The Campaign to Discredit Michelle Rhee

With last week's greatly downgraded assessment of "cheating" in Washington, D.C. schools, we need a referee to call a strike count on the campaign to smear former chancellor Michelle Rhee.
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Granted, school reform is not a sporting event, but generals and politicians routinely twin sports and public policy. In that spirit, I offer this suggestion: With last week's greatly downgraded assessment of "cheating" in Washington, D.C. schools, we need a referee to call a strike count on the campaign to smear former chancellor Michelle Rhee.

There appear to be two driving motives behind the movement to discredit Rhee. First, she draws media attention that makes her the most visible of the national reformers who, in recent months, have pushed through dramatic schools reforms.

Almost overnight, it seems, states such as Indiana, Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, Florida, Idaho and others have ushered in major education reforms at a rate thought impossible only a year ago. We've seen reformed focused on "real" teacher evaluations, test scores used as part of those evaluations, ending seniority-based layoff policies, and disrupting "forced placement" of teachers where unwanted teachers are shoehorned into guaranteed jobs.

However, Rhee's not responsible for those reforms -- governors and legislatures pushed them through. And Rhee's new school reform advocacy group, Students First, is not the only the national education reform group pushing those officials for change. Portland, Ore. based Stand for Children fights for the same changes, as do Democrats for Education Reform and American Federation of Children.

What makes Rhee a special target is that, as D.C. chancellor, she did all those things in a big hurry, demonstrating to others that not only can important reforms happen -- they can happen in the near term. That wasn't a take-home message the teachers' unions wanted governors absorbing from Rhee's time in D.C.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, Rhee achieved her school gains in D.C. not by reducing class size, shrinking poverty, teaching parents to be better parents or purchasing slicker curricula -- all the "reforms" deemed acceptable by the unions. Rather, the gains were achieved by sweeping out principals and teachers who blamed poverty for academic failures, had low expectations for their students' abilities, weak teaching abilities, or all three. Their replacements weren't always perfect, or even that much better, but they were good enough to scrape D.C. off the bottom of national education rankings.

That message -- getting rid of ineffective principals and teachers produces gains -- is a nightmare message for some. Rhee's success story had to be disrupted, leading to a three-pronged campaign, which has proceeded in this order:

1. Rhee faked her success as a Teach for America teacher in Baltimore. This charge starts with a kernel of truth. In 2007, when Rhee presented her credentials before the D.C. Council she made the rookie mistake of including outsized student gains in Baltimore passed along verbally by her principal at the time. Big mistake. What can't be documented should never be uttered.

Rhee paid for that mistake when amateur sleuths dug up testing data purporting to show that Rhee could never have made those gains. Sounded convincing, but the amateurs could never actually pinpoint Rhee's students. Plus, the critics never contacted the Baltimore principal, her teaching aides and her fellow TFA teachers. I did, and Rhee's stories of transforming herself from a floundering newbie to a highly effective teacher checked out, without even a single caution flag.

2. Rhee's "gains" in D.C. weren't really gains. This assertion requires twisting the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, the highly respected federal test, in ways the test shouldn't be twisted. So, if you are deliberately looking for ways to diminish what Rhee accomplished, you compare different NAEP tests in different time periods, and then can conclude that her reforms produced gains no greater than those made by her two immediate predecessors.

There are two problems with that. First, the pre-Rhee data samples are compromised by including charter school children who weren't part of the regular D.C. school system. Second, it ignores the best way of evaluating any school superintendent, which is comparing similar districts where students took the same test at the same time. In that national comparison, we find that fourth grade students under Rhee gained six points in the 2007-09 snapshot of math and reading, compared to an average gain of 1 point in math and 2.2 points in reading in the ten comparison districts.

"There were significant gains (in the D.C. Public School system) in both fourth and eighth grade in reading and math between 2007 and 2009," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "No other city participating in (the comparison of urban districts) could make the same claim over that period."

3. Rhee's academic gains in D.C. came from "cheating." School reform critic Diane Ravitch immediately embraced a recent USA Today investigation into school test score erasure rates that appeared excessive. Some of those schools were in D.C., which led the paper to question Rhee's authenticity as a reformer. Ravitch and other Rhee critics agreed: Rhee cheated!

Who knows, at some future date it may be proven there was wide scale cheating in D.C. but the evidence isn't trending in that direction. Last week the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which oversees D.C. schools, concluded that just three classrooms -- out of 3,800 -- may have cheated on the 2010 D.C. tests.

As a scandal affecting Rhee, this falls short. Especially when you consider that the local tests in question have nothing to do with Rhee's track record in D.C. That record is based on the rise in D.C.'s federal NAEP score under Rhee cited above (Nobody has ever proven cheating on NAEP, an entirely separate test).

To date, few have even noticed the humor in these anti-Rhee campaigns: She cheated on the gains she didn't make!!! Wait, she didn't make gains, but she cheated on the gains she didn't make!!! Wait...

Without a doubt, now is the time to call in the public policy referee: Should the three-strike rule apply here? Let's be blunt. Even if Rhee abandons Students First and becomes a cosmetologist in Provo, these national school reforms are going to continue. The country is no mood to tolerate persistent academic failures.

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