news on most ed blogs I’ve been following, especially in DC – so now is the time to strike, and strike big! Too many people don’t know just how unqualified Rhee is to be in charge of educational policy for even one city, let alone to be taken seriously as a spokesperson for StudentsFirst.


    • Mr. Merrow,

      Do you plan on responding to these requests?

      It appears you want your blog to go viral but many here want the truth about the cheating and the Rhee lies and manipulation to go viral.

      What say you?

      Your reputation is tarnished and many think you have been bought and sold by the corporate deformers and the Gates $$$$.


  18. John, the fact that Michelle Rhee praised a school that went from the fortieth percentile to the eightieth in one year suggests that she was likely complicit in the invalidation of test scores and encouraged others to follow this example of dishonesty. It is my strong belief that our public school system is now being dismantled based on “lies, damned lies and statistics.” Educators and children need your help. Please continue to seek the truth and report on it. Thank you.


  19. I’m Guy Brandenburg, mentioned by Linda Johnson. I think it would be great to have me, Mary Levy, Adell Cothorne, and Diane Ravitch all on a panel confronting Michelle Rhee. I’m not a great debater or speaker, and I’ve never had TV makeup, but I have done a fair amount of research showing that Michelle Rhee has a very tenuous relationship with the truth, and so have the others as well.

    Where do we sign up?


    • Actually, it was me who mentioned you.

      I think it is long overdue for you to have a platform to explain how much of a travesty took place in Baltimore involving Rhee’s claims of success. I am still waiting for FRONTLINE, PBS, and Mr. Merrow to answer the following challenge.

      Have a follow up episode of FRONTLINE involving a debate with Dr. Diane Ravitch, GF Brandenburg, Mary Levy and Adell Cothorne.

      You certaintly have the infuence if not the power to make this happen, Mr. Merrow.

      Do so!


  20. We have been trying to expose the fraud in our schools for years. We call it White Chalk Crime, because it is white collar crime tweaked to line the pockets of administrators and people like Michele Rhee. Privatization will only fill their pockets more, which is why they are promoting it. Until people like Merrow report the voices of the powerless, intentionally made powerless by the way, teachers, our children and our nation will suffer. Check out as wee as if you really want the scoop on what is going on.


  21. I would like to echo the suggestion that a great follow-up to your disappointing Frontline piece would be to trace Michelle Rhee’s rise as an education guru. How did this individual with no teacher certification, no education degree, and paltry classroom experience rise to become the go-to media spokesperson for education reform, the chancellor of Washington, DC public schools, the head of a national multimillion dollar AstroTurf reform group, while becoming a multi-millionaire herself? Americans need to know who is really behind the movement to dismantle public education, and why.


  22. Mr. Merrow,

    Please consider our request and push for a follow-up. If not on PBS, then please reach out to colleagues at other networks/news outlets. As I’m sure you know, Ms. Cothorne has presented a counter-narrative that resonates with real, live teachers and administrators about the ever-increasing pressure we’ve experienced under NCLB and now RTTT. Once I read another teacher’s comment about the sensation of living under these false reforms. She said she’s tried and tried to have her voice heard but nobody is listening. She said she feels as if she’s stuck in the bottom of a well. Sadly, Frontline’s film left many more of us feeling that way–ignored, abandoned, forgotten.

    Although I greatly appreciate your blog post here, it’s simply not enough. To begin to challenge the erosive, dominant narrative–a virus, really–spread by Rhee and those who share her beliefs, we need more journalists like you and those at USA Today to stand with us, stand up for us, champion facts over opinions. Who in media will carry our flag?


    • Articles/programs about KIPP, Rocketship and other charter schools are part of the narrative that needs to be challenged, yet these organizations, like Rhee’s StudentsFirst, are featured by your organization. You can find PLENTY of former KIPP teachers who’d love to counter Levin’s and Tough’s theory around grit, gratitude, zest and the rest of the “character” traits KIPP attempts to instill in students. I’d love to share my experience watching a KIPP Dean eviscerate a student in front of all his peers–surely everyone learned something about bullying in that moment from an adult who above all should do no harm. I’d also love to describe the specific language development needs of English learners and Special Education students that were not met during my time at KIPP. Of course, we served far fewer ELs than the neighborhood middle school next door, which only detracts from the real conversations about grit, and challenges KIPP’s Report Card bar graphs that demonstrate how KIPP outperforms neighborhood schools with higher concentrations of SPED and EL students. Again though, the sliminess of comparing student achievement between radically different school populations in order to show your school’s superiority is of little consequence when you are Dave Levin, the face of reform, and along with Rhee, part of the TFA Mafia. At KIPP we did test prep from February until April. Students read and annotated short passages then practiced MCQs for almost 3 months. Each child tracked their progress in “reading” while submiting to the daily lesson that when you read, there is always ONE right answer. Mr. Merrow, I encourage you to choose a KIPP school, spend MWF of February, March and April in a 5th or 6th grade Reading classroom. T/Th of those weeks, visit an English Language Arts classroom at a private or high performing middle school in the same city. Compare the kinds of reading students are asked to do. Compare the kinds of questioning, the level of critical thinking, the opportunity for creativity. Interview a few KIPP folks who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. And then write or produce something about it. Until then, please avoid any more stories about these miracle charter schools.


  23. Thank you for this addendum to the Frontline piece. But I am puzzled why this extended interview didn’t make it into the broadcast. Although you mentioned the investigations and raised some questions, you did not adequately explore the evidence of widespread falsification of test results on the basis of which Rhee and the other corporate education “reformers” have forced school districts all over the country to transform public education into test-taking enterprises. Rhee continues to be hailed as a bold and courageous reformer and her strategies continue to be foisted on educators. NCLB is widely criticized, but the Obama administration’s signature education policy, Race to the Top, includes only superficial changes to the Bush-era policies. Federal policy continues to be founded on the assumption that all our societal ills are attributable to rampant lousy teaching and that test scores are the only acceptable, “objective” criterion for evaluation (AKA “accountability”). Policy continues to define children as one-dimensional products, requiring only the ability to read and write to become suitable employees, and that these skills can be taught on schedule, using standardized lessons delivered by pretty much any adult who can read a script — preferably a young, cheap, private sector employee. Moreover, now that we have standardization, class size and student-teacher ratios become immaterial.

    The resulting education-industrial complex has converted schools into job training facilities and robbed a generation of children of a real education and extinguished any innate love of learning. Gone are the social sciences, the arts, physical education, even recess, in the single-minded pursuit of higher test scores on standardized tests of math and English. This is what Michelle Rhee & Co. have wrought and this is the real story of her DC experiment.

    Free, quality public education has been the bedrock of American democracy and economic power. We are destroying education in order to save it. This is the story I had hoped you would cover.


  24. I have another follow-up idea. In her comment above, Maggie suggests, “I encourage you to choose a KIPP school, spend MWF of February, March and April in a 5th or 6th grade Reading classroom. T/Th of those weeks, visit an English Language Arts classroom at a private or high performing middle school in the same city.” I propose that the high performing school you choose is Sidwell Friends, where President and Michelle Obama send their daughters. The comparisons will be stark and may get us thinking, “Why should the children of elites get a markedly different education from that of the rest of America?”


  25. John,
    Bravo for this piece and for your dedication in following through with this information. It deserves far more attention.

    As I watched the piece I was dismayed to see these now stereotypical, unchallenged messages presented to the public: (1) Our schools are broken (see how out of control the students are at this high school) (2)The solution is for someone (like Rhee) to stand up to these students and ineffective teachers and say “No excuses, perform or you are out of here”.

    Our public school system is not broken. Across our country we have a continuum ranging from excellent, to good, to ok, to poor, to dysfunctional schools. For the most part, we have healthy teaching and learning going on consistently for most of our children (see the NAEP test results).

    What is true, is that, in many of our urban schools, poverty, neglect, and poor leadership have allowed some schools to become truly dysfunctional. Dysfunction is not “underperforming”.
    Dysfunction requires healing. The high school you showed with the out of control students cannot be pressured or bribed into performing. It needs to be healed. A skilled principal needs to temporarily close the school, develop a team of strong staff and teachers that understand how to engage learners on their own behalf and begin the work of rebuilding a functional school.

    Do you know the work of the late Dr. Moore “Design for Change” in Chicago? He understood, researched, and documented how to do this. He empowered local communities (local school councils) to have more control of their neighborhood schools and together, families, principals, teachers, they created strong, successful schools that outperformed the charter turnaround schools next to them. Now that would be a story to document! In particular note his 5 principles of effective schools. Here is the link:

    Michelle Rhee, although great at making celebrity headlines, does not understand how to create a vibrant, vigorous, successful school system. She has never accomplished this at a district level, let alone in a school as a principal. She is qualified to be a novice teacher (minimal ed certification and 3 years teaching). Why are we not making documentaries about people that can actually show us the way?

    I applaud your work and dedication to education. Please consider going past the headlines of the likes of Michelle Rhee and help our country consider the deeper questions of how we help develop consistent excellence in schools.


  26. I tried to post this earlier today, so apologize if this is a re-post, but don’t see it:
    As a person who lost her job after speaking out about the standardization of student teacher evaluation being pushed by Stanford, the AACTE and Pearson–I can relate to Adele Cothorne’s experience. There is a profound silencing happening in education-k12 and teacher education. It is both direct and indirect. For Dr. Cothorne and I, it is very direct: speak out and lose your job. For others it is more indirect: accept the discourse of standards and accountability or be marginalized. The direct actions work very well to send a message that supports the indirect actions. But here is where I just cannot untie the knot: why are teacher educators who speak out against the Pearsonization of k12 education, teacher educators who have nothing to fear, silent and silencing about the juggernaut that is the newly branded edTPA–an instrument of technical rationality that does as much to deprofessionalize teacher education as high stakes testing does to k12 teachers, and a money grab for Pearson? The silencing is teacher ed is profound,as it is throughout public education.


  27. Well, thank you, Dr. Merrow. I really appreciate that you have gone more deeply into Ms. Cothorne’s compelling story and shared it with the public. It seems like you are attempting to urge others to speak up as well, so the truth can be brought to light, and I am very grateful to you for that.

    I had been extremely disappointed in the segment on Michelle Rhee, the rehashing of her supposed accomplishments and your failure to mention other important issues, such as her right-wing affiliations, including her support of the ALEC agenda to privatize public education. I hope that people do step forward, so you can report more fully on the testing debacle, and that you then report on other serious matters associated with this woman, including the corporate sponsored education “reform” movement, for which she is the poster girl, by following the money.


  28. Mr. Merrow,

    Look at the absolutely reprehensible smear campaign that is taking place against the heroic Adell Cothorne.

    Again, I said you were complicit in the exploitation of children for the profit of millionaires/Billionaires and my accusation still stands.

    You’ve had more than enough time to issue a statement about either FRONTLINE or PBS’s intention to do a follow up involving a panel of Ravitch, Brandenburg, Cothorne and Levy confronting Rhee.

    Your silence here is truly shameful.


      • Thank you for positng here and Diane Ravitch has posted as well. Yes, I read to the end. Interesting she needed questions in writing for her lawyer to review and she still never got back to you. She is used to being surrounded by boot lickers and doesn’t take too kindly to the facts. Such a pity…maybe her group think world is beginning to crumble.

        Can you do a follow up with the data provided to you by Guy Brandenburg, et al.

        Thank you Mr. Merrow.


      • Mr. Merrow,

        I’ve read the column in its entireity and I have a simple quetion.

        What now?

        FRONTLINE has a platform that reaches millions, as a journalist of your staure well knows. A column doesn’t come anywhere close to providing a balance to the portrayal of Rhee in your documentary. Currently, Adell Cothorne is being painted as a lying opportunist seeking financial gain. Where is Ms. Cothorne’s opportunity to have the national platform of FRONTLINE to respond?

        I understand that PBS and FRONTLNE have a certain brand of journalism that may be considered reserved but the time has come for something else. If Rhee and the current chancellor are unwilling to sit for an interview, confront them publicly. Rhee is currently shilling her piece of propagandist trash on a book tour, go to one of the stops and demand that she answer the allegations against her.

        Look at what has transpired here.

        Rhee, has become a multi-millionaire who makes 50,000 per speaking engagement while spreading lies that endanger America’s children. The former principal of Noyes, whom Rhee personally elevated to the central office is now off in the wind and is the richer for presiding over blatant fraud.

        Adell Cothorne, the heroine that put everything on the line for the integrity of the public school system is now being demonized as a liar and a money hungry opportunist. Ms. Cothorne’s lust for money is demonstrated by her present entry in the highly lucrative field of cupcake making.

        Adell Cothorne deserves a follow up documentary on FRONTLINE. The children of both the Baltimore and D.C. public school system who are the victims of Rhee’s fraud deserve a follow up documentary on FRONTLINE.

        Anything less than a follow up is a continuation of the exploitation of the victims.


  29. Thanks, John,

    Sounds like you used the highest standards of journalism, trying repeatedly to interview Ms. Rhee.
    Another aspect of Ms. Rhee’s work is a new group called “StudentsFirst.” Here’s a link to a column I wrote that will appear in a number of Minnesota newspapers in the coming week. I think the some of the grades coming from StudentsFirst are very difficult to justify if you are looking at results with students.



    • Mr. Nathan,

      A low grade from Rhee’s privatization lobbyist group is an honor. We here in CT hope to plummet to an F next year.

      Her grades are not based upon student performance. They are aligned to whether or not you adopt her unproven, right wing, union bashing, privatizing, voucherizing, charterizing take over.

      Would you be concerned if your state scored a B? Who cares what Rhee thinks…she is a fraud.


  30. You may already know this, but I’ll post it anyway for anyone who would like to view them. The two video links below are by Glen Ford and he explains the who, what and why there is a concerted assault on public education by the likes of Rhee, private enterprises, the republican party, etc.

    Long version (1 hr…)

    Short version (33 minutes…)


    • Thank you for posting these videos. I had no idea that ultra-conservative Republicans had infiltrated the Democratic party. This explains so much! Frontlne should be reporting on this.


  31. The so called ‘system’ Rhee loathed and tried to kill at DC is ironically protecting her now. The current chancellor, IG and staff who benefited to name a few. In the meanwhile, DC school system is exactly what it was before.


  32. John, Do you have an aversion to following the money? If so, and if that’s because the Gates Foundation is listed as among “Our Funders” on this website, please read this thoroughly, “The Gates Foundation’s Education Philanthropy: Are Profit Seeking and Market Domination a Public Service?”

    I am a non-union Working Poor teacher with multiple degrees and decades of experience who, for the second time in a year, is teetering on the brink of homelessness due to my low pay. However, I would rather lose all that I own and live and die on the street of my cold northern city than sell out America’s children to thinly disguised profiteers like Gates and his ilk.


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