No More Rhee

I am done reporting about Michelle Rhee. For one thing, there are many education stories of greater national significance to cover. But I have also been advised by trusted friends to get off the Rhee story because, as one said, “It’s beginning to look like a vendetta, and some people say you are ‘picking on poor Michelle.’”

Another friend believes I’ve become obsessed. That stopped me in my tracks. Was I like Carrie, the heroine of “Homeland”? Think of the opening sequence of the series, where she (Claire Danes) is obsessing over having missed warning signs before 9/11. Her supervisor, Saul (Mandy Patinkin), attempts to reassure her by saying “We all missed something,” and she blurts out, “I’m not everyone.”

I guess I do feel a bit like Carrie. I had unprecedented access to Rhee during her Chancellorship, and I missed some warning signs that all was not legitimate. I was not skeptical enough back then, and my failure then partially explains my desire to get it right this time.

But there’s more to my ‘obsession.’ Once producer Mike Joseloff, researcher Catherine Rentz and I began tugging on threads during our Frontline investigation, the enterprise took on a life of its own. Learning that “the truth is out there” fueled my determination to uncover it. In the Cub Scouts we were taught that “cheaters never win, and winners never cheat,” and I’ve never completely lost that naive optimism, despite lots of evidence to the contrary.

If you have followed the story, you know that we did not get Dr. Sandy Sanford’s confidential memo in time to include it in the Frontline program. The memo (.pdf) showed up on my desk in a plain white envelope a few weeks later and proved to be ‘the smoking gun’ that showed just how much Rhee knew about the erasures–and made her failure to investigate all the more revealing about her educational priorities.

We reported on Frontline about the inadequacy of the DC Inspector General’s investigation into the widespread erasures–but not on the other investigations that Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, regularly cite as ‘proof’ that they have been exonerated. So of course I then looked into those and discovered that they were superficial in nature and/or largely controlled by Rhee.

The Atlanta scandal was running on a parallel track, and so contrasting the two newspapers’ treatment was a natural story to follow. It was sad and disappointing to see how the Washington Post’s editorial pages have functioned as a cheerleader for Rhee, but facts are facts.

The refusal of Washington DC’s Mayor and the City Council to dig into this story also fueled my determination to get it out, particularly because the schools in DC are worse today by almost every conceivable measure. The leader of this ‘see no evil’ crowd has been Councilmember David Catania, who, as head of the education subcommittee, has made it clear that he has no interest in ‘digging up the past.’

Another factor in my obsession with getting at the truth was an “off the record” conversation with a top leader in DC who was in a position to intervene early but apparently lacked the courage. That same person had similar “off the record” conversations with at least two other reporters, giving them damning information that they were unable to use publicly. I can’t and won’t identify that individual, although I wish I could.

Our Frontline program introduced a whistle-blower, principal Adell Cothorne, to a national audience. I wrote about her in my blog, feeling that readers ought to know more about her courageous stand. As I reported, she gave up her DCPS principalship and opened a bakery, a loss to public education (and a huge salary cut for her). Well, I am happy to tell you that Adell Cothorne is back where she belongs, in education. She’s working with the great Catherine Snow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in a project called SERP for “Strategic Education Research Partnership.” This work keeps her in schools, working with teachers, principals, district staff and students, as she helps implement a vocabulary building program for kids in 4th-8th grade. She is also a member of the Leadership Faculty for ASCD, providing professional development for current and aspiring administrators. Her new beginning is a well-deserved happy ending.

People often asked me how I feel about Michelle Rhee. She was great fun to cover, because she’s bright and confident and tireless. She was a great interview, candid and forthright (at least until she hired a slick PR person, Anita Dunn, to shape her image and teach her political tricks of the trade). As Rhee’s biographer, Richard Whitmire, told Frontline, Rhee is “a zealot.” As she told me, she does not look back and reflect; she does not have any regrets because she’s too busy moving forward. She lives in a black-and-white world. I don’t think she’s a cheater, but it’s clear that she failed a fundamental test of leadership when confronted with strong evidence that adults on her watch cheated.

But Michelle Rhee is not the point of all this. What matters much more is what she failed to accomplish in Washington. She espoused a certain approach to reforming failing schools, a path that she and her successor have followed for six years, and that approach has not worked. That’s the central point: Rhee’s “scorched earth” approach of fear, intimidation and reliance on standardized tests scores to judge (and fire) teachers and principals does not lead to improved schools, educational opportunities, graduation rates or any of the other goals that she presumably embraces.

Full disclosure: I am still trying to get copies of the emails between Sandy Sanford and his immediate supervisor, Erin McGoldrick, using the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). For over a year now, DCPS has managed to avoid finding any electronic communication between them, except for his invoices. It has been a comedy of errors: DCPS has entered incorrect search terms and even a wrong email address–and then reported (surprise!) that it could not find any communications. We’ve appealed each time, and each time the Mayor’s General Counsel has told DCPS to search again. If the Mayor’s General Counsel were to do more than chide DCPS, perhaps we would get their emails, and that might shed more light on the situation. If that happens, I will be back on the story.

And if another insider were to come forward with more information about the cover-up, I would return to the story.

But as of now, I’m back on the education beat where I belong.

61 thoughts on “No More Rhee

  1. John, continuing to kick a live horse is probably not the best course. There are certainly more important issues, overall, than one horse that will continue, along with her herd, to kick pubic educators in the head with her false testing premise. While accountability is important in education, it has to move beyond x’s in boxes. The students actual work should be the basis for judging the student’s preparedness, and the teacher’s ability to facilitate that accomplishment. The DNA of standardized tests builds into itself the possibility, and even the need, for the cheating which has been reported. Continuing and broadening your reporting on true education reform reflecting more student engagement and individual responsibility, and moving away from the end-all-be-all curriculum narrowing of standardized testing, is a good move forward. Keep up the good work. Frank


  2. Does Bill Gates happen to be among the close friends advising you to drop this story, John? You know, the Gates who, less than a year ago, helped fund your piece about the “rebirth” of schools in New Orleans –even though you claimed earlier this year that he’s not one of your funders and dropped his Foundation from your list of funders on this page?

    In another year, will you suddenly realize that the “rebirth” in NOLA was actually a miscarriage –a miscarriage of objective investigative journalism, just as your reporting of Michelle Rhee? Will you claim mea culpa then and also just drop that story after less than a year, while the false “miracle” continues to be spread by Jindal, White, etc?

    You promoted Rhee and now she gets to just keep passing off her destructive lies onto the nation unabated. Fortunately, there are some much braver souls than you who are prepared to confront her, including student Hannah Nguyen:


    • It is not a secret that grants from Gates, Broad, Annenberg and Hewlett allowed us to cover NOLA for the NewsHour. Gates (and the others) did NOT support the documentary, nor did we ask them to.
      I am not reporting about Rhee because no other national reporters picked up the story, allowing the right-leaning bloggers like Rick Hess to cast this as a personal issue, “John vs Michelle,” instead of focusing on the real issue: her approach does not work, hurts kids and teachers.
      Re New Orleans, our film will be on Netflix in October in nine languages. That system deserved an F- before the storm. Would you go back to those days?
      I have never met or communicated with Bill Gates, and I seriously doubt that he has ever heard of me.


      • Mercedes Schneider has left many links for you on the Ravtich blog. NOLA is not a miracle. If it earned an F before it still is an F.

        Vallas was and is a failure. Once again you are being duped.

        NOLA debunked:

        Here is the deception: “combined school districts” means RSD and the 17-school Orleans Parish Schools (OPSB), which was primarily magnet schools turned into selective admission charters. Attempts to make RSD look better by combining its data with that of OPSB is nothing new. See this post:

        Also, the “50% decrease in dropout rate” is an inflated stat; also, it does not include the fact that the definition of “dropout” was changed to exclude students who after dropping out decided to attend education programs (like night school). See this link:

        New Orleans’ Recovery School District: The Lie Unveiled

        The school- and district-level data presented in this post unequivocally demonstrates that the state-run RSD is hardly a miracle. It should be an embarrassment to any reformer insisting otherwise. And it should come as no wonder why RSD doesn’t even mention school letter grades on its website.

        The history of the state-run RSD in New Orleans is one of opportunism and deceit, of information twisting and concealing, in order to promote a slick, corporate-benefitting, financially-motivated agenda. It is certainly not “for the children.”

        To other districts around the nation who are considering adopting “the New Orleans miracle”:

        Reread this post, and truly consider what it is that you would be getting: A lie packaged to only look appealing from afar.

        Paul’s program in New Orleans was not to rebuild public education after the hurricane, but to create a privatized system of schools.

        The NOLA miracle that wasn’t:

        New Orleans education reform: a guide for cities or a warning for communities: a grassroots lesson learned (2005-2012)

        The problem with the Paul Vallas brand of school reform

        Crazy Crawfish’s Blog
        Zesty Louisiana Education Politics
        Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics and RSD AP


      • Links are awaiting moderation, but here is my short message:

        Mercedes Schneider has left many links for you on the Ravtich blog. NOLA is not a miracle. If it earned an F before it still is an F.

        Vallas was and is a failure. Once again you are being duped.


      • At the Gates website, it says this about your grant (though there are other entries for grants in previous years):

        “Learning Matters, Inc.

        Date: November 2012
        Purpose: to fund the completion of a film about the revitalization and recovery of New Orleans, including the public education system, after Hurricane Katrina
        Amount: $20,000
        Term: 1
        Topic: College-Ready”

        Sorry if I confused what Gates was funding, but it still sounds to me like the grant was about helping you complete your documentary “film,” not segments on NewsHour. And while $20K may not sound like much to you, it happens to be what I have grossed this year as a teacher.


      • Learning Matters did receive $20,000 from the Gates Foundation. I had forgotten the grant. My apologies. The principal support for the film came from The Fisher Fund, The Hastings-Quillin Family Trust, and the Emerson Collective. Wynton Marsalis contributed his music. Grants to support our coverage of NOLA for the NewsHour came from the Annenberg, Broad, Gates and Hewlett Foundations. No one from any of these organizations has ever attempted to influence our coverage.


      • “No one from any of these organizations has ever attempted to influence our coverage.”

        Wa that from the get go, John? In other words, are you saying that there was nothing in the applications for foundation grants indicating where you would be headed in the film and NewsHour reports covering NOLA? i.e., When exactly did you first characterize the privatization of public education in New Orleans as a “rebirth” –before or after you applied for the grants? If before, did you ever consider that the privatization of public education in NOLA might result in the birth of a monster that has become the model for the nation, as promoted by Duncan, ‘Don’t ever let a crisis go to waste’ Rahm and other neo-liberal proponents of disaster capitalism?


      • You’re still being fooled; the New Orleans “rebirth” is as much of a scam as was Rhee, the DC “turnaround”, NCLB, RTTT, and every other “reform” idea pushed by business and corporate types from Pearson to Duncan to Obama to Emanuel to Gates to Rhee.

        You were wrong before, and didn’t realize it until you’d helped do a lot of damage. Unfortunately, you’re doing the same thing here and again won’t realize it (despite people again trying to help you realize as much) until many more kids, teachers, and parents have suffered in New Orleans.


      • “I am not reporting about Rhee because no other national reporters picked up the story”

        Then that was all the more reason for you to keep going. And other people were indeed picking up on her. Ravitch has devoted an entire chapter to her in her new book. (I know you have mixed feelings about her too).

        It’s disappointing, John. Teachers and real educators are finally getting to fight back, and you’ve decided to sit out this moment in history. For the Gates Foundation. Since you’ve never met him, do you really want to sacrifice this moment of your career for his money?


  3. I don’t agree with abandoning this story. The attempted corporatization of public education is the educational issue of our time. Michelle Rhee has been a major spokesperson for this agenda even though she was a very unsuccessful teacher for only a few years. The real story is the fact that she can be given such star billing with no credentials in education which is another symptom of the depths that investigative journalism, and journalism in general, has sunk in the last ten years.


  4. Don’t worry that people are saying “poor Michelle.” She makes big bucks and needs to be able to stand up for what she professes. She needs to be held to account. She needs to be made to explain herself & not just be allowed to speak in talking points.

    A journalist is not obsessed but dogged in pursuit of the truth.


  5. The challenge is how to deal with hypocrisy, yet the best solution is, as you put it, to move on. Punishing badguys only makes – as Obama has discovered in his melange with Putin – the good guy bad.

    Perhaps you should look at James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” [Google it for the NY Times review and Amazon’s comments, which are remarkable] for a very different perspective. Scott was the basis of a remarkably innovative alternative high school concept here in Somerville, STEAM Academy, since he argues – with remarkable warmth, depth, and scope. that the linear thinking of the Michelle Rhees almost inevitably produces failures – from Brazilia to resettling refugees in inhospitable climes. Ideas that don’t “come from” the users – whether through inspiration or environmental insight – won’t “work” “on” those users.

    This is perhaps the best and most compelling argument against test-o-mania: unless the tests are built from the knowledge base of the students, rather than the memory requirements of the didact, they simply score memory. Memory is great, and fine as far as it goes, but it did not dictate what Jobs invented, nor Gates, nor most of what we use, do, and think. And that’s an even more compelling – although more difficult to understand – reason to dismiss the mechanics of the Rhee and Duncan school. And, as we discovered with the MacArthur project and Arnie Packer, ePortfolios are simpler, clearer, and far more compelling. Complemented by data like attendance, gain scores, and documentary skills (both written, video, and audio), we have a much, much richer and scorable and reliable set of metrics for student readiness for work, career, and more school.


      • Because he told you what you wanted to hear? John, come on! Rhee is not a victim. She has plenty of undeserved good publicity. She is lavished with undue praise wherever she goes. Many other reporters were afraid to be the one to stand up and point out that the emperor had no clothes. You were on track to being brave. Now you’ve chickened out. And please don’t tell us the Gates had nothing to do with it, when I hear the Gates Foundation slogan being chanted on Morning Edition every day.


  6. So, John, how much did your supposed friends pay you or with what did they threaten you to “drop” the story? Hell, you weren’t even half way through with all the crap that the Rheeject has foisted upon innocent children and teachers and fellow human beings. I smell chicken!


  7. Mr. Merrow,

    Do you comprehend the level of harm Rhee and her band of reformers have foisted on every teacher and student across America? Why would you give up? Is it about the money?

    I’m very disappointed that you don’t seem to have the tenacity to stay on top of the reform miracles that are only mirages. You are highly intelligent, but seem to back down in a corner. Put charts, spreadsheets and diagrams together based on FOIA requests – follow the money and the reform relationships.

    Why would you give up and sacrifice public education for corporate interests?


    • To both Duane and LLC
      I hope you will use some of your energy to persuade other national reporters to cover this story. Because that hasn’t happened, the right created a narrative that this was a personal vendetta on my part. That provided cover, frankly, and it meant that people did not have to look at the facts. A lot of people are invested in her narrative, that ‘getting tough’ works.
      Calling me chicken doesn’t change the landscape.


      • John,

        I give you credit for responding and not just deletiing my post. Perhaps you do have more guts than my chicken comment implies. But you are bowing down to “the right” by backing down. That heat you feel is because your getting too close to exposing their falsehoods for what they are.

        Those of us who have been pushed out of positions and have suffered the consequences of challenging these nefarious educational malpractices that the edudeformers push (and yes they push them just as a drug dealer pushes his illicit drugs and causes harm to many) and those of us who even after being sanctioned continue to fight these insanities had a little gleem of hope that someone with a national voice would expose them. So I am more than a little disappointed that you have chosen to back off.

        Seems obvious to me that, even though you will deny it, someone has “gotten to you”, given you an “offer you can’t refuse”. Extortionists stop at nothing.


      • We don’t delete posts unless they are pornographic or over-the-top slanderous. Nobody has gotten to me. I made what I think is a rational decision. I don’t mind all the personal attacks, but I do think they get in the way of two central points: 1) the failure of someone else in the national media to report on the non-coverage of the Rhee story; and 2) the failure of the national media to report that Rhee’s ‘reforms’ in Washington have done far more harm than good.

        As long as I was the only reporter in the national media out there challenging Rhee, the right wing bloggers like Rick Hess were able to cast it as a John vs Michelle story, a vendetta. Andy Rotherham called me Ahab, and Hess said I was the HS senior whose prom date stood him up. (It might have been Hess who called me Ahab; I forget). The point is that my coverage was becoming an obstacle to the truth being understood.

        I wish that my critics would use some of their energy to approach Tom Friedman, Jon Stewart, Maureen Dowd and all the rest of the opinion shapers.

        Meantime, when and if more evidence appears, I will be back on the story.


  8. Mr. Merrow —

    If you’re going to abandon the Rhee story, how about doing something about Susan Fuhrman, president of Columbia Teachers College and also on the board of the Pearson corporation.

    Why hasn’t TC done anything about so obvious a conflict of interest on the part of its president? And why haven’t you done a story about that?


  9. What I take issue with is that no one will claim responsibility for the children who were cheated by not getting the help they needed to obtain the knowledge they were lacking.
    Shame on D.C school administration for not reprimanding those who covered up!

    susan Landmann
    Murch Elementary School
    27 years


  10. Sir,

    I suspect there’s more backstory to your decision, and I find your explanation to be merely a massive rationalization, perhaps for your own contractual good at PBS, which has been compromised by the need for corporate right contributions, most of which are aligned with the privatization/charterization/antiunion movement. Perhaps for some other reason.

    I know all too well how the Rhee’s use their public platform to meet the goals of their corporate betters, for I have felt the brunt of their torch, including by Rhee’s current husband, Kevin Johnson, who founded the scandal ridden St. Hope schools in Sacramento, about which Inspector General Gerald Walpin wrote volumes in his reports to government agencies.

    I know that Rhee has allies in NBC’s Education Nation farce, who also served her and her successor’s interests at DCPS, and now serve in her StudentsFirst corporate fraud, funded by the Koch Brothers, among other billionaire boys club frauds seeking to gut public education in America to keep Americans of modest means poor, pregnant, illinformed, and powerless… even going so far as to place Kaya Henderson on a national MSNBC segment proclaiming questionable achievements in the district…

    I know that quitting now in pursuit of the truth from this pathological liar is a coward’s way out of facing the corruption behind Rhee and her corporatist movement and its Wall Street backing, as American public education is starved into submission…

    I reject your excuse, and I do not believe your explanation.

    You ran a puff piece on Rhee long ago, and you’ve attempted to atone for doing so most recently.

    Yom Kippur is oddly enough not the time to quit your penance for your past sins, sir…


  11. There are different ways for the truth to come out. Sometimes it appears in front page blasts like Watergate, while other times it seeps into our psyches slowly, like Iraq. Is there anyone out there who still believes there were hidden weapons of mass destruction?

    And so it is for Michelle Rhee: Slowly but surely people have begun to see her for what she is. If in doubt, just look at the comments about her on most blogs.

    I disagree with one point, Mr. Merrow. You stated that you don’t believe she is a cheat. I believe that she is because any educator should have known something was not right when some of her schools got “miracle” scores. Also, when she threatened her principals with dismissal if their test scores did not go up, she must have suspected that there only hope was through test invalidation. No one ever accused her of being stupid.

    Anyway, thanks for your efforts. Yes, you were taken in by Rhee, but you weren’t alone.


  12. John,
    I’m asking you not to let it go. You did children in this country a disservice by not getting it right the first time (just like I did). But you have the platform and the credibility to right this wrong.
    So, try to check your feelings at the door, and keep reporting the facts. We’re counting on you.


    • Thank you SO much for alerting us to this Frontline piece on the lying, doostrtiins, etc. used to make this vulture of education unmasked! I have seen up close and personal how the agenda of this maniacal, pseudo educational plan will be the final death kneel for quality education and the extinction of college kids going into this snake pit of a profession! Sad to say it is just another example of the tissue thin veneer that is pasted to corporatists destructive plans. They merely glue on a virtuous sounding labels and instigate programs that are the exact opposite in design. Students first is just such a draconian example!peach are


  13. As someone who was an active advocate in education, I had to entirely step out of my advocacy activities because I had to do so to take a job to provide health coverage for my family. I had no choice.

    That helps me to understand what various circumstances might exist. I fully believe that John Merrow is under threat or duress — I’m just surprised this isn’t evident to everyone. He has been persistently digging into the wrongdoing of someone ruthless, unprincipled, very powerful and very wealthy — but certainly vulnerable. (With too much noise about cheating and other wrongdoing, Rhee’s funders will eventually get scared away.)

    We can’t know in what ways and to what threats Merrow might be vulnerable, so speculating seems a little pointless. And what he has done at other times and on other subjects has no bearing on this reality.


    • Those of us who have no safety net, if we lose our livelihoods for speaking out about what is right for children and public education, continue to advocate but do so with a nom de plume. It’s a frustrating position to be in, but we don’t suddenly stop caring, lose insights on patterns of behavior, want to rationalize and acquiesce.

      I am not pleased with John’s decision, but I’m also not giving up on him, since the one shining light here is that he seems to have left the door open if people in the know still want to come forward…


      • I’m one of those with no safety net and have been speaking out since before NCLB got passed. And I use my real name.

        Be brave and stand up for yourself but more importantly for the students.


      • Are you stuck taking semester to semester jobs because you have not been able to find full time work in 5 years? Are you one low paycheck away from becoming homeless if you lose your job, because you don’t qualify for unemployment compensation and have never earned enough to have disposable income or to save?

        I did my speaking up for 40+ years in the classroom with children as a non-union teacher for low pay and no benefits. Now I’m among the 75% of professors who are exploited as contingent faculty for low pay and no benefits, when I should be retired, but I have no pension, so I’ll be working until I die. I would rather die at home than on the street, thank you.


  14. Sounds more like a combination of selling out and cowardice to me. I would think a man of your age and wisdom would be above such things.

    Rhee is a professional finger pointer who knows nothing about education, has no credentials in the field, and contributes nothing of actual educational value. She doesn’t know about the things that she does not know, and she is arrogant and outspoken about what she thinks she knows. She is all about shamelessly promoting and enriching herself.

    I thought you were on the path to exposing Rhee for the charlatan that she is, and I’m very disappointed. Perhaps a man of your age and wisdom pales in comparison to the wisdom and courage of an 18 year old named Hannah Nguyen. Maybe you should interview Ms. Nguyen; hopefully your lack of integrity won’t influence her.


  15. Could it also be that John and the other reporters are tired of this story, as most people in education are tired of Rhee? She was in Los Angeles last week for her Teacher Town Hall where she, Parker, and Perry spoke 95% of the time. I don’t think the LA Times covered the story, which is surprising. Maybe they’re tired of her and she’s a non story now.

    Still, the DC story is worth pursuing by someone out there, and it’s not to just get at Rhee. The public ought to know the truth so that policy makers and citizens can pursue worthy education improvements. But people buy what Rhee says still because she seems like a tough person fighting a system. Who doesn’t like fighting a system? I think that’s why she can get some backers…they think she’s David fighting Goliath. The problem is she’s pushing policies that made things worse in DC.

    I wonder as Rhee’s influence continues to decline whether Mr. Merrow’s anonymous sources will feel more free speaking out. I hope so. Maybe they’re worried because they have jobs in the reform camp and they don’t want to jeopardize that? Fine, it’s understandable to some extent. But things are shifting, and more people are starting to question ed reform…even reformers are from what I’ve been reading. I’d be worried if I was associated with Rhee professionally.

    I hope Diane Ravitch’s book will inform us, and I hope she didn’t write it in a way where reformers can easily dismiss her. I hope she used thorough research and compelling arguments that will challenge thoughtful reformers. From what I’ve read so far it seems like she may have done that in her book. Yes, I do believe there are thoughtful reformers and not all of them are trying to privatize education. These people need to take a step back, reflect, examine themselves, and see a better way forward.


    • Diane’s book is thoughtful and measured. I hope millions will read it. And of course I hope more sources will now feel comfortable enough to come forward (and I hope they come to me first!)


      • Don’t wait, go find those sources, many are easy to find and once they start coming out the avalanche gains force and speed.


  16. So now that you’ve helped make her a celebrity you will no longer write about the lies and misuses of power you conveniently ignored in the course of your story? Did no one on your crew wonder what kind of psychopath would invite a film crew along to watch as she destroyed someone’s career?

    Grow a pair and fix your mistake


  17. I am being harshly criticized here:
    I have written this response, which also speaks to some of the criticism above. I want to make it clear that no one from the Gates Foundation has ever attempted to influence our reporting. In 40 years only two foundations have crossed that line. In the first case (when I was at NPR) we gave back the money. In the second case I turned down a grant of $350K+ because the foundation that offered it wanted to control the film’s content. Anyway, here’s what I wrote to “Chalkface”:
    “I accept your invitation to respond. I don’t believe I have ever read the Gates guidelines. I know for certain that we approached Gates (and a raft of other foundations) for support for our year-long study of American higher education, which became “Declining by Degrees,” a 2-hour film and a book. That was our first grant.
    In “The Influence of Teachers” I explain in great detail how the Rhee/NOLA coverage came about. Briefly, I called both Vallas, whom I knew slightly from Chicago, and Rhee, whom I had never met, and suggested that we cover them in depth for the NewsHour. We had $$ to cover ONE but both accepted. I didn’t have the funds but committed to both stories anyway, gambling that some foundations would support the coverage. The Wallace Foundation was immediately supportive. By chance I shared a cab to the airport with a Gates Foundation program officer; I took that opportunity to tell her about my dilemma, and she took charge.
    The third grant (which was, I believe, two separate grants) was essentially a continuation of support for our NewsHour work. By the time Part Two of that grant rolled around, Gates had narrowed its focus and wanted coverage of quite specific issues. That made us uncomfortable, and the relationship came to an end.
    The small grant ($20,000) came from a different part of the Gates Foundation and was actually a contract, not a grant. The program officer needed to specific task, and, as I recall, I would not specify an individual NewsHour piece because that would sound like paying for coverage. But $20,000 was perhaps 5% of the cost of the New Orleans film, not enough for anyone to infer that Gates was ‘buying’ coverage.
    Now, as to “Rebirth,” I don’t know if you experienced the public schools in New Orleans prior to the storm. I did, and they were enough to make one physically sick. Everyone who could afford an alternative put their kids elsewhere. Today the schools there probably deserve a C-, and that is a remarkable accomplishment. Are they too test-score driven? Yes, unfortunately. That narrow focus has resulted, it seems to me, in too many look-alike schools, something the founders of the charter movement did not expect. But New Orleans has set a high bar for charters and has closed down schools that haven’t measured up.
    I don’t live in a black-and-white, either-or world, and I believe that the critics of what has happened in New Orleans are willing to let the best be the enemy of the good. What’s happening in New Orleans in a work-in-progress, susceptible to sabotage from the right and the left. The right, including the Governor, would like to allow lots of agencies to grant charters, part of a privatization strategy. I am not sure what the left’s solution is.
    And as for covering Michelle Rhee, I think my critics ought to be writing Nick Kristoff, Charles Blow, Bill Moyers, Tom Friedman, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, the editors of the Washington Post and the Atlantic, Diane Rehm, Jon Stewart and all the other folks who have far more influence than I. Why aren’t they on this story? The data could not be clearer: her ‘scorched earth’ approach has been tried, and it is an abject failure. And why isn’t the failure of the mainstream media to cover this story a story of its own?
    You know that I have exposed Rhee’s failure to act when confronted with evidence of cheating; have shown how her basic approach to ‘reform’ all but guaranteed cheating; have documented the hollow and fatally flawed nature of every one of the so-called investigations; have given chapter and verse of the Washington Post’s editorial page shameful cheerleading (especially when contrasted with the courage of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution); and have called out the national media for its failure to report the story.
    I went to Dartmouth, where “vox clamantis in deserto” is a college motto, but being a voice crying in the wilderness in this case is actually counter-productive. Right-leaning bloggers dismiss the evidence by painting this as personal, a vendetta, calling me Ahab or a high school senior whose prom date stood him up. That would be laughable if it were not effective–some people want to cling to Rhee’s narrative, which they have adopted.
    I can handle being attacked (Rhee mounted a major smear campaign against me while we were reporting for Frontline, and I survived), but I don’t think you are moving the ball forward.
    As I said, if more credible sources come forward, I will be back on the story. And my mailing address is 127 West 26th Street, #1200, NY NY10001.”


    • Mr. Merrow,

      Have YOU approached Jon Stewart with information from your investigation? His mother is a teacher, and he has been very receptive in the past. Perhaps one of his segments could expose this information.



      • Yeah, I saw that episode of the Daily Show. Jon Stewart was very, very easy on Rhee. Only John Merrow really has the courage to speak truth about this.

        And look, while Jon Stewart did once seriously do an intervention with Crossfire–calling Tucker Carlson out for what he is, and honest telling Begala and he to “stop hurting America,” the only interviewee that Stewart has actually demolished is that Jim Cramer guy who helped Wall Street sell bad financial products to many middle class people, giving them empty retirement accounts. This is out of about 13 years of being on TV.

        Don’t ever count on Stewart to do anything like Mike Wallace used to do in the 1970s. He’s very good comedian, but he’s not a journalist.

        Brian Williams is not a comedian, and…the end of this thought is left as an exercise to the reader.


      • I think curricula shluod be examined closely, no matter what side of this fence you are on. The discovery math curriculum, so popular with educators over the past few decades, has led many students astray. As Frustrated Parent pointed out, too many students end up not knowing math facts and fall behind in high school. Non English learners have an especially difficult time with these heavy text oriented math books. Many students have to be tutored or take remedial math in college, which is a waste of time and resources. In Seattle parents have been fighting this battle for years and the District has not listened. I am not a fan of charters but I also think public schools could do better with improved curricula.


  18. I think John did a marvelous job of illuminating the shadows of Ms. Rhee’s tenure at DCPS. She was in over her head, and the fact that she has become a “star” of the progressive education movement (dare I call it that?) is mind-boggling and disappointing. DC is arguably one of the most difficult school districts in America. I’m not sure who or what will bring it into the 20th century. She certainly didn’t, nor did others before and after her. But her reckless abandon for poor management and illicit forms of concealment are problematic, if not unlawful. This should not be celebrated nor rewarded. It should be punished and showcased.

    Good work, John!


    • If that Dr. is for education and if you only learned about Rhee from Merrow, then you have been lax in your duties as an educator to be educated about your field. If so, then it shows that Dr. means nothing.


    • Clearly, you know nothing about progressive education or what has been going on in our country, “Dr.”

      Rhee is the poster child for the neo-liberal corporate “reform” movement which seeks to privatize public education, so that private companies can profit from public funds. That also includes promoting mayoral control of school districts, mayoral appointed non-educator superintendents and mayoral appointed school boards, denying citizens the right to elect their local school boards. It also includes shutting down neighborhood schools and handing them over to private enterprises that do not have elected school boards.

      All of that is antithetical to progressive education –which prizes democracy.


  19. Mr. Merrow – Thank you for your decades of service informing the reader/listener on education issues. I wish you many more- your are needed more than ever.
    A public school teacher.


  20. John,

    Please stop listening to your trusted friends. You SHOULD be obsessed. If your friends trusted your journalism, they would be JUST as obsessed as you are. If your friends are tired of you talking about Michelle Rhee, talk about sports and the weather with them, and then go to work, and keep following, pushing, and promoting the Rhee story.

    You should consider writing a book. On the heels of Diane Ravitch’s chapter on Michelle Rhee, many people will want to know more about Rhee. You are a person who knows more. Your book could be a bestseller and would keep the story alive until someone in Washington has the guts to reopen the investigation into cheating and open an investigation into the investigations. Don’t let the Rhee/Henderson/Kamras crowd sleep easy. I hope you will continue to play a big part in exposing these masters of obfuscation.

    I might also suggest that you use your blog to write more regularly about a variety educational topics. At the same time, continue reporting on Rhee. The more you write about other topics, the less it might seem to your friends (and to yourself) that you are obsessed with Rhee.

    Also, a story about the smear campaign that Rhee mounted against you would be fascinating.


  21. I have no doubt that forces from the “reform” sector have threatened Mr. Merrow in some way that could do him (or someone close to him) serious material damage. Since presumably none of the commenters here knows what that might be, it’s not really feasible to urge him to ignore the threats, in my opinion.


    • You are just plain wrong. I wrote the truth as I see it and am not sure why people cannot accept that. I don’t have a track record or habit of lying


      • You’re saying I’m wrong and you’re not being threatened or otherwise coerced? I don’t believe it. You’re being threatened and/or coerced to say that too. These people are ruthless, and Rhee’s funding is at stake if you spook her funders enough.


      • Mr Merrow,

        Then why are you quitting on Rhee? Too much pressure from the rich and powerful?

        And I’m still curious, didn’t ANYONE in your crew realize you were dealing with a psychopath when she invited you in to watch her fire a principal? Who does that kind of thing????


    • I believe John.

      I think the primary issue is that, at bottom, he is really still in the “reform” camp and values the opinions of “reformers,” including right-wing pundits. Notice that the views of Rick Hess were the only ones ascribed to a specific person in John’s explanations? I believe that’s because John and his coverage of Rhee were targeted by Hess here:

      John expressed concern over the perception that staying on the case is being seen as a personal vendetta. The thing about the analogies proffered by Hess though is that I could find no indication he previously called out Merrow for “slobbering all over” Rhee. So, the Rick-come-lately characterizations of John look like ramifications of Hess’ own case of “distemper” –and I don’ think they should be taken seriously. Nevertheless, they rubbed John the wrong way and one should ask why that matters so much to him.

      It takes a very strong person to recognize and publicly own up to their mistakes, as Diane Ravitch did, and I just don’t see that happening across the board with John, such as in regard to Paul Vallas, the privatization of NOLA, etc., while he clings to anecdotal reports and denies hard evidence. I would suggest this goes to deep-seated ideologies and membership in the “reform” club.


      • You all are doing the same thing, making it about me. It’s not. It’s about the failed strategies that Rhee is espousing. Why don’t you persuade some other national reporters to take up the story? It IS a national story, isn’t it?
        Re NOLA, did you spend any time in those schools pre-Katrina? Have you been to any schools there lately? Sure, they are a long way from perfect, but most are a damn sight better than pre-storm.


    • Rhee’s funding is her means, her lifeline – her purpose is to become the face of education in America. Everyone in the corporate reform camp stands to benefit in different ways. The publishers who design, produce and sell the standardized tests will profit financially, as will the charter schools. The deep pocket egos (Gates, Waltons, Koch) look at education as a key element in keeping America competitive in the global economy (which, strangely enough, doesn’t go hand-in-hand with a vision of better living wages and benefits for their workers) Politicians are trying to keep the votes coming in, and Rhee wants to be the prom queen of the whole operation.


  22. Do not give up. Follow the money. Harry Markopolos worked for over ten years to blow the whistle on Bernie Madoff. Madoff and Rhee have the same personally characteristics. Rhee and the reformers are running an education Ponzi scheme in a numbers black box like Enron.


  23. out of curiosity, how much of rhee’s ‘scorched earth’ actually survived her? werent most of her firings overturned, and many of her more draconian plans given up on?


  24. The corporate reform narrative with matching high-stakes testing nonsense has not worked anywhere and will never work.

    Why is Rhee on the stage in three cities trying her hardest to collect the limelight in Los Angeles, Birmingham, and Philadelphia with the discredited Steve Perry at her side and NOT the other deformers such as Arne Duncan (RTTT/Common Core federal funds), Joel Klein (Murdoch’s Amplify tablets, corporate welfare), Jeb Bush (A-F grading scheme), Tony Bennett (chief of changing the grades), Rupert Murdoch (Wireless Generation/Amplify/inBloom database, corporate welfare) or Michael Bloomberg (Eva’s Success charter advocate)?


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