Is Michelle Rhee a Fraud?

“Thank you for showing the world that Michelle Rhee is a fraud.” The woman who said that to me at a banquet at the Harvard Club last week is known to serious education wonks. “I have been sending your exposé to governors and legislators all over the country,” she added. “In fact, Governor (name withheld by me) told me he was grateful for your one-man crusade against Rhee because she is hurting the teaching profession.”

This was a crowded and noisy social event, and so I could correct only one part of her statement, the ‘one-man crusade’ mistake. I reminded her that the critical piece of reporting, “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error,” is the work of FIVE veteran journalists with more than 175 years of reporting experience.

Linda Mathews is a Harvard-trained lawyer who led the investigative team at USA Today that uncovered the erasure scandal in 2010.
Jack Gillum, one of three reporters on that remarkable USA Today story, is now an investigative reporter for the Associated Press.
Jay Mathews is the distinguished reporter and columnist for the Washington Post whose “Class Struggle” column is must reading for those interested in education.
Michael Joseloff, a producer for ABC, CBS, PBS and the NewsHour, has received four Emmy Awards for his work.

The five of us have written eight books and have received two George Foster Peabody Awards, four Emmy Awards, the George Polk Award, the Grantham Prize, two Benjamin Fine Awards, five Ciné Golden Eagles, an American Bar Association Silver Gavel and the McGraw Prize.

Had we not been in a crowd, I would also have said that fraud was her word, not ours. We documented how Michelle Rhee looked the other way when presented with pretty strong evidence that adults, not students, were responsible for the suspicious erasures. We don’t know why she failed that leadership test, only that she clearly did. Perhaps, as Jack Nicholson thundered in “A Few Good Men,” she couldn’t “handle the truth.” Perhaps she was putting her own career ahead of the interests of children. Does that make her a fraud? That’s your call, not ours.

In a less crowded and rushed atmosphere, I would also have disputed the use of the word ‘crusade.’ Linda, Jack, Jay, Michael and I are interested in the truth, but that doesn’t make us ‘crusaders.’

Finally, I would have told her that the full story still has not been told. For months now the DC schools have been dragging their feet on my Freedom of Information request for email correspondence related to Sandy Sanford, the author of that secret memo. “Soon,” they keep saying. What are they hiding?

Meanwhile, down in Atlanta, the criminal justice system is preparing to try Beverly Hall and others for their alleged roles in the cheating scandal in that city.

28 thoughts on “Is Michelle Rhee a Fraud?

  1. “Perhaps she was putting her own career ahead of the interests of children. Does that make her a fraud?”

    She sure looks like a fraud from the planet that I reside on, but I don’t know about yours. Rhee went on to establish an organization called “StudentsFirst,” yet students were not first on her mind when she ignored widespread cheating.

    If you don’t want to call her a fraud, just describe the behavior as “alleged fraud.” Or maybe you have a problem with actually saying what the truth is once you’ve uncovered it, in your non-“crusade.” (Trying to prevent further alienating yourself from the political and corporate “reform” in-crowds?)


    • I prefer to think that John is appealing to other journalists to get on board with the cool, award-winning journalists who see finally Rhee for what she is.

      John and Jay Mathews have also met with Rhee on several occasions, so have gotten past that first “wow” impression to the nitty gritty recognition of a liar and a cheat — hard for any observer of human nature to miss.


      • I would hope that some journalists and others would be interested in contrasting the Atlanta situation with DC’s, for one thing. While I don’t expect the Post to cover the story, what about the Wall Street Journal, the NY Times, USA Today, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, MSNBC, Fox, CNN and other outlets?
        And I am hoping that some of the adults who cheated will come clean, even anonymously, because telling the truth is good for the soul. How can they live with that guilt? I can, will and do protect sources, as my sources know.


      • I appreciate your efforts to uncover the truth. I follow what’s been happening in education closely, and it pains me to see lots of spins on truth being promoted by those in power. For example, some charter schools will say “We have a 100% college attendance rate!” (but then neglect to share that a large proportion, maybe 40% or so of those who started in their school eventually left, whether by expulsion, transferring out voluntarily or involuntarily, being held back, dropped out, etc…and the fact that there is already a self-selected group who join the school via lottery…and fewer special education and ELL students…and….) Anyhow…This fact skewing prevents us from making progress in education, as it confuses policy makers into knowing what’s really going on (yes, I know lots of people think this is by design, and it may or may not be). I’m not against charters per se, but I’m against fact skewing. So this is why it’s important to know what really happened in DC. We need the truth, so that policy makers can know what actually happened.

        Merrow and his colleagues need to remain even handed in their approach in my opinion. They cannot just yell loud and disparage these reformers, even Rhee. It’ll make it too easy to dismiss these reporters as having a biased conquest.

        I hope that those on the inside in DCPS who have information would come clean and share it. I bet there are more, but they’re waiting to see who will “win” in this controversy. But I hope that they’d just reflect and do the right thing, assuming there was a lot of fraud like stuff going on.

        And if I was working in education and wanting to work in education reform, I’d stay away from Rhee and Students First. Just some career advice….


  2. John, thanks for your continuing important work on this and other issues. As you know, there are people unwilling to stand up publicly (by name) for what they believe.

    Many, many people around the country recognize your integrity and commitment to finding out what’s happening that’s helping and hurting youngsters.


    • Here is Guy Brandenburg’s transcription of Gary Rubenstein’s satire on Education Reporting:

      “The United States currently faces a crisis that threatens both our economic stability and our national security. I’m talking, of course, about the status quo of mainstream media educational reporting.

      For too many years, Americans have had no choice but to suffer with ineffective reporters accountable to nobody.

      This is why I am proud to be part of a growing blogger movement. Blogs are incubators of innovation that give a high quality choice to those once trapped with a failing newspaper unless they have the good fortune to live in a certain zip code.

      Highly effective blogger research shows that we provide three times the amount of truth in a single quote!

      Of course, we have the flexibility they don’t, like word count and proper grammar.

      And while all these outdated ed reporters require salaries where they get periodic raises, bloggers seem to have no interest in making money in that sense, instead thriving on a free currency known as a ‘Ravitch Re-Tweet’.

      Yes, blogs in a sense are the charter schools of educational reporting.

      Minus, of course, the cheating and embezzlement.”


      • Very Clever! Here’s something along the same lines that I wrote back in 2010 as a comment on a Washington Post article about TFA

        If “Teach For America” is a good model for public schools, why not use a similar model for the Washington Post, which is losing readers in droves? The Post would be required to take the same steps that the DC schools have taken:

        > Bring in a bold, visionary leader who has three years reporting experience, during which time the person, like Michelle Rhee, claims to have increased circulation from 13% to over 90% (but has no data to support that claim).

        > Support this leader’s plan to fire a significant share of reporters and replace them with energetic recent college grads from elite schools who become reporters for a few years before moving on to other, more lucrative careers. (No journalism majors need apply. Smart people already know how to write and they’ll be taught everything they need to know about reporting in a five-week intensive summer course.)

        > Chastise current reporters for recoiling when the new leader goes around the country blaming journalists for the shameful decline in circulation.

        > Consider it perfectly reasonable when the leader says things like [borrowing from DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee], “As a newspaper reporter, you have to be willing to take personal responsibility for ensuring citizens read the newspaper daily, despite obstacles. You can’t say, ‘My readers are spending more time on the internet,’ or ‘Young people today aren’t in the habit of reading the newspaper,’ or ‘Their checks bounce, so their subscriptions are cut off.’”

        > Expect that the good reporters that print journalism needs to attract in order to remain solvent will come rushing to its doors upon hearing the leader’s claims of success with her readers during her own brief reporting stint [again borrowing from Rhee]: “Their reading habits did not change, their interests did not change, their commute did not change, their occupational demands did not change. What changed were the reporters writing articles for them every single day. And that made every bit of difference.”

        If journalists discount this as a simplistic, misguided approach of someone who doesn’t understand the news business, please consider that the Teach-for-America approach to improving education is just as simplistic and even more misguided.


  3. If you look at the many monumental untruths in the resume that won Michelle Rhee her job as first chancellor of DCPS, a reasonable person can conclude that she is, in fact, a fraud.

    If you look at the many promises and claims that she made of extreme success (as measured almost solely by test scores) in inner-city schools serving poor and minority students — claims that have absolutely not been borne out by the evidence, then, again, unbiased observers would conclude that she has been defrauding the public.

    When you read the brilliant series in USAToday on cheating in DCPS, as well as John Merrow’s belated reports on the same, and you notice the determined efforts of DC officialdom to sweep all of that under the rug, you must conclude not only that Rhee is a fraud, but that there are a number of officials and media fogures in DC who still have a vested interest in covering up that fraud.

    When you consider that many of the wealthiest people on the planet, who have profited by bankrupting nearly the entire planet while their coffers grow at a literally unheard-of rate, have showered many millions of dollars on this self-aggrandizing fraud as she attempts to destroy public education and resegregate our public schools and demonize and de professionalize teachers and to destroy one of the very last remaining large trade unions in America — neatly coinciding with the aims of those plutocrats — you realize that it’s time to do something serious and mass-based about it.


    • While I think that many would agree that there is enough evidence to declare Rhee a fraud, the evidence that she is a pathological liar is overwhelming. In the vast majority of cases, she misrepresents not only the success of her agenda but the motivations and positions of those who oppose it. As someone who claims to be data driven, facts based on data are her worst nightmare. When she does happen to make a truthful statement, it is in the service of buttressing a lie by placing it in a false context. She is truly a foul piece of work. Here is one of many glaring examples.


  4. Keep on trucking on t his. Students First, her well financed organization, does real damage with its campaigns. She must be discredited enough for the money boys to stop investing.


    • I suspect the “money boys” already know she is discredited and don’t care as long as they can keep using her to fool others.

      At some point her brand won’t work with anyone, but while it still does, she”ll have the backing to keep chugging along.


  5. The real issue is not the “fraud” of a second rate educational bureaucrat and her manipulation of false data to draw conclusions. The real fraud comes from the Walton, Gates and Broad Foundation investments AFTER the fake data had been shown to be fake. Perhaps a smart lawyer might challenge their non-profit status and suggest that they have something more at stake than “good education” in making such investments: are there any investments in Pearson and other testing firms? any investments in the for-profit charter networks? any in the for-profit teacher education programs that Ree and others “justify” with false data?

    It is time to question the “good guys,” since they are not all so good. All the time.


  6. The Rheeject is a North Korean Spy Agency operative trained to deceive the American (sic) public into believing the American (sic) public schools system is “failing”. Her main charge is to destroy American (sic) public education so that the USA falters and falls apart and NK will rightly take its place as the top dog nation of the world.


    • My last graf raises that point, although you said it much better than I. Perhaps someone should get in touch with Tavis Smiley about this. He’s acutely aware of racial politics and unafraid to speak his mind


  7. I guess I would just like to point out that Mr. Merrow is a journalist, not an editorialist, and I for one appreciate his willingness to let readers (and I’ll concede that they’re perhaps not the most trustworthy group) decide for themselves. That is, after all, the journalist’s job.


    • OK, so it looks like the teachers and Hall’s underlings have solid proof of (Hall’s) coercion, but what about the case against Hall herself? Where’s the proof that someone coerced her?

      It’s the top bananas that are the real prize anyway, since they are the ones who set the tone. I don’t condone cheating, but when so many people felt pressured by Hall and feared losing their jobs all along, I think it’s understandable why otherwise law abiding citizens might resort to cheating in the high-stakes testing culture of Hall’s (and Rhee’s) “Produce or else” dictatorship.


  8. beginning at 48:40

    On May 22, 2013, Rhee was interviewed by the director of the Kansas City Library, Crosby Kemper III. He asked her about the probability of cheating in DC under her tenure. I think her answer to his question is fraudulent.

    Crosby Kemper III
    “…There’s a memo that came out 2008 and then there’s some follow-up. There’s a guy named John Merrow who’s been writing articles about it, a PBS guy, about the possibility that there was a massive cheating scandal in DC with erasures on tests. I don’t remember the exact numbers, 170 or something like that. In one school in particular where (Aiton, I think it’s called) where it was clear that maybe as many as six teachers, teachers and/or principals engaged in changing of test answers and your response to that–Let me ask you the question this way. Can high stakes testing, which is gonna obviously affect the reputation of the school, the principal, and the livelihood of the teacher, there’s almost an inevitability to some cheating going on, isn’t there? …That clearly is a potential problem, maybe a real problem in the case of this school or the district in your tenure.”

    Michelle Rhee
    “…Let me say a little bit more about the-the-the controversy in DC. Um, so there was-there was a question about whether or not there were extraordinarily high numbers of erasures. Were there, uh, you know, a lot of, uh, cheat, was there a lot of cheating going on etc? Let me just state this. Since that time, there have been six different investigations that have been conducted about that year that is in question. All six of those investigations, including one that was conducted by the, um, office of the inspector general for the city of DC and one which was conducted by the federal government, all six of them showed that there was no evidence of widespread cheating in the district. All of them, and yet still this controversy seems to sort of grew on. And, you know, what I would say to that, uh, because, uh, you know, ah-ah-honestly, uh, a lot of the teacher union leadership are the people who were saying, you know, it-it, that we need to have a seventh investigation, and what I would say to those folks is, imagine that the tables were turned and a – and a particular union member, a teacher, uh, was accused of some wrongdoing and that there had been six different investigations, all of which found, no, the teacher had done nothing wrong, and somebody was out there saying there must be a seventh investigation. You know, who, you-you at some point, you know, we have to be able to say, what is-what is a reasonable thing to-to expect and when the federal government is investigating and finding that no wrongdoing has occurred, I would say it’s time to put that to bed.”

    Notice her claim that the possibility of cheating in 2008 (the year that I understand was NEVER investigated) was cleared by six investigations. “Fraud” works for me, John.


  9. John, I’ve disagreed with your presentations in the past, but you and your colleagues have done a good thing by investigating Rhee’s conduct and exposing her for the fraud that “viewers like us” conclude she is.

    At any rate, here is my take on why prominent educators cheat, and on what’s wrong with education, which I originally posted on the PBS blog “Are Teachers Being Adequately Trained”:

    And you can insert Rheeism in there, too, if you think the shoe fits.


  10. I took my teacher training around 1973. I thought it was awful. My training didn’t prepare me. But that was at the beginning of a period of change, leading to increased classroom observations and more student teaching. But the bottom line is I had to learn it all on my own. My background is English – BA Northwestern “with Honors in English.” Then the MA in English…then the certification courses.
    Today Illinois has much more rigorous standards for entering the profession. But my unscientific observations lead me to think that they are designed to root out incompetence, or bring up the floor, rather than to raise the roof.

    The best innovative work in my department was done by excellent teachers who sought to learn new strategies. Example, an English/Social Studies teacher who worked with colleagues at another school – the Illinois Math and Science Academy – to learn how to conduct “problem based learning” in his own classroom. While the method is best suited to math and science, it has applications in social science, and literature/reading can be taught in the process, as the student feels a very real need to seek solutions through the ideas that others have recorded/argued in books.

    My wife’s a reading teacher, trained at UMKC (MA in Reading). Her specialized training was excellent. But so is she. Everything she does is research-based. That is, she applies strategies that were developed as a result of research.

    But nothing will work in the hands of a teacher who is lazy, corrupt, dishonest, unintelligent, and/or unable to read people well and get inside children’s minds to understand the world as they – the students – see it.
    Not only are there fewer products of our educational system who fit this bill today than there were in 1970; the ones that do, have grown up in a completely monetized society. Some who could have been great teachers today believe that wealth is good, winning is everything, and cheating isn’t really wrong. Many of them will enter arenas where monetized values are welcomed. Some, unfortunately, will become teachers, for the service that being part of academia does to the ego, if not for the job security and retirement and healthcare and summers “off work.”

    If they do enter academia, they come as persons like Harvard “researchers” Rogoff and Reinhart, who do not submit their research for peer review because they can’t possibly be wrong, who become Celebrities of a sort, and who end up exposed as the frauds they are. BUT: They’re wealthy frauds, well-respected frauds within their own right-wing community, and highly successful frauds with just enough Harvard cachet to be able to defend themselves against the criticism of better scientists and researchers than themselves.
    To the Rogoff and Reinhart type of academic, sloppy work, even cheating, is justifiable if they win in the end. To this hour, they staunchly defend their fudged conclusions. And Harvard hasn’t shown them the door, as far as I know.

    No amount of teacher training, no quality of teacher training, would cure society of Rogoff and Reinhartism.


    • Despite claims to the contrary, such as by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), teacher training has evolved a lot since the early 70s. Even twenty years ago, Teacher Education was very different from when I first entered the field in the late 60s. When I returned to school in 90, project-based learning was a major component of my training. In my experience teaching at over a half dozen Ed Schools in the past 20 years, it continues to be today.

      Neo-liberal doctrines, driven by what has become an acceptable greed need in the upper echelons of our society, were born in the GOP and have been promoted by ALEC. However, many progressives have realized that the neo-liberal agenda is very evident in the Democratic party today as well. This is most apparent in the push to follow Milton Friedman’s call to privatize public services, including education, which has been dramatically expedited by the education policies of Obama/Duncan. Such policies, which benefit no one more than corporate profiteers and the politicians who enable them, are often masqueraded under the guise of euphemisms, civil rights slogans and outright lies, and corporate funded think tank research is typically paraded in support.

      In my two decades of teaching in Ed Schools, an important focus has been on preparing teachers to be educated consumers of information. That includes reading, comparing and analyzing different sources of information, such as articles published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, think tanks papers, government reports, the popular press and online resources such as blogs, wikis, etc. Due to the pervasive practice of deception aimed at selling the neo-liberal agenda to the less advantaged, never has training in this kind of fine-grained scrutiny been more important than it is today. It might not “cure society of Rogoff and Reinhartism,” but it does help to prepare teachers to be critical thinkers who are able to recognize bias and ascertain when sources and information would and would not be considered credible. (No doubt, neo-liberal politicians and corporations represented on NCQT would not be pleased that Teacher Ed has been helping to reveal who has been doing the manipulating behind the proverbial curtain.)


  11. We were just discussing the Sanford memo and your appearance on “All In” last April. With the exception of this blog post here, apparently nothing has been written in any media anywhere. My money is on Rhee’s friends in high places operating highly effective damage control. Opinions?


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