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Michelle Rhee - the former chancellor for DC Schools, and prominently displayed as an example of what successful school administration should look like in the bullshit propaganda piece "Waiting for Superman" has a major problem on her hands.

Turns out the queen of accountability lied like a rug on her resume.

And it wasn't a small little ole white lie either.  It's a big whopping bald-faced lie that has been used to launch a career of "educational reform" every bit as outrageous as the lie that led us into Iraq.

Michelle Rhee claimed on her resume she successfully got impoverished inner-city black kids in Baltimore to meet or beat the scores of suburban asian kids in Potomac on standardized tests.   If true, that amounts to claiming she single-handedly solved the most intractable problem in public education, the "achievement gap."  Even more amazing, she did it in just two years as a novice teacher.  

I don't know which is more surprising.  That claim, or the fact she can produce no evidence to support it.

For those who don't know - Michelle Rhee based her "expertise" on a personal narrative.  An Ollie North-like "I've been there" sort of claim that turns out to be as full of shit as Ollie North and most of the other ideologues who claim they and they alone have the magic to fix what ails us.

Rhee, who taught second and third grade at Harlem Park Elementary School in Baltimore from 1992-1995, claims in her resume

Over a two-year period, moved students scoring at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.
Let's marvel at that for a moment.  She is basically claiming that given a class of kids who scored worse than about 90% of the kids taking the tests, in two years she was able to get those same kids performing BETTER than about 90% of the kids taking the tests.  

Here's where we pause to recall Carl Sagan's famous edict about claims and evidence.  

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Raise your hand if you know ANYONEwho went from an F to an A+ in a subject.  Looks like about a half-dozen of you out there can say that.  Now how many of you know ANYONE who went from getting all Fs to getting all As?  I think there is one hand up way in the back.  Now, how many of you know an ENTIRE CLASS that went from failing all subjects to aceing them?   I didn't think so.

Turns out a study done by the University of Maryland, stored in an online federal archive shows the school in question during that time period had - at best - "modest, uneven gains in various grade levels at the school in a review of results from the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills."  That is the standardized test used to assess student performance.  They looked at other tests as well.  The study is solid.  Read it for yourself.

As the story buried in today's Washington Post Metro section notes:

There were no separate results for Rhee or any other Harlem Park teacher. The study also noted that many students at the struggling Baltimore school were not tested.

But the results were presented in enough detail to raise questions about whether any single class could have made strides of the magnitude Rhee depicted on her resume.

Rhee said she taught second grade for two years, then third grade in 1994-95. In that year, Rhee said, her class made a major leap in achievement.

The study found that third-graders overall at the school made gains that year in reading and math. But they finished nowhere near the 90th percentile. (emphasis added).

Rhee was one of 4 teachers for that grade level.  According to the data for the grades she taught:
The math scores for the same span suggest movement from the 37th percentile to the 53rd or 54th.
Basically, they were seeing a 15 percentile improvement, not an 80 percentile improvement.  To be fair, 15 percentile point improvement is pretty damn good.  If it is real and if it is maintained.  That is comparable to the difference between a C and an A.  That is a big deal.  But even if she had all the worst kids, thus pulling down the average scores in that grade.  Getting them to the level she claimed still doesn't get reflected in the data.  The fact is similar gains were seen in other grades at that school as well.  There was nothing notable about the 3rd graders performance when you looked at the school as a whole, or even if you compared them to other similar schools.  One thing the study did find is absentee levels for her school went up, not down.  That isn't going to help performance.  Unless, you make sure the kids who would drag the average down are absent during testing.  I point this out, because this is a well-known trick that charter schools use to inflate their performance on standardized testing relative to their competing public school systems.  

Before anyone gets bent out of shape thinking I am confusing percentiles on standardized tests and in class grades for assignments -- I am not.  I am just using the comparison to communicate the magnitude of change to people who don't spend a lot of time thinking about the statistical analysis of longitudinal data sets.  

Even if we accept Rhee's claim that her students, and hers alone, performed at this miraculous level -- you have to remember she is talking about a school with a poverty rate of about 88%.  88% of the kids in that school qualify for FREE meals.  Out of 345 kids, 1 is white.  The rest are black.  This is an inner-city school by any measure.  This is a school supporting a community mired in poverty.  Rhee's claim would be fantastic in any school.  It is beyond amazing in the impoverished environment that school inhabits.  

To add another level of doubt to her claim:

The study found that the number of students tested varied each year, injecting another element of uncertainty.
One of the big problems every study of performance in schools like this face is the fact of student turn-over.  The kids you measure in 2nd grade are often not the kids you are measuring in 4th grade, two years later.  That is because these families are notoriously unstable and migratory.  People go where the jobs are.  Families are broken up by drugs, incarceration, death and disease.  Children are shuttled from parents to grandparents to foster parents and back.  It is not uncommon to see 20-50% turnovers in a single year in any given grade in these schools.  That, by itself, is a major headache for teachers desperately trying to prepare kids for increasingly irrelevant high-stakes standardized tests.

But let's pretend this school, despite its demographic baggage, defies all odds and none of the kids turned over.  According to the stats already referenced, we are looking at 20-30 kids per grade in 2nd and 3rd grade at this K-6 school.  In other words, even without a breakdown by teacher, Rhee's class would have been either the only class in the grade level, or one of two.  Given the packing of classes in public schools - she would be lucky to have less than 30 kids in a class.

That is why the analysis of the study stated:

The results were presented in enough detail to raise questions about whether any single class could have made strides of the magnitude Rhee depicted on her resume.
Talk about understatement.  That is about as understated as saying
The results presented on Iraq's WMD program raise questions about the claims made by Colin Powell at the United Nations.
Rhee's defense?  She got her numbers from the former principal. NOT from any analysis of test scores.
All I can go off of is what my principal told me.
This is where I call bullshit - big time.  Any elementary school teacher out there who has administered standardized tests to her class (yeah - precious few men are doing this) knows the scores of the kids because they are going to be held accountable for their performance.  Rhee wants us to believe that she didn't know, or even have access to that information.  Yeah, right.  Here she has turned water into wine and she doesn't bother to check?  Bullshit.  Anyone who pulled that hat trick would be beating a path to the nearest publisher looking for a book deal to share this magic with the rest of the world.

Why haven't we seen this continue at Harlem Park?  Is it because the magician has left the building?  Probably not.   More likely the magician claiming to pull rabbits out of a hat is really a con artist who pulls facts out of her ass.


UPDATE:  I am shocked to learn from the comments that this is a woman who freely admitted she PUT TAPE OVER THE MOUTHS OF HER CLASS.

Rhee had poor class management skills, she said, recalling that her class "was very well known in the school because you could hear them traveling anywhere because they were so out of control." On one particularly rowdy day, she said she decided to place little pieces of masking tape on their lips for the trip to the school cafeteria for lunch.

"OK kids, we're going to do something special today!" she said she told them.

Rhee said it worked well until they actually arrived at the cafeteria. "I was like, 'OK, take the tape off. I realized I had not told the kids to lick their lips beforehand...The skin is coming off their lips and they're bleeding. Thirty-five kids were crying."

There's a name for that ... it's called second degree child abuse.

According to Maryland law, a parent or any other person with permanent or temporary custody of a child may not cause abuse to a minor. In 1973 when the legislature first defined abuse they made clear that in order to violate the statute, the parent or other person must cause some physical injury. Second degree child abuse is also a felony carrying up to 15 years in prison.  Here's the relevant Maryland Criminal Law covering that:

§ 3-601. Child abuse.

 (a)  Definitions.-  

 (1) In this section the following words have the meanings indicated.  
 (2) "Abuse" means physical injury sustained by a minor as a result of cruel or inhumane treatment or as a result of a malicious act under circumstances that indicate that the minor's health or welfare is harmed or threatened by the treatment or act.  

  (d)  Second-degree child abuse.-  

  (i) A parent or other person who has permanent or temporary care or custody or responsibility for the supervision of a minor may not cause abuse to the minor.  
  (ii) A household member or family member may not cause abuse to a minor.  

(2) Except as provided in subsection (c) of this section,(that section covers repeat offenders) a person who violates paragraph (1) of this subsection is guilty of the felony of child abuse in the second degree and on conviction is subject to imprisonment not exceeding 15 years.  

Call me a cynic, but a teacher with such poor classroom management skills she can't control her kids without resorting to violence is going to have a hard time convincing me she solved the most intractable problem in public education, especially without any evidence to back up her claim.

Originally posted to 8ackgr0und N015e on Fri Feb 11, 2011 at 02:05 PM PST.

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