A Story About Michelle Rhee That No One Will Print

Michelle Rhee lobbies across the country for greater test-based accountability and changes in teacher tenure rules.  She often appears on television and in newspapers, commenting on a great range of education issues.  Easily America’s best-known education activist, she is always introduced as the former Chancellor of the public schools in Washington, DC, the woman who took on a corrupt and failing system and shook it up. The rest of the story is rarely mentioned.

The op-ed below has been rejected{{1}} by four newspapers, three of them national publications. One editor’s rejection note said that Michelle Rhee was not a national story.


Today, too many of America’s children are not getting the quality education they need and deserve. StudentsFirst is helping to change that with common sense reforms that help make sure all students have great schools and great teachers. (StudentsFirst press release, emphasis added)

Michelle Rhee created StudentsFirst after leaving her post as Chancellor of Washington, DC’s Public Schools in the fall of 2010. She announced her intentions on “Oprah” that December: to fix America’s schools by enrolling one million members and raising one billion dollars.{{2}}

Easily America’s most visible education activist, she has been crisscrossing the country lobbying for change and donating money to candidates whose policies she supports. StudentsFirst claims to have helped pass 110 ‘student-centered policies’ in 18 states.

Because Ms. Rhee is trying to persuade the rest of the country to do as she did in Washington, it’s worth asking what her ‘common sense reforms’ accomplished when she had free rein to do as she wished.

She was definitely in charge. Her boss, a popular new mayor, told his Cabinet that trying to block his Chancellor was a firing offense.  The business community, a public fed up with school failure, and the editorial pages of The Washington Post were enthusiastic supporters. Moreover, she had virtually no opposition: the local school board had been abolished when the Mayor took over, and the teachers union, reeling from its own financial scandals, had an untested rookie president. She knew how lucky she was.

I’m living what I think education reformers and parents throughout this country have long hoped for, which is, somebody will just come in and do the things that they felt was in the best interest of children and everything else be damned. (Interview, fall 2007)

She lived that dream for 40 months.  She opened schools on time, added social workers, beefed up art, music and physical education, and dramatically expanded preschool programs.  The latter may represent her greatest success, because children who began their schooling in the expanded preschool program tend to do well on the system’s standardized test in later years.

Ms. Rhee made her school principals sign written guarantees of test score increases. It was “Produce or Else” for teachers too. In her new system, up to 50% of a teacher’s rating was based on test scores, allowing her to fire teachers who didn’t measure up, regardless of tenure.  To date, nearly 600 teachers have been fired, most because of poor performance ratings. She also cut freely elsewhere–closing more than two-dozen schools and firing 15% of her central office staff and 90 principals.

When Ms. Rhee departed in October 2010, her deputy, Kaya Henderson, took over. She has stayed the course for the most part, although test scores now make up–at most–35% of a teacher’s rating score.

Some of the bloom came off the rose in March 2011 when USA Today reported on a rash of ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures on standardized tests and the Chancellor’s reluctance to investigate.  With subsequent tightened test security, Rhee’s dramatic test scores gains have all but disappeared. Consider Aiton Elementary: The year before Ms. Rhee arrived, 18% of Aiton students scored proficient in math and 31% in reading. Scores soared to nearly 60% on her watch, but by 2012 both reading and math scores had plunged more than 40 percentile points.

But it’s not just the test scores that have gone down. Six years after Michelle Rhee rode into town, the public schools seem to be worse off 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 understood to be between three and five years. Veterans haven’t stuck around either. After just two years of Rhee’s reforms, 33% of all teachers on the payroll departed; after 4 years, 52% left.

It has been a revolving door for principals as well.  Ms. Rhee appointed 91 principals in her three years as chancellor, 39 of whom no longer held those jobs in August 2010. Some chose to leave; others, on one-year contracts, were fired for not producing quickly enough.  Several schools are reported to have had three principals in three years.

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 Ms. 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.

Although Ms. 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 of the districts surrounding DC.  In fact, the surrounding districts reduced their central office staff, while DC’s grew.  The greatest growth in DCPS over the years has been in the number of central office employees making $100,000 or more per year, from 35 when she arrived to 99 at last count.

Per pupil expenditures have gone up sharply, from $13,830 per student to $17,574, an increase of 27%, compared to 10% inflation in the Washington-Baltimore region. So have teacher salaries; DC teachers now earn on average more than their counterparts in nearby districts in Virginia and Maryland.

Enrollment declined on Ms. Rhee’s watch and has continued under Ms. Henderson, as families continue to enroll their children in charter schools or move to the suburbs.  The year before she arrived, DCPS had 52,191 students. In school year 2012-13 it enrolled about 45,000, a loss of roughly 13%.

Even students who have remained seem to be voting with their feet, because truancy in DC is a “crisis” situation, and Washington’s high school graduation rate is the lowest in the nation.  The truancy epidemic may be the most telling data point of all, because if young people in this economy are not going to school, something is very wrong. They are not skipping school to work–because there are no jobs for unskilled youth.

Ms. 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 her two immediate predecessors, and Washington remains at or near the bottom on that national measure.

The most disturbing effect of Ms. Rhee’s reform effort is the widening gap in academic performance between low-income and upper-income students, a meaningful statistic in Washington, where 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 percentile points 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, generally did not fare well during Ms. Rhee’s time in Washington.

English Language Learners in Washington’s schools are also struggling. Title III of ESEA requires progress on three distinct measures: progress, attainment and what ‘No Child Left Behind’ calls ‘adequate yearly progress.’  DC failed on two out of three last year.

DC doesn’t fare well in national comparisons either.  Between 2005 and 2011, black 8th graders in large urban districts gained five points in reading, while their DCPS counterparts lost two points, according to a study by the DC Institute of Public Policy released this spring. Between 2005 and 2011 in large, urban districts, Hispanic eighth-graders gained six points in reading (from 243 to 249), black eighth-graders gained five points (from 240 to 245), and white eighth-graders gained three points (from 270 to 273). In District of Columbia Public Schools, however, Hispanic eighth-graders’ scores fell 15 points (from 247 to 232), black eighth-graders’ scores fell two points (from 233 to 231), and white eighth-graders’ scores fell 13 points (from 303 to 290).

The states that have adopted her approach, and others now being lobbied, might want to make their own data-driven decisions.

That’s the op-ed you didn’t get to read elsewhere.  Perhaps you will share it with friends, colleagues and any editors you might be acquainted with.

The 2012-13 DC-CAS results, which were released on Tuesday, are being celebrated by Mayor Vincent and Chancellor Henderson as evidence that the reforms are working.

Roughly 50% of DC students are now scoring at a ‘proficient’ level, a significant improvement over 2007, the year before Rhee arrived; however, a closer examination of the data suggests that the increase may be largely attributable to changes in the socio-economic status of the student body and to growth in charter school enrollment (now over 40%).  (The data [.pdf])

For example, take a look at the individual schools plagued by excessively high ‘wrong to right’ erasures rates on the DC-CAS during Rhee’s tenure: At Aiton, the school referenced in the unpublished op-ed, DC-CAS scores went down again, from 19.1% in 2012 to 15.9% in 2013.  That composite math/reading score is below Aiton’s performance level before Rhee’s appointment.

At Noyes Education Campus, the epicenter of the erasure scandal, scores continued to decline, from 32.4% to 29.8%.

Ron Brown Middle School declined from 27.1% to 24.7%;

Shaw’s scores fell from 32.3% to 28.6%;

Garrison Elementary dropped an astonishing 15.9 percentile points, from 47.8% to 31.9%;

And at Dunbar High School, once the District’s flagship high school, DC-CAS scores went from 23.7% to 17.3%.  Most of those high school students have probably been in the DC schools for their entire academic careers, and, as they prepare to leave school for the adult world, only 17.3% are ‘proficient’ in reading and math. And DC’s graduation rate remains at the bottom nationally, while dropout and truancy rates remain unacceptably high.

Spin it as energetically as they wish, Mayor Gray, Chancellor Henderson and former Chancellor Rhee cannot run from these numbers.

School failure in the Nation’s Capital is national news. Covering up failure is also a national story.  Urging other states and districts to “do as we did in Washington” is rank hypocrisy.


[[1]]1. There seems to be a pattern.  Earlier this year, a meticulously researched and painstakingly footnoted exposé called “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” was rejected by a national magazine and two national newspapers.  I suspect the mainstream media is ignoring this version of the Michelle Rhee story because it doesn’t fit the popular narrative of school reform, which asserts that extraordinary “Produce or Else” pressure on principals and teachers is the best way to improve schools.[[1]]

[[2]]2. She seems to have fallen well short.  Last year she raised just over $28 million.  Students First doesn’t release membership numbers but is rumored to count anyone who responds to prompts on its website as a ‘member.’[[2]]

79 thoughts on “A Story About Michelle Rhee That No One Will Print

  1. So much of the political, journalistic, and philanthropic establishments have bought into and celebrated Rhee-type reforms that they simply do not want to hear the news that these kind of
    simplistic, punitive reforms punishing teachers and administrators and lacking any real educational or social vision simply do not work. They would much rather embrace the “no excuses” rhetoric and continue to celebrate scattered and dubious results. Otherwise they might have to go back to the drawing board and think about how schools actually change and deep underlying issues of poverty and race that have been ignored for decades in this movement.


    • Gary, you nailed it.
      When it comes to “teaching and learning” local policymakers and policy-influencers are quite often incapable of having a conversation beyond “instruction”. As a public education advocate working to reform the chronically failing Kansas City Public Schools, I concur with your comments regarding the need to wrestle with underlying issues.
      Civic leaders generally refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room… a student population inculturated in
      *domestic and neighborhood violence,
      *young, single parent-household,
      *unemployed/unskilled parent dependent upon food stamps, public housing
      *emotional, physical and psychological trauma from abuse and/or neglect.

      A second overlooked constraint, lack of district leadership capable of identifying needs and aligning resources to address those needs in support of student academic achievement.


      • As any experienced teacher knows, the factors you list are the primary culprits in underachieving schools. As a NYC high school teacher, I have experienced teaching in two environments, the low-performing classroom and the high-achieving classroom. In the former, much of my energy, both emotionally and intellectually, is spent on so-called classroom management. In the latter, the lesson plan itself takes care of classroom management, as higher-achieving students demonstrate initiative, creativity and academic skills during the 42 minutes or so of classroom instruction. As a teacher, I try my utmost to educate all kids in my classroom; what I cannot do is change the culture of negativity and failure that seems to permeate all non-performing schools. In other words, trying to change the culture of poverty, and all that goes along with it, is truly a quixotic task. I am not fatalistic. Educational reformers must realize that in order to achieve true reform, the inequalities of our broader society must be alleviated, if not eliminated. Otherwise, educators will be caught in a surreal merry- go-round of failed reforms.


  2. As an educator in Texas, I can tell you it’s going to be one of those “they’ll have to take it from my cold, dead hands” moments as far as the testing mandates and the “perform or get fired” rhetoric goes. While principals and educators here see the damage this mindset has done to students (many of whom have difficulty with basic problem-solving in my college courses unless I offer them four options – no doubt the effect of standardized tests), people have bought into the notion that test scores equal learning so deeply that I do not see a correction coming any time soon… and the “reform” folks like Rhee are riding this fallacy as far as the wave will carry them.

    Imagine what schools might look like if we took all of the funding that has gone to Pearson (and other mass-scale testing entities) and used it instead to fortify schools, offer students performance assessments that actually included talking to them directly to ascertain what they have learned. I’ve been told over and over in my state “that’s just not feasible, it’s too expensive,” yet we’ve blown through billions chasing some sort of data-driven answer and seen very little for our money or efforts. There is a serious and noticeable divide in this country between those who have and those who have less, and until we consider new possibilities – and innovative ways to work with language learners and students living in poverty – we’ll just see more of the same in terms of reform movements.

    And Pearson will laugh, all the way to the bank…


    • I’m a music teacher. I have left the subject precisely because administrators have tried to pull these same expectations on the arts, and it has left me dumbfounded and creatively exhausted.
      Creating music has been my life source of energy for me, and the administrators who push these ideals have sucked it out of me!!

      Right now, there are no specific testing standards for music education, so it has been left up to teachers to determine what their learning goals are.
      I have always felt that the student will, in the end, determine what their personal achievement level, based on their own engagement.
      Maybe, this sounds “wishy-washy” or lame, but this is always how music has been taught to me, and I SEE NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT!!

      I’ve been in thousands of hours of music education classes, and the students who applied themselves in practice achieved greater performance results.
      However, no one was ever scolded or reprimanded for not applying themselves.
      That would be un-holistic, and really, the end goal for the arts is personal achievement, and the overall goal is communication.

      No one ever told Jackson Pollack what he should be attaining, but somehow, he was able to break all barriers and astonish us with his abstract paintings.
      In music, our barrier-breakers are composers, yet this task is rarely taught.
      Traditionally, we emphasize duplication, so there are performance goals inherent, but is that the ultimate form of expression?

      I don’t know where the future of music education will lead, but for the time being, I’m out of it, and I’ve left to teach another subject, where I’m truly needed. Perhaps, I’ll return in the future, when this wave is over.


      • I sent an email to a governor inquiring about the idea of a vocal music teacher testing students for perfect pitch in order for them to be in a choir, so that the choir will sing better in tune, thus helping the music teacher be eligible for merit pay! Yeah sure! How ridiculous is that! I’m lucky to have perfect pitch, but it’s not a common part of our make-up.
        The whole testing issue is taking away from helping students develop their initiative — and certainly, poverty plays a huge part.


    • Right on. My problem with articles like this one is that it is still granting credibility to the tests as able to measure student achievement (talents, knowledge, thinking, etc.). My Pearson curriculum is riddled with errors – errors in the lessons, errors in the questions and errors in the answer keys! We are preventing young people from graduating high school diplomas, and we are running teachers out of the profession, based on “evidence of learning” cited from over-testing our young people with flawed tests and answer keys. I am glad to see someone pointing out who the winner is and who the losers are in this Race to The Top.


      • I responded the same way, Jill. I s’pose Merrow’s point in giving so much space to the numbers is that, since testing data is Rhee’s holy grail, she doesn’t pass muster according to the criteria she and other corporate reformers established.

        Regarding errors in standardized lessons and tests, BOTH of the videos included in Smarter Balanced’s (California’s designated Common Core test designers) Common Core practice tests for 5th and 6th grade English include speakers making grammatical errors — “laying on a bed” and “he did good.”
        This may not get most folks excited, but it sure raised my hackles — it’s an ENGLISH TEST, for cryin’ out loud.


  3. The problems that Rhee encountered stem more from the brevity of her tenure in Washington, D.C. than from the efficacy of her strategies. She was simply not Chancellor long enough for her reforms to take root. For example, the Klein administration’s record in NYC after just 3-4 years was nowhere as impressive as the student achievement gains later in his work.

    Most superintendents can get a short-term bump in 4th grade reading scores within several years. But influencing 8th grade performance and high school graduation rates requires the kind of sustained effort and perseverance that can lead to significant student gains and demonstrate the long-term value and importance of these reforms.


    • As John mentioned, Henderson, Rhee’s deputy, has largely continued the same policies as Rhee, so he examined the Henderson years as well. If Rhee’s policies were effective, there should be continued incremental gains, not the decreases noted.

      One of the hallmarks of today’s education “reform” policies is that they are so similar across urban school districts. Contrary to your assertion that Klein’s policies resulted in “impressive” “achievement gains later in his work,”

      “In both New York City and Chicago, purported gains evaporated when proficiency standards were recalibrated to reflect changes in the design of tests. And in Washington, D.C., initially positive test score trends reversed when an investigation into widespread cheating began, and asserted gains disappeared when reliable data were
      employed and subgroup differences assessed.” p. 69 in “Market-oriented education reforms’ rhetoric trumps reality: The impacts of test-based teacher evaluations, school closures, and increased charter school access on student outcomes in Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C.” http://www.epi.org/files/2013/bba-rhetoric-trumps-reality.pdf


    • Wasn’t there a scandal where those purported “student achievement gains later in (Klein’s) work” turned out to be due to adjusting the tests (that is, making them easier), and once that was exposed and controlled for, the gains entirely vanished?


      • I am a principal and see the downfall of both arguments. I see ineffective teachers failing students from poverty stricken homes. In my opinion, a good teacher can take “any” student and move them forward! It is a challenging task.
        The biggest problem in all this “reform” is the expectation of being able to grade student achievement with a “one day-one moment” test of facts. This “data driven” approach is like expecting all Americans to eat McDonalds every day and loose weight. I know I am oversimplifying but it is a cost associated with state mandated testing. Rigger in academics is one thing but measuring achievement is another.
        Myself, I evaluate my professional educators on their abilities to take students and teach them. Some of the things taught are outside the scope of their classroom curriculum but it entails teaching social/behavioral things.


      • I agree with you about the fallacy of the “data-driven” approach, but disagree with you about “ineffective” teachers failing poverty-stricken students. Most teachers are not lazy, and believing that a “good” teacher can take “any” student and move them forward punishes teachers for not being able to correct/overcome the “social/behavioral things” that affect their students. When parents keep their kids out of school, and the students don’t learn, is that the teacher’s fault? Maybe a good teacher can move those kids forward, but not as fast or as well as a student who attends school regularly. Data-driven tests won’t measure any of that.

        By the way, you misspelled “lose” and “rigor”.


      • A principal? “Rigger” in academics? “Loose” weight eating at McDonald’s? This frightens me — I agree with most of what you say, but I’m old-fashioned. I think a principal should be able to spell better than a sixth-grader.


      • “In my opinion, a good teacher can take “any” student and move them forward!”

        I have to challenge this at a fundamental level – one must acknowledge the input of the student in the education process. At every graduation, we celebrate what the students did, not just what we did *to* them. It’s as much their responsibility as it is ours – and in order for their choices to be meaningful, failure has to be one of the choices.
        A good teacher should have the means to work with any student – but that is not a guarantee. A good teacher will not abandon the student, but neither can they make all of the choices for the student, nor step in and do the student’s work.


    • Mr. Nadelstern: You overlook the fact that Rhee’s second-in-command, Kaya Henderson, assumed the position of Chancellor upon Rhee’s departure, so the Rhee policies have now been in place for six years, long enough by your own argument to demonstrate their educational worthlessness. Which doesn’t even begin to touch the amount of pain they’ve inflicted on children and educators alike. I find it telling that while “DC teachers now earn on average more than their counterparts in nearby districts in Virginia and Maryland,” both rookies and veteran teachers flee the system. And students and their parents depart in droves as well.


    • This is one of the common diversions from Rhee and Rheeforms failures. “We didn’t have enough time.” When your silver bullets misfire and not one leaves the gun, blaming the trigger finger is just silly.


    • Did you actually read this piece, or did you just see that it was about Rhee and decided that she wasn’t chancellor long enough?

      The evidence that Rhee ignored, condoned, or covered-up cheating is overwhelming. No serious person with a background in education or statistics doubts this for a moment. Among education administrators, the idea that Rhee’s policies somehow resulted in (genuinely) higher standardized test scores evokes howls of laughter. To be sure, Rhee is respected for her ‘success’in the same way Bernie Madoff is respected for his high ethical standards. Have you ever gone to a slot machine, and on two successive pulls, won two million dollar jackpots? It just doesn’t happen. Answers changing from wrong-to-right at many times the rate answers chane from right-to-wrong? It just doesn’t happen and you are far too sophisticated to believe otherwise.

      Your comparison to Klein is apt, but not for the reasons you probably intended. Just as Rhee’s ‘success’ has been thoroughly debunked by many statisticians, the Klein-Bloomberg miracle of ever-higher test scores has been revealed as nothing more than an accounting trick.The REAL NYC test scores have not budged for the entire era of mayoral control. Everyone at Tweed knows this. (Don’t believe me? Just go to any bar downtown on for a Friday happy hour. Every Tweedy over the age of thirty is preparing for the inevitable scandal about to break as soon as a Democrat replaces Bloomberg.)

      Of course, what Ed-Admins know to be true is only just beginning to emerge to those outside of the Tweed orbit. Gambling at Rick’s? I’m shocked…shocked! Standardized test score manipulation by Tweed & SED? Say it ain’t so!


  4. John, regardless of how you feel about Michelle, and I am not a supporter, what would a news outlet have to gain by publishing your piece(s)? She is no longer in a position of power, no longer a chancellor or superintendent that needs to be or can be removed. But she is in a position of influence and supported by many who have money, influence, and power. So, if the Wash Post or Times (any “Times”) were to publish your piece, they risk alienating her supporters, losing advertisers and access that they need, pleasing only a few educators with minimal collective clout (sorry, don’t mean to offend anyone), and not really changing anything. If Rhee still lived in DC or were still leading a system (or even just a school) somewhere, you would have a shot. But as it stands, if you were published widely, Rhee would continue saying and doing exactly the same things. The media have a lot to lose and very little to gain by publishing your well researched and documented work.


    • By your opinion, although correct by the low sensationalistic standards of todays Press and Publishing you would be right, but that is not what an old school reporter of Truth when he can vigorously pursue it and write it is about. IF Mr. Merrow only wanted to please the wealthy and stay safe he would have never pursued a revisit to his original and misguided position or reporting on Rhee. From the beginning of the Rheeforms people thought they were going to improve what needed to be improved and value what was working. No one or at least only a hand full of higher ups knew this was a brilliantly deceptive plan to unravel and replace education with an eye on the funding, profit, and power over the minds and futures of children. Part of a much larger plan which is the real and bigger story.

      Building a story around all the pieces is what is needed and Mr. Merrow’s work certainly will eventually be a chapter in the book and in the history. Everyone needs to keep working and being vigilant about getting information in bits and pieces or all together out there. The Diane Ravitch Blog is doing a great job of that, chipping away at the national news as it filters out into the public and the Press. Something will eventually give no matter the 1% or the government complicity with it. Power to the People is a real and never outdated belief in the power of one and the determination of the many. Mr. Merrow should be encouraged to seek the Truth and the whole picture along with any network or others he knows would likewise seek to make right this insidious turn of history before our children are swallowed up for the sharks and charlatans who will devour them on the altar of greed.


  5. Michelle Rhee should not only be on her way to prison for rackettering, child abuse, crimes against children etc…She should be charged with international charges crimes against humanity!! Michelle Rhee is the ugly that only America could create!!


  6. John, Now you know what people who are concerned about the privatization and profiteering behind neo-liberal market-based corporate education “reforms” have been up against, trying to get mainstream media to report on the other side of the story. Journalism is clearly slanted towards what politicians, venture philanthropists and their think tanks want reported, because so much of the media is owned or funded by the very people who promote those policies.

    Have you tried only print media or other kinds, too, like MSNBC, PBS and Current? I think folks such as Ed Schultz, Chris Hayes, Melissa Harris-Perry, Joy Behar and Bill Moyers would report this. TV might be the way to get a foot in the door.

    Considering Rhee is not only influencing policies in cities and states across our nation, but also polices in other countries, such as England, I really think this story needs to be told over and over again.

    Thanks for your persistence!


    • Speaking of relevance to England, please consider contacting the Guardian, John. Even just THIS piece, the fact that mainstream media, in the supposedly open and free press of America, won’t publish a truthful article that shines a negative light on Rhee is a HUGE story in itself.


  7. Sorry to hear that noone is willing to publish this editorial. Now that the 2013 DCCAS results have been reported, you should rewrite it in response to all who are claiming that DCPS is on track because of the reforms started by Michelle Rhee and carried forward by Kaya Henderson. It is a false narration that needs to be corrected. It is a national story because Michelle Rhee, who is now a national figure, uses the false narration.

    John, I hope you and your staff will have the time and energy to really dig into the data of the 2013 DCCAS results. Is there really anything to celebrate? Is a district-wide gain of 3% or 4% worthy of a celebration when these gains do not represent all schools? A few questions that need to be answered:

    1, What are the specific demographic changes both citywide and by individual schools? Have demographic changes mirrored changes in test scores?

    2. Have the tests themselves changed?

    3. Have proficiency cutoff scores changed?

    4. Is there any proof that firing “ineffective” teachers and principals has had a positive impact on test scores? For example, what is the staffing like at those schools that showed negative gains?

    5. Why does it take until July 30 for test results to be announced? What exactly is done with the scores between April and almost August? The Tony Bennett story in Indiana illustrates what can happen behind closed doors before final scores are made public. Just as the reform movement in Indiana needed that one charter school to receive a score of “A,” the national reform movement needs DC schools to “appear” to be improving.

    6. Is there anything innovative really going on in DCPS? From where I stand, I don’t see much innovation. Can you find any?

    7. Has a security report (wrong to right erasures) been completed by the testing company that is available to the public?

    In addition to looking critically at the 2013 test results (which people seem to be using to justify Michelle Rhee’s tenure), keep the first story of Michelle Rhee and the cheating scandal alive (even if it is just on this blog). If you stay on the story, one day, the tides will turn, and it will be well known that there was once a very wily, slippery, double-talking charlatan who fell from grace due to the tenacity of a serious and thoughtful reporter who wouldn’t let the story rest.


  8. Thank you, Mr. Merrow, for pursuing the truth with a rational voice. Teachers are so fortunate to have you.


  9. good piece. seems like maybe you should find the next time Michelle Rhee writes an op-ed and get yours published as a point/counterpoint or a rebuttal …


  10. Regarding StudentsFirst’s purported enrollment, here is how I and others who sharply disagree with this organization’s policies believe we got onto Rhee’s list as members:

    Change.org and Care2, both online petition sites, don’t charge to post a petition, but if the poster pays, they will push the petition (this is their income stream). StudentsFirst posts petitions with deceptive titles such as “Support Great Teachers,” and pays to have them presented to people who sign other education-related petitions. I and many others have signed one of theirs and then realized too late what it was.

    Since education “reform” critics from me to Diane Ravitch have gotten onto the StudentsFirst “members” list, that’s our best guess as to how we got there.

    Advocates agitated with liberal-oriented Change.org for a long time to persuade it to stop promoting a right-wing operation such as StudentsFirst (yes, thinly disguised as non-right-wing, but only thinly). I believe that Change.org finally dropped them as a client.

    By the way, although I spent years involved in education policy activism, I’ve never seen an actual, legitimate membership solicitation from StudentsFirst, which has made me wonder if it has any members at all who willingly, knowingly joined up. If it engages in practices that capture names and then list those names as members, unbeknownst to the individuals, presumably some must actually agree with StudentsFirst’s goals, but how many is a mystery.

    In other words, StudentsFirst’s membership list and claims are fictional.


    • I’m on their e-mail list to see what they’re up to. But then I guess I am a member? I have attended one of their events. Their sign in sheet has a check box with “Students First Member?” or something like that. There were very few checkmarks, so I think many of the people attending were people like me. We were curious what they were saying. I wonder if everyone who signed in was put on their membership list regardless.


  11. As I teacher I extremely concerned about what we are doing to the children of this country. I don’t know what it will take to get Americans to wake up.


  12. This is a great article. I’ve written about Michelle Rhee a few times on my own blog. She came to Seattle and spoke, and I attended the event and wrote about it. Her brand of reform is filled with assumptions, half-truths, and bad data.

    This column just confirms that her reform methods simply won’t produce long-term results, and even the short-term ones now seem questionable.

    It goes right in line with an AP article that just came out, exposing Florida state Superintendent Tony Bennett’s attempts to change the C grade assigned to his favorite charter school. It’s mind blowing how hollow these reformists really are when their own methods backfire on them. Find the article and my comments about it here on my blog:



  13. At least she was trying. Why expend so much energy attacking someone who was trying to improve the schools. She could make millions in the private sector. She was trying to
    Improve things and failed. Attack the many,many powerful people who don’t try to help in any way. You seem smart. Why don’t you fix the schools?


    • Rhee is not “trying.” She’s a straw woman and media microphone used by Gates, Broad, Walton, Murdoch, Klein, Duncan, etc. and paid by Gates, Walton, Murdoch and Broad.

      Rhee can’t fix anything and she certainly can’t teach. Her classroom management strategies involve tape on lips.

      Rhee: please go the private sector and make your millions like Lorna claims you will. I’m certain the hedge fund profiteers will welcome you into their club. Leave public schools alone.

      Lorna, you are right about the fact that Rhee failed.


    • Lorna,

      Your argument is used by a lot of people to defend policies she advocated. I used to make those same arguments before I became a teacher. But the problem is not that she tried something different. The problem is that she made things worse, and she continues to (although recently it seems her power is decreasing as she’s become more of a political liability to many politicians). She has convinced many people, especially people of power, that the way to improve education is to fire people and focus on standardized test scores. This has, in many ways, made things worse.

      However, people are still convinced she did better because she “tried something new” Trying something new isn’t always a good idea if the new idea is worse.


    • She is making millions in the private sector. Funded by the likes of billionaires from the Walmart family and Bill Gates.


  14. How does it feel to see your fellow journalists turn on you because they don’t want to disrupt the anti-teacher reform movement? And Michelle is their star pupil. I haven’t seen one major newspaper print any editorial about Tony Bennett’s “Will change grades for $$$” either. You do realize you are up against the Gates, Walton, Broad, Bloomberg, Pearson, Murdoch machine.

    I am hoping as all these stories come to light, reporters like yourself who turned against teachers and their unions will come to understand that student progress is more than a test score. And our job is a hard one. These new policies offer little to no support for the teachers and students. Not one penny goes directly to the classroom. Schools that could have used RTTT funds for lowering class sizes, bringing in the Arts and expanding social services have instead been sliced and diced. But look at all the people and companies making a profit off of education. And the truth is, many charters are not working miracles.

    The NYTimes will continue to defend VAM. They will continue to turn a blind eye to the Rhees and Bennetts of this world. But I do appreciate the fact that you saw the truth and reported it. And for that I respect you.


  15. John,
    I’m disclosing what I posted on Diane’s site for your readers to consider. Nick Davies of the Guardian worked over a period of two years to break through Murdoch’s criminal activities in the UK. Don’t ever roll over and play dead when children’s futures are at stake even if it takes decades. The truth about corporate reform will be revealed in the future by all the major news outlets. A smart and ruthless investigative reporter will eventually uncover the truth.

    July 31, 2013 at 11:18 pm
    It’s important for Merrow to think about going through a back door and the dominoes may fall. How about contacting Nick Davies of the Guardian to disseminate information about how Wireless Generation owned by Rupert Murdoch and the New Teacher Project (created by Rhee) are managing George Washington Community High School in Indianapolis without disclosure? UK parents and educators and US parents and educators will have interest if they know Murdoch is taking over schools in the US. He tried a similar scheme in the UK and was shut down as the hacking scandal broke with credit where it’s due – Nick Davies.

    Working from Wireless Generation’s involvement in the 6 billion dollar NCLB Reading First scam, breaking this story would be the pinnacle of a smart investigative reporter’s career.




    Click to access results-profiles-relevant-schools-wg.pdf


  16. Mr. Merrow, you have chosen to reveal one example, that being Michelle Rhee, of how the reforms are deceitful, manipulated, damaging, and have a larger story. You tapped into and backed into the much larger story and now have exposed yourself to the true architects and engineers of this movement as a threat. Therefore, like the fired teachers, the unions who are being targeted for destruction, the children who are being measured to death for the sake of another use well beyond their own needs or futures, the schools who are being shuttered and closed for the sake of urban shrinkage and reclaiming and reshaping by those same designers of the America of their vision you have been neutralized within your own profession and the space where you have found voice and purpose. You have become one of the millions marked for extinction unless you march to the same drummer and the same tune of those that would be King or Queen. Keeping in mind that this is as insidious and as dangerous
    as anything you could have ever conceived of or imagined. This, Sir, is no sci-fi but a real take over of a nation from the hands of The People by the powers of a marriage between government and corporate interests and more. The Press is being bought and controlled by those that would use duck tape on its reporters and white out for censorship of the Truth.
    Just my opinion and I am always hoping to be proved wrong. Unfortunately, it is only getting worse.

    I admire your attempt to live your ideal of Democracy through all you have known….
    the power of good investlgative reporting filled with unbleached statistics, less opinion and more cold hard facts, connecting the dots, and a coherent use of words to reveal the Truth and educate the reader. However, the power of the pen can only be felt if there is an exposure to the reader. Maybe, the American Dream and the Press have been marked for execution. What a sad ending to a magnificent experiment this would be….for the sake of the future which is truly our children I hope I am wrong. Thank you for trying to expose this misguided plan of some for the sake of the greater whole and good. This is a case where the bad guys believe themselves to be the good guys and everyone else is stupid. Pretty paternalistic and at the root greed ridden. Follow the money! All the answers are in banking and money markets.


  17. They don’t want anyone to (keep) reminding them (or us) of the person they are most trying to distance themselves and their agenda from.
    nuf said…


  18. Has no one noticed what this says about the corporate control of the news media. “News” that doesn’t fit their paradigms is no longer news, by definition.


  19. Newspapers. How quaint.
    Using his own money earned for wrongly grasping for the “next big thing” (that impulse that seduced him to “mayoral control”/Anthony Williams/Klein/Rhee in the first place) Merrow could mail his work to every donor to George Miller in his home district [just download it from the FEC.]
    Using his own money, Merrow could get in his car and go to the towns where the biggest fights are on-going – Philadelphia, Nashville, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles – and work for free on the communications team for the good guys.
    Using his own money, Merrow could produce the movie he claims he wants without corporate or bureaucratic masters he laments and contract bravenewfilms.org to distribute it to their millions of customers.
    Instead I suspect, he will sit looking at the tools of the 20th Century that made him what he is & wonder why no one recognizes his “brandname.”


    • Dear D. Welker
      I am baffled by your comments. I have been working in public broadcasting for nearly 40 years and since 1995 have run my own shoe-string operation, a non-profit. Where’s this money you refer to hiding out? It’s not in my bank account.
      John Merrow


  20. It’s hard to compete for publishing space when, sadly, some of those outlets are too busy publishing the latest version of Campbell Brown’s “Hide your children! Public school teachers are predators!” op-ed pieces.


  21. “The most disturbing effect of Ms. Rhee’s reform effort is the widening gap in academic performance between low-income and upper-income students”. With all the talk and fanfare, nothing changes for those kids who need the most help. Rhee like Oakland, California’s now departed superintendent Tony Smith are taking personal political advantage of America’s decline in public education. For five years Smith and Rhee have been talking about the achievement gap, yet nothing has changed or things have been made worse. What they have managed though is an onslaught of Charter Schools, mass privatization, school closures for kids of color and putting all the blame on Unions and Teachers.


  22. So Tony Bennett got in trouble because e-mails were released somehow somewhere by someone to the AP.

    There have to be e-mails internally in DCPS between Rhee and other high level staff concerning test scores for schools, wouldn’t you think? Wasn’t Rhee on her blackberry and laptop at the same time and talking to someone all the time?

    Someone inside DCPS, please leak the e-mails to the press!


  23. Ms. Rhee speaks out of two sides of her mouth and tells you what she thinks you want to hear. As for unions most schools in the United States do not have collective bargaining and it is just not an issue. Perhaps it should be. I would not send money to anything she supports at this time.


  24. I’ve followed Rhee “miracle”- in Baltimore Tesseract before Wash- and KNEW she was phony ideologue….blame all US educa. failures on UNIONIZED TEACHERS. Who knew in 2007 that massive coup d’ecole was unleashed by ALEC,Kochs,Gates,Broad, Rhee,Bloomberg,Klein, & their ilk, to PRIVATIZE schools and replace Socratic method with ONLINE academies!… Gates/Intel/Walmart pushing laptops to replace human teachers! (in TN,WA,TX,MN, KY, and overseas in Kenya, AUS., Tanzania, on and on!). MIchelle Rhee is the quintessentail FALSE Prophet!


  25. Teaching and learning cannot fit in a simple box. Neither can the relationship that is established between master educators and learners. That is the context the public is missing in this debate, relationships and trust. There is an incredible human component to teaching that cannot be calculated or ignored. The hospital visits, guidance through abuse and neglect, and all other instances which cannot be strategically fit into a calculation matter. They matter to great kids fighting a tough battle, life.


  26. This is typical of she and her husband. He is destined for whatever reason to hold high elected office after he gives Sacramento away to wealthy friends and accomplices in his theft. Between her record of service and his “alleged”past with young girls, you would think they would both be unemployed living off his basketball earnings, what’s left after he pays off all the females for his “alleged” transgressions of a deprived nature. But he will probably get an education appointment or wait till Congresswoman Matsui retires then promise the world and use his star power and fat cat wealthy friends to blitz the local unsophisticated electorate to push him into Congress. The Bee is a sorry spineless paper that ignores anything with a hint of anti Mayor including including when proof has been delivered to them. They won’t touch The First Couple of Sacramento.


  27. I am a current DCPS parent and have volunteered and been a part of the system for many years. The current problems are many:

    1. The pay of teachers went up so fast – from average of $60,000 to over $90,000 that there are fewer teachers in schools. Yet, we have more central office staff and a smaller school system.

    2. What is being taught is shockingly watered down and thin. So many middle class parents hire tutors or homeschool (after the school day) to fill in the enormous gaps.

    3. Charter Schools are taking top students away from the public school system. Many charter schools are providing the rigor, intensity, depth of education that DCPS continues to struggle with.

    4. Most importantly, many parents do not trust DCPS.


    • Sorry to hear Julie. Regarding 3., where DCPS struggles with rigor, intensity and depth, I think it’s partly because it’s so much more difficult to reach those levels when DCPS is likely left with more of the special ed, ELL and behavior challenged students (since about 40% of DCPS students now attend charter schools). SPED/ELL/difficult behavior populations are more challenging to teach, and charters, by the very nature of having a lottery, selects out students. For more of how charters stratify school systems, see this brief report: “The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment” (nepc.colorado.edu/publication/TCR-Dirty-Dozen)

      Some are OK with this, as Michael Petrilli has written about. His basic argument is, why not separate strivers from those difficult to educate kids?:



      • I forgot to mention, the KKK also is OK with this: http://kkk.bz/?p=2460

        (I’m not trying to say that Petrilli is a KKK supporter. He’s pretty thoughtful in his writing, even though I disagree with it.)


  28. John and readers,

    I think it’s important to realize the interplay between various personalities, interests, and groups that have essentially the same or similar narrative as Rhee. Steven Brill’s “Class Warfare” gives a good explanation of it all. I’m starting to see a lot of education reformers starting to distance themselves from Rhee since she’s so polarizing, and probably because they’ve read Merrow’s blog and think to themselves, “Wow, what was she doing?” So Rhee has become too much of a liability publicly, although privately many of her reforms are supported still. This is why it’s so important for people to read this blog about the “results” in DCPS. Too many leaders, politicians, education policy leaders, and even educators still believe in what she’s done. They may say things like “Yeah Rhee didn’t do good as a leader she alienated DC, but look at the results!” So people are qualifying now that they think Rhee was a bad leader but her policies were good ideas.

    There are signs that more and more people are starting to pause and reflect, which is good. See this article on Teach For America (Rhee is an alum, and was invited to TFA’s 20 year summit a few years ago, so it’s safe to assume they view her as one of their shining examples….at least a few years ago. They probably shouldn’t associate with her now and I doubt they will. TFA has a smart publicity team.)


    I’m not trying to attack TFA by linking this article. There are many smart and well intentioned TFA people. But it’s important to see how strong of an influence they’ve had in the last two decades (especially in the last decade) on education policy. As the organization matures, maybe their policies will.

    Exposing Rhee is very important to furthering and improving public education. She needs to be discredited not because of her personality (although it makes it easier to want to expose her), but because of her bad ideas. People call her a transformational leader, but she really had a lack of managerial skill and a deficit of ideas.

    That’s why Merrow’s writing is so important. I applaud your guts, and I hope other journalists will start taking notice. I think they will once they see it’ll be more useful for their publication to expose certain bad education reforms. It’s slowly shifting from blaming the education bureaucracy, lazy teachers, etc…to blaming bad education reforms and education reformers like Rhee and Tony Bennett.


  29. It seems to me that cheating is inevitable when the stakes become so high. Testing is a necessary tool of measurement of performance but should the outcome of testing be tied to salaries and promotions or the loss of one’s job? Don’t many of you think, especially now when we have quite a few years’ worth of experience to reflect upon, that the insistence that the results of standardized testing shows something about the functioning of particular schools and/or specific teachers hasn’t proven insightful or useful? Sure, it gives everybody a momentary thrill to punish the presumed bad performers, but what happens to the actual students who didn’t do well on those tests? Is there any sort of follow up done on those kids, to see if they improve, become proficient, graduate after they go through whatever changes the testing regime imposes on their teachers and schools?

    Way back in the day, when I first got involved in the disaggregated data analysis of testing results, I thought the goal of a standardized testing regimen would be tied to specific students and that the data collection and analysis would be long-term and longitudinal. I dreamed about using that data to look at cohorts of kids — like all the kids taking algebra in a given year for a series of years — to see if differences in outcome between different schools and teachers meant anything about the way that subject material was being presented. Silly me.

    Over and over again, what has happened has been that the usefulness of testing as a diagnostic tool that helps the present and future instructors learn what they need to be teaching has been eclipsed by the politicization of public education. Teaching is hard work because learning is hard work. That’s a simplistic way of putting it, but it comes closer to the truth than do the ideological bromides about ‘choice’ and ‘creativity’ and the anti-testing sloganeering that many people trot out during this sort of debate. But what is even more repugnant to me is that so many of the people who support standardized testing don’t give a damn about the results beyond using them to demonstrate how magnificently they themselves are performing.

    When Michelle Rhee used what she said were the fantastic test results of her own elementary students to catapult herself into national prominence in DC, she was never scrutinized deeply about the veracity of her claims. Very few people are committed to doing the necessary yearly analysis of test results to see just what is happening with any given system, school, or teacher. But this data exists and it does measure something. People should learn how to look at it and use it wisely. Isn’t that why we’re giving kids tests in the first place??


    • “……what happens to the actual students who didn’t do well on those tests? Is there any sort of follow up done on those kids, to see if they improve, become proficient, graduate after they go through whatever changes the testing regime imposes on their teachers and schools?” Excellent question. There should be longitudinal studies on the social/emotional, as well as academic, data and effects of the students. As a special education elementary teacher I can tell you that the tests are given at grade level, not ability level, demonstrating every single year what we already know about particular SE children: that they are not performing at grade level. A more viable test, gleaning more accurate data, would be to test such children at their ability level and measure longitudinally how much they have learned. As you can imagine, the stress of taking tests year after year above their ability level takes a toll on their self-esteem and ability to believe in their own capability to learn, resulting in resistance to learning challenging things, behavioral issues, and disengagement from school. These are the dropouts of the future!

      Thank you for your analysis. Teaching and learning are indeed hard work, and require all the time and support necessary to help the transactions.


  30. Mr. Merrow, if you don’t already read Bob Somerby’s The Daily Howler, I recommend it to you. Mr. Somerby, who taught in Baltimore public schools, writes about many things, among them the failure of the media to provide meaningful coverage of test results.


  31. Good reporting and analysis of the data overall. Another important thing to note: proficiency rates are not the same thing as test scores. Without knowing the actual cut scores for proficiency and whether they have changed, it is useless to say students have improved


  32. Wonderful analysis of so-called reforms and how media, politics and education intersect. Your findings should be widely disseminated; there are people out there hungry for the truth.


  33. Michelle Rhee is a fraud, not that she intentionally wants to mislead, but because she continues to preach her methods even though they have been proven a failure. What she doesn’t seem to comprehend is that testing of teachers has two major flaws. First, the students do not have any incentive to do well on the tests because they don’t count for anything as far as they are concerned. This is particularly true of students in ghetto areas. In fact, it has been shown that students knowing that bad results can be used against unpopular teachers, have deliberately done badly on the tests. Secondly, there is no level playing field. Many teachers are stuck with students that are hopeless while teachers in more affluent areas have students whose parents care and where the schools have more resources. Some classes are bound to score poorly even when they have outstanding teachers.


  34. Hi John,
    I assume you’ve tried to get this editorial and (as another person suggested–the story of how no newspapers will pick it up) into HuffPo? Or Salon? Or others like that?
    Keep it up for all of us and students.


  35. Hi John and Others,

    Rhee, Perry, and Parker are on a teacher town hall tour to three cities in Septemeber. I’m not sure where you are based but I hope you or your reporter team can attend. I think it’s an open event. Hopefully they will allow for real conversation, and hopefully people will challenge some of the bad ideas Students First is marketing. http://www.teachertownhall.org

    This should be interesting. I wonder if it’s an attempt to actually reach out to more teachers, or if it’s in desperation since Students First is struggling as an organization, according to some reports.

    Their biggest lies are the false claims of excellence. See Gary Rubinstein’s blog about this. Perry’s school, according to bloggers and academics (see Paul Thomas) have high attrition rates and much fewer poor students / ELLs / SPED. They may have higher test scores (i mean, it would make sense that they do when you get rid of the difficult students) then they go bash the local community school as failing…The schools that serve the most marginalized students in society. It’s sad.


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