Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error

Michelle A. Rhee, America’s most famous school reformer, was fully aware of the extent of the problem when she glossed over what appeared to be widespread cheating during her first year as Schools Chancellor in Washington, DC. A long-buried confidential memo from her outside data consultant suggests that the problem was far more serious than kids copying off other kids’ answer sheets. (“191 teachers representing 70 schools”). Twice in just four pages the consultant suggests that Rhee’s own principals, some of whom she had hired, may have been responsible (“Could the erasures in some cases have been done by someone other than the students and the teachers?”).

Rhee has publicly maintained that, if bureaucratic red tape hadn’t gotten in the way, she would have investigated the erasures. For example, in an interview{{1}} conducted for PBS’ “Frontline” before I learned about the confidential memo, Rhee told me, “We kept saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this; we just need to have more information.’ And by the time the information was trickling in back and forth, we were about to take the next year’s test. And there was a new superintendent of education that came in at the time. And she said, ‘Okay, well, we’re about to take the next test anyway so let’s just make sure that the proper protocols are in place for next time.’”

At best, that story is misleading.

The rash of “wrong to right” (WTR) erasures was first noticed by the DC official in charge of testing, who, after consulting with the test-maker, asked Rhee to investigate, in November, 2008. Through her data chief, Rhee turned to Dr. Fay G. “Sandy” Sanford for outside analysis.

I have a copy of the memo{{2}} and have confirmed its authenticity with two highly placed and reputable sources. The anonymous source is in DCPS; the other is DC Inspector General Charles Willoughby. A reliable source has confirmed that Rhee and Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson discussed the memo in staff gatherings. Sanford came to Washington to present his findings in late January, 2009, after which he wrote his memo.

In response to my request for comment, Rhee issued the following careful statement: “As chancellor I received countless reports, memoranda and presentations. I don’t recall receiving a report from Sandy Sanford regarding erasure data from the DC CAS, but I’m pleased, as has been previously reported, that both inspectors general (DOE and DCPS) reviewed the memo and confirmed my belief that there was no wide spread cheating.” After receiving this statement, I sent her the memo; her spokesman responded by saying that she stood by her earlier statement.

Chancellor Henderson did not respond to my request for a response.

Sanford wanted the memo to be kept confidential. At the top and bottom of each page he wrote “Sensitive Information–Treat as Confidential,” and he urged, “Don’t make hard copies and leave them around.” (The memo.)

The gist of his message: the many ‘wrong to right’ erasures on the students’ answer sheets suggested widespread cheating by adults.

“It is common knowledge in the high-stakes testing community that one of the easiest ways for teachers to artificially inflate student test scores is to erase student wrong responses to multiple choice questions and recode them as correct,” Sanford wrote.

Sanford analyzed the evidence from one school, Aiton, whose scores had jumped by 29 percentiles in reading and 43 percentiles in math and whose staff–from the principal down to the custodians–Rhee had rewarded with $276,265 in bonuses. Answer sheets revealed an average of 5.7 WTR erasures in reading and 6.8 in math, significantly above the district average of 1.7 and 2.3.{{3}}

Sanford, a Marine officer who carved out a post-retirement career in data analysis in California, spelled out the consequences of a cheating scandal. Schools whose rising scores showed they were making “adequate yearly progress” as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act could “wind up being compromised,” he warned. And what would happen to the hefty bonuses Rhee had already awarded to the principals and teachers at high-achieving schools with equally high erasure rates, Sanford asked? And, Stanford pondered, “What legal options would we have with teachers found guilty of infractions? Could they be fired? Would the teachers’ contract allow it?”{{4}}

While Sanford’s memo doesn’t raise the issue, falsely elevated scores would deny remedial attention to children whose true scores would trigger help. Just how many children could only be determined by an investigation.

Michelle Rhee had to decide whether to investigate aggressively or not. She had publicly promised to make all decisions “in the best interests of children,” and a full-scale investigation would seem to keep that pledge. If cheating were proved, she could fire the offenders and see that students with false scores received the remedial attention they needed. Failing to investigate might be interpreted as a betrayal of children’s interests–if it ever became public knowledge.


The 37-year-old Michelle Rhee had been a surprise choice to lead the schools. After college, she joined Teach for America and taught for three years in a low-income school in Baltimore. After earning a graduate degree in public policy at Harvard, she took{{5}} over a fledgling non-profit that recruits mid-career professionals into teaching, The New Teacher Project. In that role, she eventually ended up supervising 120 employees. As Chancellor, Rhee would be managing a school system with 55,000 students, 11,500 employees and a budget of nearly $200 million.

She surrounded herself with people with no experience running a large urban school system. Her deputy would be her best friend, Kaya Henderson, another former Teach for America corps member who was then Vice President for Strategic Partnerships at TNTP. She would be managing the District’s 11,500 employees.

Her Chief of Data and Accountability would be Erin McGoldrick, whom Rhee had met at Sacramento High School some years earlier and who was an avowed fan of Rhee. A classics major at Notre Dame, McGoldrick also studied public policy at UCLA. Although she was in charge of data analysis at the California Charter Schools Association when Rhee offered her the job, McGoldrick had no experience in Rhee’s ‘data-driven decision making,’ according to several reliable sources.

Rhee selected Jason Kamras, the 2005 National Teacher of the Year and a veteran of seven years in the classroom, to lead what she called her ‘Human Capital Design Team.’ Kamras’ assignments were to design a teacher evaluation system and create a model union contract.

That no one in her inner circle had any experience managing an urban school system did not seem to concern Rhee.

And if inexperience led her astray, Rhee believed that she had a fail-safe system that would steer her back on course, data-driven decision making. “We’re going to be doing parent satisfaction surveys, principal satisfaction surveys, teacher satisfaction surveys, so that we can gauge how good a job we are doing,” she said. There would be no management by hunches or anecdotal evidence–only numbers. “I am a data fiend,” she told me. “Measure everything. Don’t do anything you can’t measure.”

She was determined not to let anything get in her way. “What I am is somebody who is focused on the end result that I think needs to happen,” she told the PBS NewsHour in September, 2007. “If there are rules standing in the way of that, I will question those rules. I will bend those rules.”{{6}}

Rhee said she would be guided by one principle: “I am going to run this district in such a way that is constantly looking out for the best interests of the children.” And she knew that her actions were being watched beyond the District of Columbia. “All the eyes of the country are now on DC,” she said. “I believe that what we are embarking upon is a fight for the lives of children.”


From her first days in Washington, Michelle Rhee had flaunted her inexperience (“I have never run a school district before,” she told her 5,000 teachers at their first meeting.), but here it seems to have hurt her. An experienced educator might well have gone public with the erasures and simply cancelled the results, boldly declaring that, because the interests of children came first, she was ordering retesting, this time with the tightest possible security. Privately, the veteran could have raised the roof, but publicly she would have been a hero.

Getting at the truth would have required bold action. The essential first step: a deep erasure analysis{{7}} to determine whether the erasures showed patterns, because patterns are very strong evidence of collusion. Even with 70 schools involved, that could have been done quietly, but step two–putting people under oath–would have been public. The Mayor and City Council would have to be involved. While that would have been messy, it would have been dramatic evidence that she truly did put the interests of children above those of all adults, including her own.


The model for an effective investigation can be found 640 miles to the south, in Atlanta, Georgia, where an eerily similar situation involving roughly the same number of adults and schools existed. As in Washington, the Atlanta superintendent resisted investigation. As in Washington, an expert was privately asked for his analysis, which was then ignored and kept out of view.{{8}}

Because of aggressive reporting by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and strong political leadership from two Republican Governors, the situation in Atlanta was investigated from top to bottom. An investigative team led by former Attorney General Mike Bowers and former DeKalb County District Attorney Robert Wilson interviewed more than 2,000 people and reviewed more than 800,000 documents. Because Wilson and Bowers were working with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, they were able to put people under oath when they questioned them.

Cheating was found to have taken place in 78.6% of the schools investigated. “Superintendent Beverly Hall and her senior staff knew, or should have known, that cheating and other offenses were occurring,” the 813-page report says. Hall, a former National Superintendent of the Year, left the district just before the Governor released the report, which implicated 178 principals and teachers. If convicted, she faces up to 45 years in prison.

According to the July 5, 2011 report, “a culture of fear and conspiracy of silence infected (the Atlanta) school system and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct.”

As Georgia Governor Nathan Deal said when releasing the conclusions, “When test results are falsified and students who have not mastered the necessary material are promoted, our students are harmed, parents lose sight of their child’s true progress, and taxpayers are cheated.”

In an interview in February 2013, Wilson said that he had been following the DCPS story closely. “There’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that adults cheated in Washington,” he said. “The big difference is that nobody in DC wanted to know the truth.”


It’s easy to see how not trying to find out who had done the erasing–burying the problem–was better for Michelle Rhee personally, at least in the short term. She had just handed out over $1.5 million in bonuses in a well-publicized celebration of the test increases{{9}}. She had been praised by presidential candidates Obama and McCain{{10}} in their October debate, and she must have known that she was soon to be on the cover of Time Magazine{{11}}. The public spectacle of an investigation of nearly half of her schools would have tarnished her glowing reputation, especially if the investigators proved that adults cheated–which seems likely given that their jobs depended on raising test scores.

Moreover, a cheating scandal might well have implicated her own “Produce or Else” approach to reform. Early in her first year she met one-on-one with each principal and demanded a written, signed guarantee{{12}} of precisely how many points their DC-CAS scores would increase.

Relying on the DC-CAS{{13}} was not smart policy because it was designed to assess students’ strengths and weaknesses. It did not determine whether students passed or were promoted to the next grade, which meant that many students blew it off.

Putting all her eggs in the DC-CAS basket was a mistake that basic social science warns against. “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” That’s Campbell’s Law, formulated in 1976 by esteemed social scientist Donald Campbell (1916-1976) .

Applied to education, it might go this way: “If you base nearly everything–including their jobs–on one test, expect people to cheat.”

And the novice Chancellor was basing nearly everything on the DC-CAS.


Associate Superintendent Francisco Millet sat in on some of the meetings with individual principals. “In that 15-minute period she would ask each one of the principals, ‘When it comes to your test scores, what can you guarantee me?’ And she would write it down. And you could cut through the air with a knife, there was so much tension.”{{14}}

Millet had no doubt that Rhee was sending the message that they would be fired if they didn’t achieve those guarantees. “Absolutely. Principals were scared to death that, if their test scores did not go up, they were going to be fired. And they knew that she could do it.”

Millet, who resigned after Rhee’s first year, is convinced that principals passed the message along. “There was this whole atmosphere of uncertainty. And when principals feel threatened that if their scores don’t go up, what do you think they’re going to bring down the next level, to their teachers? They’re going to make their teachers feel extremely intimidated that if they don’t do better this year than they did last year, there are going to be consequences.” That led to changes in teaching. “Everybody felt this urgency to improve test scores, and there was no focus on instruction,” Millet says. “The entire focus was on improving test scores.”{{15}}

Rhee categorically rejected this interpretation in an interview in September 2011 when I asked her if she had created a ‘climate of fear.’ “No! Absolutely not!,” she exclaimed, adding, “Was there a lot of pressure to improve student achievement levels in the district? Absolutely. A hundred percent. There was a lot of pressure to do that. But I think that somehow that making the leap from that to and therefore you added to it, it’s crazy.”

Perhaps inadvertently, the rookie Chancellor seems to have provided principals with two motives to cheat, a carrot–the possibility of large bonuses–and a stick–the threat of being fired.

DC’s procedures for administering tests–established before Rhee’s arrival–provided multiple opportunities for cheating. According to a veteran principal, “The test booklets came into the school a week before they were given, and they were just in a shrink-wrapped package. The booklets weren’t sealed. They were just wide open. You could just flip through the pages and see what was inside of them.”{{16}} From there, the principal said, it would have been easy to tip off teachers.

A number of teachers, including Martha Harris, a veteran of 46 years in DCPS, told us that some teachers received special treatment. “If you were one of the favorites, you were given (the test) by the head of the testing committee, or someone allowed you to put hands on that test ahead of time.” In short, it would have been easy for teachers to make sure their students knew the right answers ahead of time.

After-the-fact cheating–by erasing and changing answers–was even easier. “The tests would stay in the building for almost two weeks after they were given” so students who had missed a test could make it up. “They were in the building for a good month between arriving about a week ahead of time and finally getting shipped out. It would have been fairly easy for people to sit down and look through the booklets and change answers.”{{17}}

The erasures stayed buried for years. The official who had spotted the problem and urged Rhee to investigate has kept her mouth shut. Five months after she had informed Rhee of the widespread erasures, Deborah Gist resigned to become State Superintendent in Rhode Island. Rhee now publicly praises her efforts there.{{18}} Sandy Sanford, who earned roughly $9,000 for his work on the memo, has been paid at least $220,000 by DCPS for various services.{{19}}

When erasures continued in Rhee’s second and third years at slightly diminished rates, she and Henderson contracted for three severely limited investigations, none of which allowed for erasure analysis or an examination of the original answer sheets.

Two were performed by Caveon, a Colorado-based company. The other was performed by Alvarez and Marsal, a firm that usually coaches corporations on how to improve profit margins{{20}}. D.C. officials set limits on investigations, never insisting on the obvious essential step of erasure analysis; they dictated which schools should be investigated and even suggested the questions to be asked. A D.C. official sat in on many of the interviews with staffers. No erasure analysis has ever been performed. Caveon’s president, John Fremer, later told the Washington Post and USA Today that it had performed ‘a security audit’ and not an investigation.

Caveon’s 2009 inquiry turned up no cheating. Its 2010 investigation fingered three adults — from three different schools. One of them, a first-year teacher, confessed that he had stood over some of his pupils and coached them until they penciled in the right answers. His explanation: That was the way testing was conducted at his school. He lost his job.

The situation came close to exploding in March 2011 when USA Today blew the whistle on the erasures. The newspaper’s investigative team {{21}} reported that the odds against the 2008 wrong-to-right erasures having happened by chance in some of the schools were greater than the odds of winning the Powerball.{{22}} Tom Haladyna, a professor emeritus at Arizona State who has spent decades investigating cheating, told the newspaper that the score gains reported at DCPS were implausible, observing that “a slow runner can improve a little in each race he runs, but he’s not going to set a new world record.” And some of those score gains were akin to setting a new world record or “losing a hundred pounds a month on a new diet,” Haladyna said.{{23}}

Even then there was no full investigation. Chancellor Henderson somehow persuaded DC’s Inspector General to investigate the matter without looking into the 2008 erasures. He spent 17 months on the case, during which time he interviewed only 60 people from just one school (even though by then more than 90 schools had been implicated).{{24}} When I asked Mr. Willoughby why he had not looked into the first year or at other schools, all he said was that it was not “a fishing expedition,” adding “We stand by our report.”

Choosing to bury the problem and minimize investigations{{25}} allowed Rhee to continue with her radical makeover of the low-performing DC public school system. She extended her ‘produce or else’ approach to teachers{{26}} and continued to remove or reward principals based on DC-CAS scores. In 2010, Rhee confidently predicted that, within five years, the D.C. school system would be “the highest performing urban school district in the country and one that has the faith and confidence of the citizens of the city.”

Her policies remained in force even after she left DC in October 2010 to start, as she proclaimed on Oprah, “a revolution on behalf of America’s children.” Through her well-financed “StudentsFirst” lobbying non-profit organization, she began crisscrossing the nation, urging governors and legislators to do what she did in Washington.

She has been remarkably successful. At least 25 states have adopted her ‘produce or else’ test-score based system of evaluating teachers.{{27}}

But politicians (and citizens) in those 25 states might want to take a closer look at what she actually accomplished. Sadly, DC’s schools are worse by almost every conceivable measure.

For teachers, DCPS has become a revolving door. Half of all newly hired teachers (both rookies and experienced teachers) leave within two years; by contrast, the national average is said to be between three and five years.{{28}}

It was a revolving door for principals as well. Rhee appointed 91 principals in her three years as chancellor, 39 of whom no longer held those jobs in August 2010. Some left on their own; others, on one-year contracts, were fired for not producing quickly enough.{{29}} She also fired more than 600 teachers.{{30}}

Child psychiatrists have long known that, to succeed, children need stability. Because many of the District’s children face multiple stresses at home and in their neighborhoods, schools are often that rock. However, in Rhee’s tumultuous reign, thousands of students attended schools where teachers and principals were essentially interchangeable parts, a situation that must have contributed to the instability rather than alleviating it.

The teacher evaluation system that Rhee instituted designates some teachers as ‘highly effective,’ but, despite awarding substantial bonuses and having the highest salary schedule in the region, DCPS is having difficulty retaining these teachers, 44% of whom say they do not feel valued by DCPS.{{31}}

Although Rhee removed about 100 central office personnel in her first year, the central office today is considerably larger, with more administrators per teachers than any district surrounding DC. In fact, the surrounding districts seem to have reduced their central office staff, while DC’s grew.{{32}} The greatest growth in DCPS has been in the number of employees making $100,000 or more per year, from 35 to 99.{{33}}Per pupil expenditures have risen sharply, from $13,830 per student to $17,574, an increase of 27%, compared to 10% inflation in the Washington-Baltimore region.{{34}}

A comparison of pre- and post-Rhee DC-CAS scores shows little or no gain, and most of the scores at 12 of the 14 highest ‘wrong to right’ erasure schools are now lower. Take Aiton Elementary, the school that Sanford wrote about: The year before Rhee arrived, 18% of Aiton students scored proficient in math and 31% in reading. Scores soared to over 60% during the ‘high erasure’ years, but today both reading and math scores are more than 40 percentile points lower.{{35}}

Enrollment declined on Rhee’s watch and has continued under Henderson, as families enrolled their children in charter schools or moved to the suburbs. The year before Rhee arrived, DCPS had 52,191 students. Today it enrolls about 45,000, a loss of roughly 13%.{{36}}

Even students who remained seem to be voting with their feet, because truancy in DC is a “crisis” situation{{37}}, and Washington’s high school graduation rate is the lowest in the nation.{{38}}

Rhee and her admirers point to increases on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam given every two years to a sample of students under the tightest possible security. And while NAEP scores did go up, they rose in roughly the same amount as they had under Rhee’s predecessor, and Washington remains at or near the bottom on that national measure.{{39}}

The most disturbing effect of Rhee’s reform effort is the widened gap in academic performance between low-income and upper-income students, a meaningful statistic in Washington, DC because race and income are highly correlated. On the most recent NAEP test (2011) only about 10% of low income students in grades 4 and 8 scored ‘proficient’ in reading and math. Since 2007, the performance gap has increased by 29% in 8th grade reading, by 44% in 4th grade reading, by 45% in 8th grade math, and by 72% in 4th grade math. Although these numbers are also influenced by changes in high- and low-income populations, the gaps are so extreme that is seems clear that low-income students, most of them African-American, did not fare well during Rhee’s time in Washington.{{40}}


It’s 2013. Is there any point to investigating probable cheating that occurred in 2008, 2009 and 2010? After all, the children who received inflated scores can’t get a ‘do-over,’ and it’s probably too late to claw back bonuses from adults who cheated, even if they could be identified. While erasure analysis would reveal the extent of cheating, what deserves careful scrutiny is the behavior of the leadership when it learned that a significant number of adults were probably cheating, because five years later, Rhee’s former deputy is in charge of public schools, and Rhee continues her efforts to persuade states and districts to adopt her approach to education reform–an approach, the evidence indicates, did little or nothing to improve the public schools in our nation’s capital.

This story is bound to remind old Washington hands of Watergate and Senator Howard Baker’s famous question, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” It has a memo that answers an echo of Baker’s question, “What did Michelle know, and when did she know it?” And the entire sordid story recalls the lesson of Watergate, “It’s not the crime; it’s the coverup.”

That Michelle Rhee named her new organization “StudentsFirst” is beyond ironic.


[[1]]1. Conducted September 2011 when Rhee appeared at NBC’s “Education Nation.”[[1]]

[[2]] 2. I first got wind of the Sanford memo while working on a documentary about Rhee for the PBS series “Frontline.” I spoke with Sanford, who confirmed that he had indeed written a memo but could not turn it over to me because it was “a work for hire.” Producer Michael Joseloff and I filed Freedom of Information Act requests with DCPS, which denied its existence, and with two Inspectors General, who acknowledged that they had it in their possession but refused to turn it over on grounds that the memo was part of the “deliberative process” within the D.C. government and thus not available to the public.

Not long after I blogged about “The Missing Memo” on January 15, 2013,it arrived in a plain white envelope. A second copy–perhaps from the same leaker–arrived in late March.

The original leaker of the memo added a note: “You’ve made some folks here nervous, but Rhee, Henderson and Kamras will all deny knowing anything about what Erin worked on.”[[2]]

[[3]]3. The differences, measured in standard deviations from the norm, were astonishing. Experts say that three standard deviations is a ‘red flag’ and four or more are prima facie evidence of cheating. At some DCPS schools the WTR erasure rates were five, six and even seven standard deviations from the norm.[[3]]

[[4]]4. Apparently Dr. Sanford expected Rhee to act decisively. In his memo he recommends that, ”as soon as you think it advisable, someone contacts the legal people and asks them to determine what possible actions can be taken against identified offenders.” As far as we could determine, Rhee did not follow this recommendation.[[4]]

[[5]] 5. Her claim to have founded TNTP is disputed by people in a position to know. It began within Teach for America and was the brainchild of TFA founder Wendy Kopp.[[5]]

[[6]]6. Rhee’s biographer, Richard Whitmire, has characterized her as ‘a zealot’ who believes in the absolute rightness of what she is doing. His book is The Bee Eater.

She also declared–proudly–that she was not inclined to look back. Shortly after she fired a principal she had appointed just a few weeks earlier (replacing one she had fired), I asked her if she had any regrets about her actions. “I’m a very unusual person in that, in my entire life, I don’t have any regrets. I’m a person without regret. Now, are there things that I could have done differently? And if I had to rewrite it, you know, I would have, you know, done it with a smarter way or whatnot, yeah. There are absolutely things that I could have done better. But regrets? No.” She said that in December 2007. Would she say that today?[[6]]

[[7]]7. At its simplest level, investigators can determine which kinds of questions had their answers erased, because multiple-choice tests are planned carefully in include some easy questions, some hard questions, and some of a moderate degree of difficulty. Students would be expected to answer the easy questions correctly and make their mistakes on the harder ones. If answer sheets showed that students with lots of erasures consistently got the difficult questions right–because of WTR erasures–but messed up on the easy ones, that is evidence of tampering. If in one classroom almost all the students erased the same answers in a WTR pattern, that is evidence of tampering, probably by one individual. Sophisticated analysis will reveal whether several classrooms display a identical patterns, which would be evidence of coordinated cheating, a so-called “erasure party.”[[7]]

[[8]]8. Professor Andrew Porter of the University of Pennsylvania did the analysis for Hall.[[8]]

[[9]] 9. August 8, 2008. When those results arrived, Rhee, her deputies and the principals who later would receive $10,000 bonuses gathered in her meeting room. One person who was present described the festive atmosphere. “We were euphoric. Michelle gave a rousing speech, and we drank sparkling cider out of plastic Champagne glasses.”[[9]]

[[10]] 10.October 16, 2008. OBAMA: I’ll just make a quick comment about vouchers in D.C. Senator McCain’s absolutely right: The D.C. school system is in terrible shape, and it has been for a very long time. And we’ve got a wonderful new superintendent there who’s working very hard with the young mayor there to try…

MCCAIN: Who supports vouchers.

OBAMA: … who initiated — actually, supports charters.

MCCAIN: She supports vouchers, also.[[10]]

[[11]] 11. She would be pictured in an empty classroom holding a broom, on the December 8th issue. The photo caused an uproar, implying as it did that the solution was to sweep out the bad teachers.[[11]]

[[12]] 12. At least one dozen principals described this process, including the written guarantee, in interviews for “Frontline.” Several principals apparently chose not to sign and instead submitted their resignations.[[12]]

[[13]] 13.The DC-CAS was an assessment tool with roughly 50 multiple choice questions in both reading and math. The scores did not determine whether kids passed or failed. In the parlance of education, it was not a ‘high-stakes’ test for students, and so many–perhaps most–kids did not care a whit about it. Some slept through the testing, and others filled in bubbles randomly.

Their indifference led principals to take extreme measures to try to get students to take the test seriously. Some principals offered cash to students who promised to try hard. One pledged to get a tattoo if his students did well on the DC-CAS. They would get to pick the tattoo; he would pick the spot on his body where it would be permanently engraved. (Even that desperate strategy did not work!)

The 2008 version had 45 multiple choice questions in reading and 51 in math. Like most standardized tests, some questions were relatively easy, a few very difficult. Designed to assess student strengths and weaknesses, the DC-CAS results would reveal which students needed remedial help in multiplying with fractions or identifying adverbs, for example. The test has four performance levels: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced. Teachers would get that information and be able provide the individual attention–if the system worked as designed.[[13]]

[[14]] 14. Interviewed at his home in Dallas, Texas, where he moved after resigning.[[14]]

[[15]] 15. I spent enough time in classrooms during Rhee’s first year to support his observation. We saw hours and hours of drill on basic concepts, and we heard parental complaints like this one: “There’s no attention to the actual depth of instruction going on in the classroom. What we’ve seen is the quick-fix solutions of choosing to work intensively with kids who you knew could boost their test scores if they just got a few extra hours of instruction on particular glitches in their own test results.” She said that her daughter spent nearly three weeks of school on practice testing.

Did she mean that her daughter spent the day filling in bubbles on sample answer sheets? “Exactly,” she answered. “I’m not joking. That’s what you do. You take tests. You take practice tests.”

Martha Harris, the 46-year veteran, agreed. “That’s all we did,” she said. “There came a point in time where we almost abandoned teaching. After Christmas, there was nothing but test prep.” The DC-CAS is given in April.[[15]]

[[16]] 16. The interview was conducted in shadow to shield the principal’s identity. We did not use it on “Frontline.”[[16]]

[[17]] 17. The Frontline broadcast of January 8, 2013 brought one individual’s complaint about cheating into focus. Adell Cothorne, the former principal of Noyes Education Campus, went public with her story of an apparent ‘erasure party.’. “I walked into the room and I saw three staff members,” Cothorne told Frontline. “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.’”
Cothorne was in her first year at Noyes, appointed because Rhee had promoted her predecessor, Wayne Ryan, to her central office. Under Ryan, Noyes had achieved remarkable growth in DC-CAS scores, and Rhee had (literally) made him her poster child for recruitment. 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–could not have known–was that a lot of answers had been changed from ‘wrong’ to right’ on DC-CAS answer sheets from Noyes. At Noyes 75% of the classrooms had been flagged for high erasure rates.)

Education enabled Adell Cothorne to rise from the unpromising circumstances–child of a teenage mother, raised in poverty. She rose to become an Assistant Principal in Montgomery County, Maryland, a wealthy suburb of the Capital with excellent ‘Blue Ribbon’ public schools. It’s one of the top-ranked school districts in the nation.

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, and in October she met with the Chancellor, one-on-one. At that meeting she promised Rhee a 6% gain in math and a 7% gain in reading.

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, 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.”

The apparent ‘erasure party’ she had walked in on galvanized Cothorne. She arranged for tightened security. She changed the locks and had four additional people to monitor classrooms during the tests.

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

Those numbers, she told Frontline, were the true test scores. “Those were what the students in that school actually were able to produce,” she said.

Adell Cothorne, who was completing work on her doctorate, resigned her principalship and gave up an annual salary of roughly $130,000. She has since opened up a bakery, “Cooks ‘n Cakes,” in Ellicott City, Maryland. Her whistleblower suit against DCPS was dismissed in January 2013. [[17]]

[[18]] 18. In her Students First rating system, Rhee gave the highest marks to Rhode Island, Louisiana and the District of Columbia. She was interviewed on ‘Morning Joe’ on January 7, 2013 and publicly praised Gist, the only person she mentioned by name in the interview.[[18]]

[[19]] 19. From documents released by DCPS in response to FOIA requests.[[19]]

[[20]] 20. A&M was technically hired by OSSE, not DCPS, but that is a distinction without much of a difference because OSSE’s leader was in synch with DCPS. A&M conducted interviews in those 60 classrooms and, in June 2012, reported it had found “definitive test tampering” in only two of them.

In one classroom at Martin Luther King Elementary, two students reported that their teacher pointed out correct answers; another student in the same classroom reported that the proctor had read answers aloud, raising his/her voice to indicate the correct answer. But, A&M said, the latter charge was “not corroborated” by either of the other two students interviewed from that classroom. A&M apparently interviewed only three students in the class.

At another school, the Langdon Education Campus, a K-8 school, two students reported that the adult administering the test provided assistance to them and other students during the test. Minor infractions — missing security binders and the like — were found at 15 other schools.

Were the adults fired? The report issued by OSSE said that, at both schools, “personnel action for implicated staff members” was pending.

Among the 13 schools where A&M said it found no evidence of any violations was J.O. Wilson Elementary, where in one preceding year every classroom that gave tests had been flagged for abnormally high erasure rates. On the 2011 test, one Wilson classroom registered an average of 9 erasures per student, compared to a district average of 1 erasure per student on that same test. A&M did not explain why it found nothing amiss at Wilson, at least not in the summary made public by OSSE.

A&M was not given access to test answer sheets and did not perform an electronic analysis.[[20]]

[[21]] 21. Reported by Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello under the direction of Linda Mathews[[21]]

[[22]] 22. What USA Today reported in March 2011 was truly staggering. Between 2008 and 2010, nearly one-quarter of the nearly 3,000 classrooms tested on the DC CAS showed high rates of wrong-to-right erasures. Such erasures persisted at schools like J.O. Wilson, a primary school in the city’s gentrifying H Street corridor, in all of the classrooms tested. At Noyes Education Campus, nearly every classroom had been flagged — the same year Ryan and DCPS officials were filling out their federal Blue Ribbon School application. All told, those erasures were the kinds of anomalies that Rhee’s hired consultant, CTB/McGraw-Hill and the District’s own officials said could be signs of malfeasance.

Just how significant were the erasures? The rates at which students’ answers were erased and changed to the correct answer were enough to make a statistician squirm. In spreadsheets sent to DCPS, classroom after classroom showed remarkable changes — leaving a smudged erasure mark behind while changing the answer to the correct choice wholesale. The odds that these changes were happening–over and over again–by chance, statisticians told USA Today, were greater than the odds of winning the Powerball.

The mathematics weren’t enough to convince Victor Reinoso, DC’s deputy mayor for education. He–and later Rhee–interpreted McGraw-Hill’s memo on the subject to mean that erasures alone were not enough to draw conclusions about cheating–and therefore there was no reason to investigate. The logic is remarkably convoluted: McGraw-Hill said that the data alone didn’t prove cheating but could be used for ‘follow-up investigation.’ However, following up was apparently the last thing anyone in power wanted to do.

(Some public charter schools — which were also subject to DC testing protocols — responded to erasures by launching inquiries to find out what had happened. DCPS responded by tightening test security for future tests and hoped it wouldn’t happen again.)

The newspaper printed the back-and-forth correspondence between Rhee and the testing supervisor, with Rhee asking first for more time and then for more information. However, USA Today’s reporters did not know of Sandy Sanford’s confidential memo. Rhee, by then leading her new organization, StudentsFirst, initially dismissed USA Today’s reporting as racist because, she said, it implied that poor Black children could not achieve. She subsequently apologized for the comments but did not call for an investigation.[[22]]

[[23]] 23. Cited by Linda Mathews, in a personal communication [[23]]

[[24]] 24. The Inspector General’s investigation is remarkable for what it did not investigate. Inspector General Charles Willoughby chose not to investigate Rhee’s first year, the year with the most erasures. He chose not to investigate Aiton, the school Sanford had singled out for special attention because of its high wrong to right erasures. He did not examine the test answer sheets or perform an electronic analysis. And he did not investigate J.O Wilson – a school with excessive WTR erasures in 100% of its classrooms – simply because the School Chancellor had assured him that it was a good school!

Although more than half of DC’s schools had been implicated, he focused only on Noyes Education Campus, the school that USA Today had made the centerpiece of its investigation. Over the course of the next 17 months, his team interviewed just 60 administrators, teachers, parents and teachers (Atlanta investigators interviewed over 2,000), all from Noyes Education Campus. Rather than seek outside experts (as Atlanta investigators had), he relied on information from Caveon and Alvarez & Marsal, two firms in the employ of DCPS. He did not ask to perform erasure analysis but relied on interviews–sometimes conducted over the phone.

Without the power to put people under oath, he told City Council member Kenyan McDuffie that asked them if they had cheated. If they said they hadn’t, that was the end of it, because, he explained, he “wasn’t conducting a fishing expedition.” Test monitors sent by the central office to patrol Noyes for the 2010 test told Willoughby that they had been barred from entering classrooms. School officials denied that charge–and Willoughby believed them, not the monitors.

Willoughby was called to testify on February 21, 2013, by McDuffie (who remains the only elected official in DC to show official interest in the erasures). McDuffie asked the IG why he had not looked at other high-erasure schools. “Because we didn’t find evidence of a conspiracy to cheat at Noyes,” he replied. Was it prudent to take the word of two firms that were paid by DCPS instead of seeking an outside, independent opinion, McDuffie asked. “Yes,” Willoughby replied.

Asked by McDuffie if he had tried to find an explanation for the pronounced test score drops when security was tightened, Willoughby replied, “We were told that it was caused by an influx of new students.” His 17-month investigation resulted in a 14-page report, which he released August 8, 2012. (The Atlanta report runs 413 pages.) He found no evidence of widespread cheating at Noyes but cited some security concerns and noted that one teacher had been dismissed for coaching students on a test. The IG’s essential message: except for that one teacher, all was well.[[24]]

[[25]] 25. Henderson praised the IG’s report as exculpatory, and the Washington Post’s editorial page chimed its agreement.

Henderson and Rhee maintain that the investigations were thorough. After our Frontline in January 2013, Henderson issued this statement: “Since 2009, there have been multiple investigations looking into these allegations, including one by the DC Office of the Inspector General and one by the US Department of Education Inspector General. There was an instance of cheating at Noyes and the individual who was found to be guilty was terminated. All of the investigations have concluded in the same way that there is no widespread cheating at DC Public Schools.”

Rhee’s (and Henderson’s defense) against widespread charges of cheating is to cite these five investigations and claim that they turned up no credible evidence. That’s what Rhee did on February 8, 2013, at a Politico breakfast. She told the audience that the five investigations “found that there was some cheating, but that it was isolated to only a few schools. For some people, it puts it to bed. For others, it’ll never be put to bed — it is what is,” Rhee said. The cheaters, Rhee says or implies, were rogue teachers, never principals.

However, none of the five investigations meet the criteria for a serious in-depth investigation. In most cases, DCPS decreed which schools and which classrooms within those schools would be scrutinized. The investigating companies were not given access to answer sheets or the electronic tapes of the answer sheets.

And the all-important answer sheets from 2008 still have not been examined.[[25]]

[[26]] 26. She imposed a system known as IMPACT that evaluated teachers based on three observations (two by her own staff of ‘master educators’) and DC-CAS scores. The scores counted for 50% of a teacher’s rating. IMPACT used a 1-4 scale, and teachers receiving a 1 were dismissed, regardless of seniority or tenure [[26]]

[[27]] 27. Various news reports and Rhee’s own website have given this number. The federal government’s “Race to the Top” program also requires states to use student test scores in evaluating teachers.[[27]]

[[28]] 28. Highly regarded data analyst Mary Levy has done thorough analysis of virtually every aspect of DCPS, including teacher turnover. She is often called upon by the City Council to provide expert testimony, and reporters have also learned they can trust her analysis.[[28]]

[[29]] 29. Jay Mathews, the Washington Post, August 23, 2010.[[29]]

[[30]] 30. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/24/education/24teachers.html?adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1363741389-HfYwIQc6OTSizbC97ZZpTg. Tamar Lewin reports that 682 teachers were fired during Rhee’s time in Washington. Her source is a DCPS spokesperson.[[30]]

[[31]] 31. Data provided by Mary Levy.[[31]]

[[32]] 32. I called or wrote to every surrounding school district in late 2011. All said their central office staff had been reduced. According to Levy, Rhee’s central office reduction numbers involved some sleight of hand, because she moved some bureaucrats over to the central office of the State Superintendent (OSSE), which means that she did not actually cut the number of central office personnel as much as reported but instead moved their desks.[[32]]

[[33]] 33. Mary Levy [[33]]

[[34]] 34. Mary Levy [[34]]

[[35]] 35. On the 2011 DC-CAS (the most recent) 21% of Aiton’s students were proficient in reading, and just 17% in math. The DCPS website has school by school comparisons as well as year by year. http://nclb.osse.dc.gov/ [[35]]

[[36]] 36. DCPS website data [[36]]

[[37]] 37. Washington Post, November 9, 2012. “D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said Thursday that the school system’s high truancy rates amount to an educational “crisis,” as D.C. officials disclosed that more than 40 percent of the students at Ballou, Anacostia, Spingarn and Roosevelt high schools missed at least a month of school last year because of unexcused absences.”[[37]]

[[38]] 38. 59%. DC and Nevada have gone back and forth for the dubious distinction of being at the bottom. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_scr.asp [[38]]

[[39]] 39. NAEP data can be difficult to interpret in the case of Washington, which is–for statistical purposes–both a city and a state. NAEP has two separate data tracks, its measurement of state-by-state performance and its Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/dst2011/2012455.asp.

Washington has improved, as Rhee’s supporters say, but, as her detractors point out, the District was so low that the increases are not a reason for great celebration and they are fairly consistent with the gains made under Rhee’s predecessor, Clifford Janey.[[39]]

[[40]] 40. Mary Levy and Tom Loveless, personal communication. Dr. Loveless has some qualms about this interpretation as a general rule, but the huge disparities in this case indicate that something significant has taken place. [[40]]

147 thoughts on “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error

  1. Thank you, Mr. Merrow, for this comprehensive report. I have been following the Rhee situation and the agenda she represents for more than a decade now. Besides the dodgy response to a cheating scandal that the standardized-testing agenda causes, what needs to be questioned is the real ideology that fuels the agenda. Those like Rhee who run districts are part of a worldwide readjustment to doff public and social services, take and play with the people’s money, and exploit the stress and poverty they cause. As for canceling the results of DC-CAS and retesting, I feel that’s just another diversion. To me, Michelle Rhee is a link in a long chain of frauds, like Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, Wall Street, etc.–just on the educational end.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John, FYI, on Diane Ravitch’s blog, Kay from Atlanta noted that Caveon was also involved in investigating the cheating in Atlanta and concluded there was no widespread cheating scandal there.

    Kay wrote:

    “After Caveon (Fremer as president ) shared their conclusions of no widespread cheating, our governor decided to do his own thing and get people who would actually investigate thoroughly with the power of the law behind them. The link below provides more detail about Caveon findings being set aside here.”



  3. Thank you so much for shining light on this sordid bit of a test-driven reformer’s impact–and her lack of accountability as well as of conscience. Too bad that evidence doesn’t matter to true believers.


  4. I’m bookmarking the article. I was frankly dumbstruck watching some of the adoring recent media buzz for Rhee after watching the Frontline documentary a year or two ago. How she managed to move from a frankly despicable scandal to national celebrity as (well yes, another flavor of the day) “education guru” boggles the mind.


  5. All of your own glowing reports (and those of many others) about her on PBS no doubt contributed to this problem. Let’s stop looking for individuals with “The (Easy) Answer” on education, and address the underlying causes of our failing big city schools.

    Liked by 1 person

    • From the first reports on PBS by John Merrow, his series contrasting two new superintendents: rhea and the man in New Orleans, there was never a glowing report. John gave a clear report of what was going on in DC. As a teacher and strong believer in teacher’s unions, I was horrified with Rhea’s firing of staff without due process. I wouldn’t describe the reports as “glowing” by any stretch of the imagination.


      • It is the teacher’s union and their outlandish requirements to fire a teacher that have gotten us (partially) into this mess in the first place. It disgusts me to listen to teachers whine about how they couldn’t teach if it weren’t for their union rep. I am all for the voucher system in schools, and if it weren’t for the union, we could actually adopt that method and have a school system that rewards quality work. Sure, there are some good and dedicated teachers out there. There are far more lazy, corrupt, slovenly ones who are just being shuffled from school to school because it is too hard to fire them. It’s sickening.


      • Teacher-hating failures like you, Jenny, are the problem in the US. The union protects teachers from morons, teacher-haters, and idiots. Without unions, teachers would be no better off than 7-11 clerks. Unions do excessive things, I will grant.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ahh there is the kind of fallacious argument one can expect from far too many teacher who abhor accountability and don’t understand what the purpose of education is in our society. Attack and name call and then make irrational and absurd leaps. One of the reasons our schools aren’t doing well…..teachers may not have the necessary intellectual capacity to teach or have not had an adequate education themselves!


      • But there are many states without teachers unions, and they struggle in the same ways to education children as states with unions. So….is it still the unions protecting bad teachers that’s the problem still? Or could it be that teaching is very, very difficult, and poverty is a major problem?

        Liked by 1 person

      • “Sure, there are some good and dedicated teachers out there. There are far more lazy, corrupt, slovenly ones who are just being shuffled from school to school because it is too hard to fire them. It’s sickening.”

        Jenny, you have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m not sure what’s sickening you…

        Liked by 1 person

      • I encourage you to look at union vs. non-union states and compare their education systems and test scores (however unreliable comparing test scores may be). The states with superior test scores overall, in most cases, are unionized. Southern states, overwhelmingly non-union, remain some of the worst, overall, in the entire nation, and they are overwhelmingly non-union.


      • Jenny, by what authority do you decree that “there are far more lazy, corrupt, slovenly” teachers out there? Are you a teacher? Have you ever worked in a school? Or do you just have a strongly held opinion that has no basis in fact?


      • It’s so unfortunate that people seem to look for quick easy answers to a historically complex problem. There’s also the issue of standardized tests as an inherently faulty measure of academic achievement. I’ve worked as an standardized test evaluator to earn extra money on and off (now most definitely off) since 1998, and I saw what was going to happen from my first day on the job. It’s impossible to do anything more than “teach to the test” when so much is at stake, and when jobs are in jeopardy, it’s a given that there will be cheating. We saw evidence of erasures all the time. Not only that, some of the questions that required short written answers were erased and the handwriting didn’t match. We reported this to our supervisors, and we never found out what happened after that. I can only imagine, if this article is an indication. Worst of all, there were questions that allowed answers that were just downright WRONG! They seemed to be prevalent in the science and math sections for grades 1-6, and in the grammar sections for the same grades. And these tests were signed off by each state’s Department of Education before they were administered to the kids. (Example: “The Earth controls the motion of the tides.” That’s correct? ) My co-workers and I were mostly junior college freeway fliers (part time instructors hoping against hope to get a permanent slot) or retired teachers and professionals. Every last one of us had just as much education (and in the case of the retirees, more) as the people who designed and signed off on those tests and yet,we were supposed to accept answers to test questions that defied knowledge and logic. So while the nation was singing the praises of Michelle Rhee as an education reformer and standardized test advocate, I was rolling my eyes. I also predicted her mercurial downfall.


  6. Great article, read entire article, footnotes were equally important. Rhee, the “queen” bee eater, needs to be dethroned and exposed. True, it’s not about the crime, it’s about the cover up, and it’s about time her credibility be questioned as an educator who cares about people. There is more to student achievement than data driven numbers. Maybe she will become the learner now! I am sorry, but with only 3 years of teaching experience, she really isn’t qualified to know what it really takes to be a good teacher. Being a good teacher was never really on her agenda, now was it anyways? It is clear she used education as her platform to raise her political power and prominence, crystal clear and very transparent, and she used fear to intimidate others. Poor leadership qualities! And now with cheating more than likely ccuring under her reign, no legislature or politician should listen to her! She is no longer credible, but then again I NEVER thought she was!


  7. I am a first grade DCPS teacher. Thank you Mr. Merrow for exposing that the emperors have on no clothes. Please don’t stop!! Shame on the Washington Post for not pursuing this story and for praising these emperors so highly throughout this entire regime. Having a thorough investigation shows there is nothing to hide. What are they hiding?


  8. I haven’t scanned every reply, but I find it interesting that of all those I have read, none are concerned about educating our children. All they discuss is cheating on the tests. When do we pull our heads out of the sand and see that not only does testing lead to cheating, but it also does not encourage learning. Testing requires rote memory of specific information. It does not ask for or allow outside the box, original thinking. If it did then teachers and principals would not be able to change the answers to the “correct” dot. Testing is pushing our education system into the left brain, seeing every situation as only relevant to what we have previously pushed into our brain through rote memory. We are not asking our students to do any original thinking. We shouldn’t be worrying about this cheating, we should be developing our education system to reflect the way the brain works to grow and become the next generation of innovators. Don’t get bogged down in punishing the cheaters, sure expose them, make sure they don’t influence others through their scams, but let’s address the real issue. Standardized testing, for almost any reason, puts learning into crisis.


    • Amen to this. No one should be against assessments, but they must be thoughtful, demanding, reliable and all that. We have to measure what we value. Instead we value what we measure..


    • Excuse me, but many are teachers and since we educate children every day and have been for years, we don’t necessarily state the obvious. Please don’t find one more way to bash teachers. You are adopting her narrative, which is nothing but lies. Believe me we live it….we care deeply. Only those who don’t educate children use the students first slogan.


    • Exactly right Frank!
      Standardized testing itself is an assult on good education. It also is bad for teaching because it creates this illusion of impartial evaluation of student success. In reality it just makes it easy for a teacher to give a number grade that then can be used to make comparisons. In Finland, they don’t give standard tests, each teacher is responsible for student evaluations which include portfolio type assessment and any exams (seldom multiple choice, usually open ended question exams) that the teacher chooses to give. We are in the standardized test business because our society doesn’t trust teachers or public schools.


  9. One more point: teachers are never allowed to see the actual standardized tests, before, during, or after testing season. Although, teachers must deliver the tests in a highly-charged, suspicious atmosphere, we must trust that the tests are fair (on grade level among other possibilities for rigging results against schools, and therefore state and federal dollars). Teachers must also blindly trust that tests are scored accurately, as well as reported accurately.

    If principals and supervisors cave under pressure from on-high to inflate scores, aren’t they just as capable of changing scores from right to wrong–in the interests of scapegoating an unpopular or potential whistle-blowing teacher who is irreproachable in all other areas, and can’t be dismissed? Changing one teacher’s scores to the negative wouldn’t affect a school or district’s overall scores, but it sure would justify making her a target for scrutiny Maybe she’ll leave, quietly. Or eventually crack under the pressure.

    Can you tell I’ve contemplated this scenario before? I have, because I am that unpopular, round peg who doesn’t fit in the square hole. I always seemed to be assigned the most difficult students, and the lowest kids on the achievement scale, but my students always rose to the challenge of the FCAT, until one year, despite all my and my students’ hard work, they didn’t. Since then, I’ve been subjected to the utmost scrutiny and continuous invasive evaluations. Coupled with a transfer from 3rd grade to Kindergarten, a grade I had 0 experience in, my Empowering Effective Teachers evaluation scores have landed me directly on the district’s termination track.

    When I balked at my own low scores compared to my high degree of determination, dedication, and work ethic, and noted my students’ academic histories and circumstances, I was informed by my principal and my union that teachers had absolutely no recourse for any dispute over our evaluation scores.

    My point is, it’s not just students who are at the mercy of our dysfunctional education system. Teachers are being vilified for most of which is completely and totally beyond their control. Students’ scores are used as sticks to beat up individual teachers. High stakes test scores are used to determine funding, and administrator’s destinies, and the longevity of teacher’s careers. Yet, neither students, administrators, or teachers can ever know whether or not the scores are even accurate. We’re asked to blindly trust the very system that disdains and disrespects us.

    Oh, our educational system is flawed alright. Unfortunately, students aren’t the only one’s suffering as a result. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. 1. Legislators need to get out the way! They’re idiots when it comes to public education and everything else affecting the non-ruling classes; 2. DOE needs to earn consensus, that’s right, PERMISSION, from its teachers before implementing in our nation’s schools its whacked out ideas formulated at the tippety-top of ivory towers. Ideas which always consist of new, new, new, more, more, more, different, different, different, yet are always a variation of the same-ole, same-ole, same-ole demands that teachers do more with less for less, and then take their spanking instead of thanking when DOE’s new, more, different, same-ole ideas crash and burn our students!


    • That is the best explanation of what is wrong with public education I have ever heard. I couldnt have said it bette and I have been teaching 31 years.


    • The problem is that everyone, including teachers, seem to believe that standardized tests are “fair” and “accurate.” That depends highly on what a person considers “fair” and “accurate.”

      The fact is that standardized tests have a Bell Curve distribution of scores by design. If the actual distribution of scores is close enough to the curve, then the test can be said to be “accurate.” Is it “fair?” Only if the test returns the same score distribution after repeated administration as every cohort taking the test has been treated the same way.

      By now you are probably wondering what this has to do with “learning.” The short answer is “nothing.” The test may or may not be based on the “curriculum standards” of the given state (as it is based in California), but the statistical chance of being considered “proficient” is the same regardless of the classroom mark of the child taking the test. (This, of course, only happens if the kid really tries hard to answer all the questions in the test.)

      Does this sound crazy? I used to think so until I saw it in an actual distribution of scores vs classroom marks for LAUSD. The official interpretation of this remarkable empirical fact? Simultanoeus grade inflation and deflation. All this across a district with roughly 50,000 students per grade. The educrats, of course, put together a task force to look into getting better correlation between the scores on the tests and the classroom marks. To my knowledge, nothing came out of it.

      Why doesn’t anybody investigate why we have allowed this type of test to be used across our nation? Why have we conferred so much power on something that the average citizen would never accept in their own life? After all, it is not much different than the IQ tests promoted not so long ago to demonstrate that some persons did not deserve to procreate.

      That’s what I’d really like to know, Mr. Merrow. Hope you can look into that for Frontline.


  10. What a well-researched and important report! Thank you for making this information public, and presenting the evidence so clearly. I hope the Powers-That-Be are listening/reading. There needs to be consequences for such malfeasance on Rhee’s part. If there is an way for you to get this into into the right hands, please do so. Narcissism is a terrible way to run a school system.


  11. Ever find any White or Asian children in this nation that are cheating, or do you just believe that only Black children cheat?


    • Didn’t you read about Stuyvesant High School in NYC?

      And re-read John’s research and USA today it was the adults led by an evil Asian American who cheated, not the kids.


    • ? I’m a little confused. This was about the adults cheating — teachers, principals — and about the leaders (Rhee) who created the environment where folks felt so intimitated that they had to cheat.


    • Actually, I did. My kid’s highly gifted middle school had to institute an Honors Code because enough kids were caught cheating because their Tiger Parents were pressuring them to do well or else. Very sad to see.


  12. Rhee, while she jetsets around the country promoting her testing/charter school agenda, has her own children living in the custody of their father and going to private schools in Nashville (he is her ex – Kevin Huffman, equally uneducated in the field of eduction, and causing similar destruction in the state of Tennessee as our secretary of education). Both of them are it in for financial gain – not for children, certainly not their very own!


    • There is most likely a reason why her girls don’t live with her:

      Click to access Phoenix_Police.source.prod_affiliate.4.pdf


      When informed that her now fiance Kevin Johnson had been accused of inappropriate sexual conduct, Rhee promised to make it “her number one priority” and to “take care of the situation”. She then met with a federal inspector general, calling Johnson “a good guy”.

      A disagreement between Republican legislators and President Obama over the firing of a federal inspector general has ensnared DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. According to a report issued by Senator Charles Grassley and Representative Darrell Issa, Rhee conducted “damage control” concerning charges that her now fiance Kevin Johnson had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with AmeriCorps volunteers. In addition, when Rhee learned of one allegation, she said she would make it her number one priority and take care of the situation.



  13. Thank you for this article and all of the additional information from people commenting. What really scared me as I read this article is how similar it is to what is happening in New Jersey, and especially in the Newark Public Schools District, which is State Controlled. The superintendent in Newark is doing much of the same things that Ms. Rhee’s did and continues to promote. The teachers are being bribed with “monopoly money” to insure that their students “pass” the high stake state test. The NJ Lawmakers passed a law that 50% of teachers’ evaluations are based on test scores. If one is rated “Highly Effective” one will be eligible to bonus money. This sounds wonderfully, and one would ask why anyone would not want to do their best and have their students succeed? No one does, but how can one do this when resources are cut, teachers are cut, and where students are living and how they are living is not ever discussed or considered? To be “Highly Effective” the criteria being used, the rubric, is ALL OR MOST STUDENTS …… With students being so varied how can one teacher have ALL or MOST STUDENTS doing the same thing or being on target all of the time? What does ALL OR MOST STUDENTS mean? Isn’t this subjective to the person evaluating the teacher? Administration and teachers are in fear for their positions. Monies are being cut from existing school budgets causing teachers to be let go, and yet the Central Office is hiring outside consultants and people to fill its rooms, many from New York where the superintendent worked last. The teacher’s union has been weakened and it feels like they are in bed with the superintendent. They are no longer protecting their members, but more importantly they are letting the students and families of Newark Public Schools down by allowing the teachers’ to be demoralized. Believe it or not, teachers’ want their students to be successful. Teachers’ want to be successful themselves in teaching their students. Having everything based on a standardized test and having to teach to the test, worry about keeping ones job, etc. is not in the best interest of the students. People like Ms. Rhee, Ms. Hall, and other people in power that are looking out for their own best interest are not looking out for the students. I include the Governor of New Jersey, the Mayor of Newark and the Superintendent of Newark as one of these people. If they really cared for the students and not their own pockets and trying to privatize education, they would actually ask the experts in the field and trenches, the teachers, their points of view and how they would suggest changes be made.


    • The pervasive theory is that the educators are the problem. Hence, these reforms from outsiders with little to no education experience pushing reforms that don’t seem to be working.

      To all the reporters reading this: (NY Times Mr. Blow, Huffington Post Ms. Resmovits, etc…) PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE take what Mr. Merrow and his reporting colleagues writes seriously. There are two ways to view the current education reform debates in my view:

      1) The educators suck that’s why so many of them are complaining about these reforms. They’re the status quo, so the reformers “Won’t Back Down” until the status quo changes. Yeah, Ms. Rhee might have messed up, but educators cheated, so time to double down on these no excuses policies and hold these educators accountable! Fire your way to the top! Forget about poverty. No excuses.

      2) The educators are complaining about these reforms because these reforms suck. The educators have real experience in the classroom and with students, so their suggestions, such as the positive agenda put forward by The Network for Public Education (www.networkforpubliceducation.org) might actually be the solution. These reforms are by folks who use too simplistic thinking to solve a very complicated problem. These reforms are distracting Americans and politicians from real solutions that will take real leadership — not simplistic “just fire people” “just measure people” “just change the laws solutions that reformers and businessmen sell.

      PLEASE education reporters, talk to Mr. Merrow. Ask him I’m sure you all talk. He has spent years studying this. Maybe he knows something.


  14. Hello John,
    Thank you for your in-depth story on Michelle Rhee & current status on cheating
    scandal. I hope you read link below to my article, “Opposite Day in Ohio’s
    Statehouse with Michelle Rhee’s DreamTeam.”
    Here is an additional angle for you to tell the full Rhee story to the nation, let’s just say her agenda is collusion to the max with state legislatures, ALEC, KOCH Brothers, governors
    across the nation with political paybacks, contributions, kickbacks, etc. to
    bring hedge fund investors into the market driven/corporate education vision for
    our children to maximize profits without regard to integrity and authenticity of
    equal educational opportunities for American citizens. My story personalizes her
    corporate, fake for-profit “education reform.”
    My name is Maureen Reedy, I am a 30 yr. veteran teacher, former Ohio Teacher of the Year & just completed a run for the Ohio House of Rep. With a substantial lead 3 wks out, the GOP and Michelle Rhee spent a record 1.5 million to keep a veteran public school teacher out of the Statehouse… Michelle Rhee endorsed my opponent, with $250,000, published proudly on her website, as the “Education Candidate,” who has never taught a day in her life. This is a story worth looking into… I have been on the Ed Schultz show twice, have published
    numerous articles about Rhee and top Charter School For-Profit CEOs in Ohio that
    have dismal grad. rates and are top donors to GOP (5 million in past 10 yrs).
    Attached are links to articles, 1 just published last week with 1,000 shares to
    FaceBook. Please email to discuss possibilities for fleshing out Rhee’s agenda
    “post cheating scandal days…”
    You ended your piece with the irony of her corporate name, “StudentsFirst,” we all know the phrase, “Opposite Day” applies to this moniker, as her agenda is “corporate profits first…. Students’ Last…”
    Rhee has received more than her share of air time, as the D.C. testing scandal story is unfolding, it is time for the other stories to be told and put out there, for our children, for our students… for the future of public education, the foundation of our Democracy.
    Thank you,
    Maureen Reedy



    ��� Ed Schultz show – Thursday, March 15 ��� 2012 – Autoworkers

    ��� Ed Schultz show – Night before Election / Nov. 20122 ��� SB 5 / Issue 2


  15. It looks like the D.C. city council doesn’t want to confront this:


    I wonder why? I don’t really know D.C. politics. Is their city council too connected with DCPS??

    Mr. Merrow, Mr. Gillum, Ms. Mathews, and Mr. Matthews: I hope you don’t give up on pursuing this story. This is not about getting a former Superintendent in hot water. This is about the future of education policy in America, affecting millions of students, families, and educators. Many many politicians and well connected people have looked to D.C. as a model for new laws and reforms to “hold educators accountable.” It is premised on all the “good things” that happened in D.C., which now seem to be totally false. But too many people have a lot to lose if the truth is exposed: politicians from both parties, those who want to privatize education, those who profit from standardized testing, those who profit from consulting to education systems on evaluating teachers, and on and on…

    I hope you can continue with your sources. I hope that those involved do the right thing and contact you all until the politicians authorize subpoena backed investigations. If this scandal is true, it seems much worse than Atlanta. Maybe that’s why so many people don’t want this investigated?


    • Martha, you don’t know me from Adam. I have enormous respect for your work. But your chiding of Merrow is way off base, in my opinion. What has long been suspected–that Rhee knew of the cheating and did nothing–is now all but proven as an incontrovertible fact. We have an anonymous DCPS employee and Merrow’s reporting to thank for that.

      What we as teachers in Los Angeles have every right to ask is why the LA Times, currently all but leading a PR campaign for Rhee, have yet to address Merrow’s work. Rhee is in California, currently seeking power in the golden state. I wonder if a reporter–say, Howard Blume–would be willing to call Rhee and inquire about the evidence Merrow has gathered? Would Blume investigate beyond Rhee’s initial defense of ‘lots of stuff crosses my desk, you know’? One would hope but anyone who has read the Times coverage of education in recent years should not be holding their breath.


      • Howard Blume will not do it because I know for a fact that he does not want to understand the statistics behind the standardized testing (or at least that’s the impression I got when I contacted him about it). And probably also because the LA Times has a long history of attacking UTLA, the local teachers union.

        Plus I am sure that Broad has a lot influence on what the LA Times actually presents to the public.

        OTOH, the LA Times has recently called into question some of Rhee’s public pronouncements, so maybe they are starting to shift with the winds.


  16. Rhee is doing a fantastic job. This long and preachy article speaks a lot about what a “veteran” would do. well the last person to have Rhee’s job was a “veteran” and a terrible one and thats why Rhee is the Chancellor now. They picked someone with little experience but great intentions and a great education so that they can make a change and bring in a new way of doing things rather doing what the “veterans” have been doing because thats obviously not working. She has turned that district around and you need to go out to other urban communities that are being run by veterans and compare them because you will see the great job Rhee is doing and how she is on the road to helping the school district get where it needs to be.
    if you think for a minute that those kids in her district arent better off since shes taken over than you are really clueless. its not a perfect system, but shes doing everything she can to make it better. show some respect for someone making a change for the better in the lives of many children.


    • The hell are you going on about? Not for nothing but Merrow’s post is loaded with evidence, heavily footnoted… not the polar opposite of preachy but damn close. Now, if you want an example of preachy writing, loaded with logical fallacies, re-read your post.


    • Earth to Patrick, the people of DC gave her the boot three years ago. DC is one of the most corrupt and apathetic cities. To be corrupt enough to be noticed, you must really have to be doing a bad job.


  17. Now that you have deeply considered what happened in DC and exposed it, how about turning your attention to Texas? Texas has been a leader in high stakes standardized testing for…..over 20 years. What has all this testing gotten us? Nothing. We are still at the bottom of the national pack when it comes to SAT scores. So why keep pouring good money after bad? After nearly three decades of ever increasingly high stakes tests in Texas there has been zero benefit to Texas students as measured by the one test that they CHOOSE to take. Is there not a story there?


      • Actually the story is not really being covered…they are talking about reducing the number of tests from 15 to 10ish or so but they are not talking about taking the 90 billion dollars/year Texas spends on standardized tests and using it to provide more direct services (ie teachers or reading/math specialists) to students.


      • ATT–I think my link (way too long, sorry) and happy face might have been read as sarcasm when I meant the opposite. Just making sure because I know my post might’ve been read as, “haha, you don’t even know the story is already being covered” and I hate that, I really do. I meant to suggest, “hey, check it out–it’s being covered at last!”

        So, I hear you and I misread your post which is only a little more embarrassing than my abnormally long link. That said, I think the issues you’re talking about are going to come out as parents are becoming increasingly more aggressive against the tests themselves. Then again, my wife has been teaching for 20 years and when I told her about this post and the thread (and yes, your comment came up) she said something similar to what you’re suggesting–that this story has been going on for years and it’s just now being covered.

        I have faith that the standardized testing crap we’ve all been dealing with for far too long will ultimately be seen as a huge mistake. I have no faith at all–none whatsoever–that those who implemented these horrible ideas will be be punished like they should be. End of rant.


      • sb,

        We are on the same page with this. When you look at the data deeply and synthesize everything we now know about how the past few decades of standardized testing have effected students, it is chilling. Students are less prepared than ever for college. All this testing has not helped the students one bit. As a still teaching (over a decade now) alumni of Teach for America, I recognize the largely negative impact TFAers have had in shaping American educational policy. Rhee being the worst of the worst.

        What I hope is that teachers will eventually be governed, guided and assessed by other teachers—in the same way that lawyers and doctors are governed by themselves. In that way I agree with Anne Chastain from a few comments above.


  18. Today, DCPS employees received the letter below in reaction to John Merrow’s article. Could John Merrow comment on Henderson’s statement that “As the OSSE has made clear: the methodology used to identify possible wrongdoing was flawed…” Is there any evidence of this?

    Dear DCPS Employees,

    This past Friday, the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) released a report about test integrity from the 2012 DC CAS. The report confirms what we at DCPS already know: nearly all of our teachers, more than 99 percent, are following the very strict procedures and protocols we have in place to prevent testing impropriety.

    In addition, you may have read last week that some members of the press are concluding, based on an internal DCPS communication, that there was widespread cheating on the 2008 DC CAS. This is a misrepresentation of the facts. As the OSSE has made clear: the methodology used to identify possible wrongdoing was flawed and independent investigations have cleared DCPS of any widespread impropriety.

    Let me be clear: We do not tolerate cheating at DCPS. We take every allegation of testing impropriety seriously, investigate accordingly, and take personnel action when warranted. DCPS received final information about the OSSE’s test integrity investigation on Friday morning. Where cheating is confirmed, we will swiftly take the appropriate disciplinary actions.

    As we approach the 2013 DC CAS, I want to remind you to continue to be vigilant and act with the utmost integrity in monitoring your students’ and your colleagues’ performance. I fundamentally believe that we have the most talented and most dedicated teachers and school leaders in the nation. Thank you for your service and continued dedication on behalf of our students.


    Kaya Henderson


  19. Take a look at Larry King’s Twitter posted about 8pm Monday April 5th EST. I’d like to know if he’ll ask about this Reign of Error. I wonder if Larry King even knows about this blog and report?!!?!?!
    Larry King ‏@kingsthings

    Intv’ing @MichelleRhee tomorrow to talk about #education – what do you want to know? Tweet me your ?s http://bit.ly/10YyT6W


  20. I want to comment not about the cheating but about the peculiar character of most all the reporting about ‘school’ and ‘education’ in Washington DC.

    All the reporting I’ve seen — in both Rhee’s “Gee Whiz!” period and now in the “God-awful” period — talks about “the schools of Washington D.C.” as if DCPS is ‘the Washington school system’.

    This was, is, untrue. Washington has two overlapping, coterminous public schools systems.Public education in Washington is divided — now, about equally in terms of enrollment — between the old DCPS and the D.C. Public Charter Schools system.

    Those reporting on education in the District — and I think John,agrees he does, himself, in this recent blog — are simply carrying in their heads the old ‘ notion of the ‘exclusive franchise . . . of a city having only a single organization offering public education.

    People can argue, and do, whether this ought to be the case . . . but the fact is that Congress acting as legislature for the District of Columbia has created two different systems — DCPS the old ‘bureau’ arrangement and DCPCS a ‘contract’ arrangement.

    If you were in charge of covering education in Washington wouldn’t you want your reporters to be covering — contrasting and comparing — both sectors of local public education? Reporters are supposed to describe the world as it is, aren’t they?


  21. Doesn’t all of this feel like a bubble crashing? In all these different cities, people thought “Look at these great test results…that’s what happens when you hold teachers accountable!” Scores went up, politicians smiled, and different education reformers got more popular and more powerful. Hall won an award, Rhee got on the cover of Time, was featured in a movie, went on Oprah, wrote a book…and now the bubble is bursting. All through these years, educators complained that these reforms were hurting students, but no one really listened, because these reformers convinced the public that the educators themselves were the problems, or that the unions that represent the educators were the problem. Maybe the educators were right all along, and we’ve been spending millions…billions…of dollars on the wrong things and focusing our attention on the wrong things in this national education debate. But does the public know of this Rhee scandal yet? This “Erase to the Top?” This “Rhee-gate”? I’m worried story will disappear. Keep forwarding!


    • I don’t see this one disappearing but lord knows I’ve been wrong before. I know I’ll be interested to see if Rhee suffers any fall out from this. I’m keeping in mind that her supporters equate PBS and NPR with Pravda so we’ll see. Again, I can’t see how this story gets ignored but, again, I’ve been wrong before.

      And “Erase to the Top?” I’m currently watching my students take their third straight day of standardized tests (four hours a day) so believe me, I needed that smile. 🙂


  22. Depend upon it, Michelle Rhee and the other minimally qualified indivduals she brought in to run DCPS consider a “lack of experince” in urban public schooling an asset, not a deficiency.

    I came to Newark via TFA in 2006. Yes, some Newark old-timers were, and are, lazy, incompetent hafwits who got, and kept, and keep their posts through political connections.

    Many of them, however, were and are extraordinary for their dedication and expertise.

    Now that Cami Anderson, another TFA alum, is our superintendent, anyone who was here before she came is tainted. NPS jobs are constantly being eliminated so that per diem consultants fresh out of TFA can be hired for outrageous sums. These very young, and almost uniformly white, people sit on the upper floors of a downtown office building and make decisions about students, teachers, schools, and neighborhoods to whom they have absolutely no connection and with whom they have absolutely no experience.

    If they had experince they would be “part of the problem.”

    If your school’s test scores are low, your school sucks and it should be closed.

    If your school’s test scores are high, you are working with students who were doing better in the first place, so you suck because you haven’t shown enough “growth.”

    I do NOT condone or enage in cheating on standardized tests.

    It does, however, seem to me that the ONLY way to win approval from the current superintendent would be to take students with extremely low test scores and get them to score very, very high the very next year.

    I wonder how that might be accomplished?


    • Newark TFA make sure you check out Gary Rubinstein’s blog.
      http://garyrubinstein.teachforus.org/ He was TFA and is now highly critical of TFA. He gets lots of coverage recently, including NY Times, NPR, and other places.

      This sentence: “Yes, some Newark old-timers were, and are, lazy, incompetent hafwits who got, and kept, and keep their posts through political connections.” is the pervasive thought of many reformers I have met. There’s this idea that the teachers have such a cushy job and that’s why “results” aren’t happening.

      But I haven’t found that in my experience. I know that in all jobs, whether at schools or corporations, there are some crummy people. But firing your way to the top doesn’t work, whether or not cheating occurs or not. Rhee’s “leadership” is actually managerial naivete. It’s not passionate leadership, it’s not radical leadership, it’s inexperience and short sightedness.

      And this is spreading across the nation. That’s why, fellow readers, this story is SO important. It’s affecting millions of children now. May this be the tipping point to awaken citizens to realize what’s happening to their schools.


      • I absolutely agree that there are some “crummy people” in ANY work environment. Unlike most people who join TFA, I did not join right out of college, so I had real-world opportunities to observe that truth in multiple workplaces. I also agree with you that assuming that everyone who works in a struggling school system or school falls into that category is an absurd and baseless prejudice.

        Furthermore, I find the current focus on “bad” teachers just bizarre. Yes, bad teachers exist in the world; as a child, I attended some fairly “bad” schools myself and certainly had some “bad” teachers.

        Teaching, however, is very hard work, even in a good school. Teaching in a school district or school that is struggling with poverty, etc. is even harder. I don’t really think teaching in the public schools is the first thing one would think of if one wanted to “get over” and make easy money!

        Ultimately, the bullying, the humiliation, and the high-pressure tactics so popular with the self-styled reformers only make a tough job even tougher than it has to be. This “management style,” such as it is, only gives ALL employees an incentive to find another job.

        How can any reasonable person sincerely believe that creating an awful working environment for teachers serves our most vulnerable students well?

        Some individuals may be young enough, inexperienced enough, or even delusional enough to believe that Michelle Rhee and her ilk are genuinely putting “students first.” We can’t even know for sure what Ms. Rhee tells herself about what she’s doing.

        However, as it says in the gospels, “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

        Clearly the effect of these policies is to rip the guts out of the public school systems in the poorest communities in America and redirect rivers of public money to private corporations. And, of course, there’s plenty of union-busting as well.

        These are not policies that are going to lift up poor children. These are policies that seal off–indeed, sell off–poor comminties, trapping children in a second-, or third-, or even a fourth-class tier of the educational system in which they do not have the same rights or opportunities as their more affluent peers. The children easier (read: less expensive) to educate can go to charters, while the more challenging ones can be concentrated to Dante-esque holding facilities. If working in these schools becomes so miserable that nobody sticks around for more than a few years, the children won’t even have a organized group of lower-middle-class civil servants to advocate for them any more.

        If course, ideally, their parents should be standing up for them. However, the very nature of poverty makes it more difficult for you to advocate for yourself. In districts such as Newark, outsiders run the public schools already. Once a charter school is set up, the local communitiy really cannot intervene through normal democratic processes.

        That this dystopian, anti-democratic nightmare has been successfully sold as some sort of advocacy on behalf of poor children fills me with a sort of horrified awe.


  23. Dear John Merrow:

    I Love You!

    What a wonderfully detailed, deeply reported and footnoted account of the absurdity known as Michelle Rhee. As a 19-year public school teacher in infamous LAUSD, I am so sick of various arrogant I’ve-got-the-answers figures like Rhee absolutely killing public education for teachers and students alike. I remember Oprah inviting her on the show, breathlessly telling us that “Rhee is the only person who can save public education!” and I thought, “How can seemingly smart people be so stupid?” (But then, Oprah’s publicly admitted she founded a school in Africa rather than the United States because U.S. children are, apparently, too ungrateful and intractable).

    Your account is so refreshingly facts-based. Re: the earlier commenter’s point about L.A. Times’ pathetic education coverage, the Time today just printed a small, self-important article about how they spoke to Rhee about various questionable revelations. Too little, too late, as usual. All that paper does is pump up the anti-teacher rhetoric. It always amazes me how much more balanced the New York Times education coverage is of the L.A. area (I read that paper daily, as well).

    Meanwhile, we do our best daily while having to labor under our preening, out-of-touch superintendent John Deasy (he with the questionable claim of having a PhD, he, forced on us through the back door by ridiculous “Mayor” Antonio Villaraigosa, he who’s doing a horrendous job “leading” one of the biggest school districts in the country after much smaller, much different districts back East, and sleepy Malibu) as he pushes Charters, Data, High-Stakes Testing and general fear. With people like that in charge, we’re one step away from Atlanta and/or DC.

    When students tell me they want to be teachers, I say, “Uh Uh. Not now, and never in this district.” The art of teaching is wonderful. But the politics choking the schools is constricting us all, and sucking out the joy we used to experience.


  24. John
    It is hard to forget your anti-union diatribe in your NY Times op ed years ago. I’ve cited your reports many times on my blog as being biased.

    I taught elementary school for 30 years in Bushwick/Williamsburg Brooklyn, one of the poorest areas of the city. Until recently as a big fan of the Newshour I was very disturbed at your cheer leading for what I term ed deform, not reform.

    Now I should point out I have been a well-known critic of both the UFT and AFT ed policies which I believe have given too much support to ed deform and not enough to support to teachers. I have been part of groups challenging the leaders back to Shanker days. We are progressive educators who have always felt the system shortchanged kids and now more so than ever.

    We were also critics of Diane Ravitch for her cheer leading for so many years. And she was open enough to see that and has become the voice of rank and file teachers.

    So there is a real lack of nuance in your understanding of what is really going on in the teaching rank and file, so much of which views the unions with skepticism but not from the direction people think — the E4E crowd which has so little traction in the NYC schools especially given their resources. But for not standing up enough for real reforms. Where are the reports on the impact of class size? Where are the reports on where the very people pushing these deforms are sending their own kids — places so opposite from the schools they are forcing down the throats of the parents of this nation?

    What exactly do you mean by teacher accountability based on student learning? You mean standardized tests. As an elementary school teacher spending an entire day with kids for an entire year I am insulted by the attempt tp measure what I did and boil it down to a number based on a test on one day. I always felt accountable to the parents and to my students. Can you measure what I taught about so many things many way beyond the academics?

    Real teachers understand that. And I believe you took a statement by one union person and are using it to once again bludgeon the teacher unions which if you knew what really went on in NYC you would see have done so little to retard the deforms and in fact have allowed entire swaths of union jobs to be privatized — to the detriment of the kids. And so little to really defend teachers. As one outrageous example see:

    Protect Portelos where a teacher has spent a year in detention for asking questions. A witchhunt and the union has done so little if anything to defend him. He and others are poster boys for why we need tenure. Examine the horrible state of supervision and the type of people being put in those roles as Rhee did in DC.


  25. August 8, 2008. When those results arrived, Rhee, her deputies and the principals who later would receive $10,000 bonuses gathered in her meeting room. One person who was present described the festive atmosphere. “We were euphoric. Michelle gave a rousing speech, and we drank sparkling cider out of plastic Champagne glasses.”
    After one year on the job.
    It was then that I began paying attention to Miss Rhee. And looked up her Baltimore Miracle.
    It didn’t take too long to realize that she was full of shit. 5 years later John realizes that.
    (It took Jay Mathews 3 years.)
    Is the SAG union the reason for your delayed realization?


  26. “….you can re-submit your work”, “He lets you redo work “, “It’s impossible to fail this class because he lets you re-do everything and he works with you on due dates and assignments.”,
    ..”easest class ive ever taken.”, “easiest class I have taken… always allows for retakes of quizzes, portfolio is a cakewalk always lets you redo what you screw up, and can argue any quiz question to get the points as long as it is a valid argument.”

    These are comments about Thomas Haladyna, prof of ed at ASU.

    See any irony here?


    • No.

      The way I read those comments is that Prof. Haladyna is trying to get students to learn the material and allows them to, in effect, learn at their own pace. That these students see it as “being easy” is clear proof of their lack of sophistication.

      If Prof. Haladyna was to give easy grades without any work, well, it would be different, wouldn’t it?


  27. Until teachers, black, white, hispanic and asian are willing to admit that they have no idea how to (1) get black students up to hispanic levels, (2) get black and hispanics up to white levels, (3) get blacks, hispanics, and whites up to asian levels, then there is not going to be any improvement.

    If teachers are not willing to say what has to be said, you will be blamed. Sorry. That’s the way it is. No amount of money, or education, or special programs, or any other educational frippery is going to change the facts.

    Once you admit the truth we can start making things better. We can admit that we are not going to turn dummies into rocket scientists. We can admit we need jobs for dummies to do. We can start closing the borders and keeping jobs here for our own dummies and not inviting dumb peasants from all over the world to take their jobs. We can establish trade barriers sufficient to make simple manufacturing jobs for the dummies we have. We can stop forcing dummies to take college prep courses that just frustrate the hell out of them and cause them to start disrupting classes. We can start transferring dummies to trade schools. Hell, we can start building more trade schools for our dummies.

    But as long as you teacher/enablers are standing in our way, pretending and preaching that everyone can be a programmer or a doctor or lawyer, we are going to continue to decline.

    And it IS your fault. It is your fault for lying to your students, to their parents, to your fellow teachers, and to the entire school district, state and nation.

    We are running out of money, the economy is collapsing, the peasant illegal aliens we are just about to legalize in the tens of millions are never going to pay our social security (let alone their own) and you–you Mrs. Professional Teacher–are enabling all of this.

    Do you love your country? Your people?

    Then be honest. For once in your life, tell the truth.


    • Excuse me, but my kids did as well or better than the whites and asians and they are neither. But they are also not poor and have had many opportunities to expand their learning through books, educational programs and games, museum visits, etc.

      OTOH, I have a Ph.D. and my mother was illiterate until the day she died.

      What’s your point again?


  28. I clearly remember the June day on which the last superintendent of the District of Columbia was fired. It was my daughter’s eighth grade promotion exercise to high school. We had not only elected a new mayor, but had voted to remove power from a democratically elected Board of Education and given it to the mayor. The school board would no longer control schools in DC. We would now have the Office of the State Superintendent overseeing all schools in DC. The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) would be separate and have a Chancellor. Within a month, DCPS would have the unknown Michelle Rhee running its schools.

    I really had no like or dislike of Superintendent Clifford Janey, but I had admired his ability to survey parents, teachers, students and business leaders to determine what its citizens liked and disliked about their schools. This mountain of surveys was placed into several categories and the data compiled for analysis. I never saw a figure for the cost of the project, but it had to be a hefty chunk of change.

    As school was beginning in August of 2007, it became evident that Chancellor Rhee was going to do things her way. As teachers and parents began to question the changes at public meetings, new school officials were asked about those surveys. Audience members were told the surveys has proved to be worthless. It was later disclosed that Rhee told administrative staff to “throw that trash away.” Upon hearing this, I begin wondering why a person reportedly so intelligent and well educated would toss valuable data about a school system of which she was taking control. When she stated that she would not do anything she couldn’t measure, her actions regarding the survey data became even more of a mystery to me.

    In December of 2008, Chancellor Rhee made visits to several DCPS schools to award monetary prizes to principals, teachers and other staff members for having made the highest percentage in gains on the Spring 2008 standardized tests. The fact that some of those schools did not make their AYP had no effect on Rhee’s decision as to which schools would be rewarded. Not making AYP had no essential bearing on her selections. It only mattered that they had the most gains.

    On Wednesday, May 13, 2009, Rhee meet with a group of teachers to discuss their concerns. Teachers asked about partnering with poor performing schools and even helping to educate the parents who could then better assist their children at home. Despite Rhee’s earlier comment about running this district in such a way that is constantly looking out for the best interests of the children, she instead proposed a negative response to such measures. She stated that the DC school system had failed those parents and we would be wasting our time and money to do anything with those parents.

    Another teacher asked about the upcoming teacher evaluations system being put into place and what could we expect. Rhee stated she had not seen the final document, but she could emphatically state that it would not be a series of check-lists.

    A third teacher finally dove into the issue of rewarding teachers for high test scores and expressed concern that “couldn’t this type of system encourage cheating?” Rhee became most agitated with this line of questioning and said that it would do nothing of the sort.

    Recent studies have now shown that partnering schools can have a positive impact when done correctly and with empathy. The teacher evaluations called IMPACT would turn out to be a check list costing DCPS 1.5 million to design. I do not have the figures on how much it has costs DCPS to implement since its inception in 2009. The funds used to reward high achieving teachers were raised through private donations. I read in the Washington Post that 85 million was raised in one year and 65 million of that was spent on IMPACT alone. As for that last question, well, it’s all history.

    Those of us living in DC are waiting to learn of the outcome of the lawsuit filed against Rhee and her assistant, Noah Wepman. Since the suit’s complaint is about the use of IMPACT to adequately evaluate a teacher, it will be interesting to discover if Rhee will be forced to disclose the magical mathematical equation that is used to determine a teacher’s score. The keeper of the equation is reported to be current Vice-Chancellor Jason Kamras who has been heard to say that the equation is “over the heads” of DCPS principals and teachers. The story grows “curiouser and curiouser.”


  29. It is noted here with respect to Washington, D.C. and its testing allegations, findings; D.C. is the nation’s capital, home to the governing, legislative body of this country which includes the nation’s Secretary of Education, a presidential appointed position. However, D.C. is rated as having one of the lowest High School graduation rates in this country with literacy scores to match. The Secretary of Education, the highest educative official in the land, is not vilified for failing schools and a continuum in unacceptable dropout rates. Why teachers?
    Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, leader of this nation’s educational process, should know D.C. is not a good representation of the educational policies that he and the President espouse to their national constituency. If this nation’s seat of governing and administrative authority can’t adequately model the educative process, even with funding from billionaire capital and education profiteers, then a national moratorium on the infamous NCLB and RTT should be initiated immediately. Enough said for nepotism.


  30. Mr. Merrow ,

    You have said nothing about the thousands of teachers lives and careers, destroyed in the District of Columbia, by your glowing false reports of Michelle Rhee!!


  31. John, Didn’t you or any reporters on your team notice that Michelle Rhee took her cues from the playbook of Chicago’s Paul Vallas? From the get-tough image to the press conference called at a warehouse filled with school supplies, to demonstrate just who is in charge now and how incompetent the prior administration was, that was all done by Vallas in the mid 90s in Chicago.

    Americans deserve a return to in-depth investigative journalism and objective reporting, starting with you and your posse.


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