Give former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee a dollop of credit: unlike a number of the voices in the current debate claiming to know all of the ills of the modern public school classroom, Rhee actually did spend time inside of the classroom.
Yep...for three whole years.
It is a fact she works hard to embellish: in a recent op-ed in the New York Post, Rhee refers to herself as "a former teacher with almost 20 years in the field." It was a clever rhetorical flourish, designed to give the impression that she had been a foot soldier in the classrooms for decades, when in reality her tenure as a classroom teacher ended in 1995, after having begun in 1992.
Indeed, those three years have even become the crux of an embellishment controversy all their own.
They are the cornerstone of the Rhee hagiography, one in which the heroine is cast as a transformational figure. The story goes something like this: despite her youth and inexperience, Rhee's students ascended from the bottom of the educational pyramid to the 90th percentile in two short years. When Rhee was being considered for the position of Chancellor of the DC Schools, it was a story that got a great deal of attention, including a cursory investigation from the DC City Council.
The only problem--it was almost certainly untrue. At the time, Rhee counted on anecdotal evidence from colleagues of hers from those years in Baltimore to buttress her claim, as any hard data to support the claim was lacking. A study conducted earlier this year cast serious doubt on her claim, something that Rhee grudgingly acknowledged with this classic hedge back in February, when she copped to erring in ascribing specific data to her claims:
Rhee said she would revise that wording if she could. "If I were to put my resume forward again, would I say 'significant' gains?" Rhee said. "Absolutely."So, you see, the intersection of Michelle Rhee the myth and Michelle Rhee the reality has been traversed long before this week, when her name was thrust onto the front pages in a most unflattering light, amid a rising scandal involving possible tampering with standardized tests in some of the very DC schools she held up as a model of her reforms as chancellor.
Even before the rather sad revelations put forth by USA Today early this week, Michelle Rhee was rapidly becoming a household name. One could argue, in fact, that the current political climate was made for her.
With the ascendancy of Republicans after the 2010 election cycle came "education reform" of questionable merit coupled with a frontal assault on unions. And, if nothing else, Michelle Rhee was a "reform" advocate and a union-hater before either of those things became the prevailing zeitgeist in GOP-led state legislatures from sea to shining sea.
Give her another dollop of credit--at least she was ahead of the curve on that one.
The nexus between Rhee and the GOP revolutionaries is, by this point, well established. Witness Rhee in Indiana, standing at the side of Republican Governor Mitch Daniels as his GOP-led state legislature passes a sweeping school vouchers bill, an anti-public education measure for which she once expressed reservations. And, as Laura Clawson told us last month right here at DK, let's recall that she applauded a number of Scott Walker's anti-teacher efforts in Wisconsin, but merely wished he had handled the optics a bit better (appearing a little too anti-union, as it were). Rhee has also cuddled up to other far-right Republican newcomers like Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Scott of Florida.
Given all this, it doesn't even register as mildly surprising when Reason magazine casts her as Superwoman (with teachers union head Randi Weitgarten cleverly dressed up as Lex Luthor). Or even when a right-wing group puts her up as a finalist for an award. The other nominees? The now-notorious Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and the anti-HCR Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli. Elite company, to be sure.
But a cursory glance at Rhee's history renders none of this as surprising. Republicans hate unions. Michelle Rhee hates unions. Republicans demand that "objective measures" like testing analysis be used to punish teachers, even to the point of stripping them of their livelihoods (even when many in the educational community would likely embrace the idea of data analysis for less punitive means like staff development and the like). Michelle Rhee champions the same, and goes the extra mile of condemning those who do not share her desire for punitive measures as insufficiently committed to children (consider the almost insulting name for her new endeavor--Students First--which carries with it the unspoken implication that teachers, and their unions, care little about students).
Even outside the realm of education, there is some common cause. Republicans cozy up to corporate America and sing their praises incessantly. Michelle Rhee stands before corporate America, sings the praises of the Chamber of Commerce and absolves them of the outsourcing crisis, instead laying it at the feet of...wait for it...teacher seniority protections.
What makes Rhee's ascendancy in the educational-political arena so remarkable is how her embrace of, and by, the GOP came at the same time leading figures on the Democratic side of the ledger still remain either on her side or unwilling to vocally confront her. Even as she became a lightning rod for controversy, Barack Obama took the time during one of the 2008 presidential debates to laud her publicly. She has also been praised by other Democratic politicos.
Most notable in her ascendancy is the (until this past week) almost comically reverential treatment she has received from the national media, with Time washing her in praise when she began her rocky tenure as DC Schools Chief and Newsweek doing same when she left the job in order to form her own organization, which seems to see its future as a counterweight to teachers unions.
Here is where the story gets considerably more difficult to understand. The Republican embrace of Rhee is easy: on the issue of education, they appear to be kindred spirits. The embrace of the press is probably predicated on the fact that her confrontational nature makes for an intriguing story.
But why has someone who spent very little time in the classroom, and has been a magnet for controversy, been given so much cache in this conversation from Democrats? That is a more complicated question, to be sure.
It is an ill fit, without question. One of the most basic truisms of modern American politics is the connectivity between organized labor and the Democratic Party. Their mutual defense has been instrumental in an era where the Republican Party has often behaved like a wholly owned subsidiary of "management".
So, how does the most vocally anti-union person in the educational community get a pass from the Democrats? Two differing explanations may be in play here.
For the first explanation, let's go back to Michelle Rhee as myth. Rhee's legend makes for a compelling storyline, but it also makes for an unbelievably attractive policy goal.
Both in her (disputed) overnight success in the classrooms of Baltimore, and in the (now equally disputed) overnight success in the schools of DC, Rhee embodied an incredibly alluring promise: that rapid educational success was attainable anywhere, and it was attainable in almost unthinkably short periods of time. For any aspiring politico whose election was, in part, predicated on turning around/maintaining the educational status of their community, this had to be tempting as Hell. Thus, Rhee was granted credibility based on what was perceived to be an incredibly laudable track record. That said track record is now, to some extent, tainted is something that might blunt her sword in the future.
But even in Rhee's rather draconian policy proposals there is something attractive, even to Democrats. What failings exist in the education of America's children exist for a wide variety of reasons. The insidious thing about it, one that we are uncomfortable in confronting, is that a lot of those failings are predicated on things that will prove incredibly difficult to diagnose, much less solve. An honest discussion of "how to fix education" would necessarily have to touch on things like poverty, community, family structure, and a host of other problems whose complexity cannot be reduced to one-sentence slogans and snappy 30-second ads.
Yet Rhee's entire schtick is predicated on the fact that structural gains in education are within reach without having to really delve into any of the deeper, more structural components which may be ailing our schools and their students. The solutions are simpler, and place the entirety of educational attainment solely on the heads of the classroom teacher. Education will be saved, Rhee and her acolytes bellow, if only we can fire teachers for poor standardized test scores. Or offer "merit pay". Or get rid of seniority-based layoff programs.
So, even though the regimen proposed may be anathema to many school teachers (and the unions that they belong to), they remain attractive to politicos of all partisan stripes because they accomplish two things. They create a quantifiable "accountability" (of debatable value, but what the hey), and they kick the can down the road on a deeper discussion of the other maladies, which are more complex and infinitely more distressing.
Not to mention, it has not necessarily been beneath Democratic politicians to give someone in their coalition a jab in the ribs in order to "demonstrate their independence" and try to earn a few chits with the "serious media" by going after their own base. This maxim would be true now more than ever. It is cynical as Hell, but Democrats from the President on down can score cheap points cracking teachers unions. After all, given the abject hostility flowing from the GOP towards teachers (and teachers unions), it isn't like they have anywhere to go.
Rhee's problem, as crystallized by this week's report, is that as her allies push for the very reforms she champions, the certainty promised by such reforms is proving terribly elusive. The "DC Miracle" that made Rhee the go-to speaker on educational reform may not have happened after all, at least to the extent championed by Rhee and her advocates. What's more, the test scandals underscored a systemic flaw in Rhee's basic modus operandi, as Dana Goldstein shrewdly noted:
The USA Today exposé raises serious questions about the wisdom of the more controversial aspects of Michelle Rhee’s reform agenda.If Goldstein is correct (and the logic is pretty impeccable), then the biggest promise of Rhee-style reform is shattered. And therein lies one of the reasons why Michelle Rhee's 15 minutes, as it were, may be ticking down. The erasure scandals remind us that throwing all of our eggs into the bubble-test basket might not yield us the certainty that we want. After all, Washington DC isn't the first city to have a bubble-test scandal--the same thing happened in Texas just last Spring.
In the social sciences, there is an oft-repeated maxim called Campbell’s Law, named after Donald Campbell, a psychologist who studied human creativity. Campbell’s Law states that incentives corrupt. In other words, the more punishments and rewards—such as merit pay—are associated with the results of any given test, the more likely it is that the test’s results will be rendered meaningless, either through outright cheating or through teaching to the test in a way that narrows the curriculum and renders real learning obsolete.
In the era of No Child Left Behind, Campbell’s Law has proved true again and again. When the federal government began threatening to restructure or shut-down schools that did not achieve across-the-board student “proficiency” on state reading and math exams, states responded by creating standardized tests that were easier and easier to pass. Alabama, for example, reported that 85 percent of its fourth-graders were proficient in reading in 2005, even though only 22 percent of the state’s students demonstrated proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard, no-stakes exam administered by the federal government.
Indeed, the data trap might ding Rhee and her acolytes in more than one way. Rhee has, indeed, made a fine living off of extolling test-driven data as the yardstick for educational progress. The problem now is that some of those opposed to her policy proposals are playing the data game, as well. In the past month, using the same standardized test data that Rhee and others in her camp claim is infallible, critics of reforms have decried the failure of the voucher program in Milwaukee to produce results equal to those of public schools. Last month, a report in the New York Post noted that charter schools (another sacred cow in the reform movement) are getting progressively less successful at getting their kids admitted into the specialized high schools in the New York area. Last year, a study published in the Washington Post noted how poorly states with no collective bargaining for teachers performed on national standardized tests.
If the hit that the data-driven edu-craze will take from this scandal doesn't sink Rhee, it is quite possible that Rhee will sink Rhee.
Let's be clear--it seems implausible that Rhee actually ordered the test alterations at the schools in question, and for the moment, let's give her the benefit of the doubt.
But watching her response to the scandal has been the most instructive thing here. Her initial reaction was hamhanded and defensive--a rather bizarre lashing out where she insinutated that enemies of reform were flogging the story. Later in the week, she adopted a considerably calmer tone. But, as Laura Clawson wrote earlier in the week, the timeline was incredibly damning:
When a highly suspicious pattern of wrong-to-right erasures and changed answers on tests was first flagged in 2008, Rhee's administration declined to investigate, and she touted some of the questionable schools as top performers and doled out bonuses to teachers and principals. After another year of suspicious results, a cursory investigation was held but results were not released. Then, this week, when USA Today published its investigation—an article she'd refused to comment for—Rhee's response was to talk about her enemies and their flat-earth beliefs.Laura's condemnation here is spot on. For someone to claim that data is the end-all and be-all of educational analysis, and then to so conveniently dismiss potential ethical issues with the data of the schools in her own district, should be incredibly damning. One has to wonder if the events of this week will, at long last, provoke some critical analysis of her role in the larger educational sphere, rather than promotional literature masquerading as newspaper and magazine coverage.
And now that refusing to comment to USA Today and lashing out have failed her, Rhee's response is to try to pin the suspicious results on a few bad apples and piously call for increased security.
Rhee is a media star, and this tactic may succeed. But if you look at this progression of events with any honesty, it's clear that Rhee is the bad apple. She created the incentive to cheat. She not only did not investigate reports of possible cheating, she rewarded the suspicious schools and held them up as models for all others. This gets to the absolute core of what she built her reputation on, and she has to be held to account.
That Rhee will still be lionized by those on the right looking for even nominal Democratic cover for their education "revolution" seems a lock, even despite her trying week. Her placement in the political spectrum is too golden--where else in the policy arena can you find someone who has been washed with the warm praise of both a Democratic President and his Secretary of Education, and is so willing (even eager) to spout Republican talking points on matters of policy?
It is possible that Rhee is more extreme now than she has ever been. In her defense of right-wing GOP rising star Chris Christie and his sharp (and now unconstitutional) education budget cuts, Rhee gleefully torched one of the base maxims of Democratic thought on the subject of education--that schools need to be better funded:
"We have radically increased the amount of money we spend on education in this country. ... In most cases, the results have gotten only worse."
She is a right-wing scold that seemed, until this week perhaps, immune to left-wing criticism. That is gold for the GOP, and they know it. As 2012 GOP presidential wanna-be Tim Pawlenty said earlier this year: "She has more credibility on the issue in the eyes of some Democrats because she’s a Democrat. They can’t just say, ‘There they go again, the conservatives spouting off on the usual stuff.’”
The big question now, however, is whether she will retains that credibility outside of that cadre of eager Republicans, many with an eye on 2012.
Given all that has happened, if she were to do so, it would probably say a hell of a lot more about those continuing to embrace her than it would about Rhee.