Friday, April 12, 2013

Michelle Rhee: The Education of a Top-Flight Grifter

Michell Rhee, Superintendent of School Grifting

Credit where credit is due: she's moved up the ranks from petty thief to high-end grifter. We may have to credit Michelle Rhee for that, but I thought we also should highlight recent attention she'd rather not get, even if she's somewhat bulletproof because billionaires like Michael Bloomberg want to push her kool-aid. Here's some key tidbits.

Atlanta Journal-Constituion:
PBS education reporter John Merrow writes about the erasure analyses, clear evidence of cheating and concealment of that evidence.
No, he is not writing about Atlanta Public Schools and former Superintendent Beverly Hall. He is writing about Washington, D.C., and former Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Merrow questions why the strong evidence of cheating in the District of Columbia Public Schools — revealed now in a confidential memo — was not followed up as it was in Atlanta, and puts the blame on Rhee.
Daily Kos:
It is impossible to overstate the significance of this.  Rhee became a hero supposedly on the basis of the remarkable turnaround she was making in DC schools.  Unfortunately, it turns out to be as false as her previous claims about the miraculous increases in scores she obtained with her students at an Edison school in Baltimore during her three years there as a Teach for America teacher, that claim having been conclusively shown to be false by former DC teacher Guy Brandenburg.
The Daily Beast:
Reporters Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello found that from 2008 to 2010, D.C.’s testing company, CTB/McGraw-Hill, recommended that the school district investigate higher than typical answer sheet erasure rates at 103 of its 168 schools—possible evidence that adults had corrected students’ mistakes. Even D.C.’s own superintendent of education, Deborah Gist, recommended that Rhee’s administration launch an investigation of erasures at eight schools, those that displayed a consistent pattern of wrong answers being replaced by correct ones.
Rhee stepped down last year after D.C. voters booted her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, from office—in part because of dissatisfaction with his education agenda. Since then, however, Rhee’s national influence has only grown. Though she identifies as a Democrat, she is advising rising-star Republicans such as Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. In December, she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to announce that her new advocacy organization, StudentsFirst, would raise $1 billion to promote education reform policies like the ones she pursued as chancellor. (Note. Article disappeared after I read it, and linked to it, so I don't know...) (Note. It's back.)
Heckuva job, Michelle. No evidence of grifting there.

Nov. 6 was a good day for Michelle Rhee. The former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, through her organization StudentsFirst, poured money into state-level campaigns nationwide, winning 86 of 105 races and flipping a net 33 seats to advocates of so-called school reform, a movement that advocates expanding privately run public charter schools, weakening teachers’ unions, increasing the weight of high-stakes standardized tests and, in some cases, using taxpayer dollars to fund private tuition through vouchers as the keys to improving public education.
Rhee makes a point of applauding “leaders in both parties and across the ideological spectrum” because her own political success — and the success of school reform — depends upon the bipartisan reputation she has fashioned. But 90 of the 105 candidates backed by StudentsFirst were Republicans, including Tea Party enthusiasts and staunch abortion opponents. And Rhee’s above-the-fray bona fides have come under heavy fire as progressives and teachers unions increasingly cast the school reform movement, which has become virtually synonymous with Rhee’s name, as politically conservative and corporate-funded. [...] Rhee, who did not respond to an interview request, is an adept fundraiser and organization builder.
Adept fundraiser. Right. Karl Rove is an adept fundraiser. That doesn't make him a political reformer. It does make him a champion...wait for it...grifter!

Michelle Rhee and Rick Scott together. Wow, it's a high-end grifters' two-fer!

Jay Matthews, Washington Post (and this guy likes her!):
But in her new role as head of Students First, a movement to improve schools through political action, she has taken a wrong turn. She has dismissed a mountain of evidence in Atlanta, Baltimore, the District and other cities that some principals and teachers are faking achievement test results.
Last week, she released a statement concluding there was “no evidence of widespread cheating” on D.C. tests from 2008 to 2010. Her proof? A series of superficial investigations, the parameters controlled by D.C. school brass, that never called on the expertise of psychometricians, never dug into the data, and lacked any reasonable explanations of how such erasures could have been made by anyone but adults.
USA Today:
District of Columbia Public Schools officials have long maintained that a 2011 test-cheating scandal that generated two government probes was limited to one elementary school. But a newly uncovered confidential memo warns as far back as January 2009 that educator cheating on 2008 standardized tests could have been widespread, with 191 teachers in 70 schools "implicated in possible testing infractions."
The 2009 memo was written by an outside analyst, Fay "Sandy" Sanford, who had been invited by then-chancellor Michelle Rhee to examine students' irregular math and reading score gains. It was sent to Rhee's top deputy for accountability.
The memo notes that nearly all of the teachers at one Washington elementary school had students whose test papers showed high numbers of wrong-to-right erasures and asks, "Could a separate person have been responsible?"
Charles Pierce talks about Michell Rhee's incredible, vaninshing, test-cheating memo:
Yeah, there was this report right here on how much floor polish we needed, and this one right here about the possibility of changing dairies that supply our milk, and there's the annual assessment on crayon-munching and paste-eating, especially among my own personal staff. I am a busy woman. I can't be expected to remember every report, especially one that might indicate that the things upon which I have based my entire career, and which have brought me considerable fame and fortune, are the functional equivalent of swampland in Polk County.
Who do you think I am? Superman?
I could go on all day. But really, Michelle, how much longer do you think you can run your grift? Based on Karl Rove, Dick Morris, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Rick Scott, anyone at the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute, I'd say forevaaaaaa...

Shit, one Oprah appearance, and I'm gold, baby!
Update. I found this item from Daily Kos in 2011, in which Michelle Rhee's key résumé claim turns out to be pretty bogus, and her rep at her Maryland school was, shall we say, uneven. Not so gold, baby! Extra: Here's the Baltimore Sun story on the inflated résumé. It, like today's post, deals with inflated test scores. Surprise, surprise.

Update 2. In case anyone wonders why I speak so derisively of Michelle Rhee, it's because I had a late-life career in public education, which fortunately included the Accountability Era as begun in California during Gray Davis' tenure and unfortunately included the No Child Left Behind Era of high-stakes testing.

For me, Michelle Rhee represents the worst aspirations of the so-called school reformers in that she loves charter schools, using test scores to rate teacher performance, and basically anything that weakens teachers' unions.

Having taught in a non-charter, alternative public school, New Technology High School in Napa, California, which has a well-deserved reputation as an innovative school both in curriculum and content areas, I watched in horror as the hunger for high scores in math and reading began to eviscerate the innovations that we at New Tech considered vital for producing high-functioning, high-critical-thinking human beings who are ready for this 21st century. That didn't always translate into high test scores where rote learning trumps critical thinking.

When we get past the myth of charter school superiority and test-score rating of teachers, as well as the obsession among the right for teachers' union busting -- plus all the "failing schools" bullshit, we stand a chance of building better schools the good old-fashioned way: by improving society as a whole and holding everyone, parents, teachers, students, and policymakers alike responsible for what they each do. For an example of how much we don't really understand what makes a good student, read about this study in The Atlantic:
They devised a novel (and exhaustive) methodology: for more than three years, they sampled the actual number of words spoken to young children from forty- two families at three different socioeconomic levels: (1) welfare homes, (2) working-class homes, and (3) professionals' homes. Then they tallied them up. 

The differences were astounding. Children in professionals' homes were exposed to an average of more than fifteen hundred more spoken words per hour than children in welfare homes. Over one year, that amounted to a difference of nearly 8 million words, which, by age four, amounted to a total gap of 32 million words. They also found a substantial gap in tone and in the complexity of words being used. As they crunched the numbers, they discovered a direct correlation between the intensity of these early verbal experiences and later achievement. "We were astonished at the differences the data revealed," Hart and Risley wrote in their book Meaningful Differences. "The most impressive aspects [are] how different individual families and children are and how much and how important is children's cumulative experience before age 3."
 People like Michelle Rhee would surely know this kind of data, but they're not interested. They're education grifters, and they're not interested in problems unless the solution is to denigrate hard-working teachers and bust teachers' unions, and use right-wing methods of extorting donations to their cause. I know, because I felt the pressure of that denigration throughout my teaching career, in a poor elementary school, as a night-school English-as-a-second-language teacher, as a jobs teacher at a drop-out factory high school in Napa, or in a cutting-edge experimental school, New Tech, just down the road. The derision and the threat from testing was around us at every turn.

It's why I retired early from teaching. Thanks a lot, Michelle Rhee. God bless you and the horse you rode in on.

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